We all have a secret planning geek lurking inside. If you came of age in the 1990s, 1980s, 1970’s, or 1960’s, you may have played a game like SimCity, Oregon Trail, or Risk, and reveled in the ability to virtually control how a community is shaped. Heck, going back further, any Lego fanatic probably reveled in their childhood fantasy to create a new, alternate world.
Of course real life isn’t a virtual reality game or made up of blocks. Most of us don’t know what rules shape our physical environment, let alone how those rules get influenced or made. It falls under the domain of local government. And let’s be honest, municipal policy and planning just isn’t terribly sexy. It reeks of bureaucratic process and inefficiency, petty discourse and incivility. Those perceptions are not unfounded. But in our local democracies, citizen voices do carry weight. And if you live in Palo Alto (or any Bay Area Peninsula community) and are concerned about the crazy housing prices or limited alternative transportation options, here’s why you might want to unleash that planning geek and learn more about the process.
Every municipality writes a document that serves as a land use “constitution”. Palo Alto’s version is called the Comprehensive Plan (other cities call it a General Plan). In May 2014, the city launched Our Palo Alto, a process to culminate in the development of a new Comprehensive Plan for 2015-2030. (The Comp Plan for 1998-2010 time frame was a great groundbreaking document, and there was a “light update” to carry us through 2014.)
To say that this is a BIG DEAL for anyone who lives or works here is a gross understatement. Palo Alto’s Comprehensive Plan has seven parts: Land Use, Transportation, Housing, Open Space, Community Service, Business, and Governance. The first three sections in particular will guide how much commercial space and housing we can build and what type of transportation policies we want to prioritize to support that land use. It will be the foundation for what our community will look like in 15+ years. To make better housing and transportation options a reality, we need a Comprehensive Plan that considers a range of growth strategies, concentrates land uses near good transportation hubs, encourages mixed uses, supports bike infrastructure & networks, better transit & shuttle service, and keeps managing parking and traffic. (One part of the Comp Plan, The Housing Element 2015-2023, is a state mandated document to accommodate regional housing growth. It is currently under way, to make the certification deadline of Jan 31, 2015, so the city can retain local control over zoning decisions. However some of the Housing Element sites and policies will be revisited through the Comp Plan process)
Palo Alto Forward will follow the Comprehensive Plan process closely and send regular updates and opportunities for you to act. We will need your help to weigh in at City Council meetings, Planning and Transportation Commission meetings, and community workshops.
But what does any of this have to do with voting? Ah! Nov 4, 2014 is an election for five of our nine City Council members. (For a quick local government 101, read this). Three incumbents are running for re-election: Nancy Shepherd (current Mayor), Greg Scharff, and Karen Holman. Nine others are joining the field: Wayne Douglass, Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth, John Karl Fredrich, AC Johnston, Lydia Kou, Seelam Reddy, Mark Weiss, and Cory Wolbach.
This election is crucial because the next City Council will have the authority to approve the next Comprehensive Plan. Depending on which Council members our community elects, it may be more difficult for Palo Alto to create the zoning and policy conditions that would encourage more housing (of all types), better transportation schemes, and the denser, mixed use, transit-oriented, walkable, bikeable communities that are in great demand. It may slow opportunities for future innovators and limit the diversity of our community.
So unleash that inner planning geek and help plan our community! Learn more about Palo Alto’s Comp Plan, read the City Council candidates’ platforms, attend a Council Candidates Forum, and register to vote. Encourage your friends, colleagues, associates to do the same. Your vote is worth far more at the local level than at the national level - a few hundreds of votes for a council candidate can make a big difference! And above all, your voice will be important for all future Comp Plan decisions. It may not yield results as quickly as playing SimCity, but it is more influential than you might think.
Palo Alto Comp Plan:
Current Comp Plan: http://www.cityofpaloalto.org/gov/topics/projects/landuse/compplan.asp
Our Palo Alto (sign up for the newsletter!): http://www.ourpaloalto.org/
Existing Conditions (Comp Plan Data Set): http://www.paloaltocompplan.org/resources/draft-existing-conditions-report/
Good General Plan Guidelines:
CA State General Plan Guidelines: http://ceres.ca.gov/planning/genplan/gpg.pdf
Sustainable CA General Plan Toolkit: http://sustainca.org/tools/green_general_plan_toolkit/sample_measures_introduction
Land Use & Public Health General Plan Toolkit http://changelabsolutions.org/sites/phlpnet.org/files/finalbook.pdf
City Council Candidates Forum:
Tuesday September 30, 2014 7-9p, League of Women Voters, City Council Candidates Forum at Congregation Etz Chayim (4161 Alma Street)
Thursday October 2, 2014 6:30-9p, Palo Alto Neighborhoods, City Council Candidates Forum at City Council Chambers (250 Hamilton Avenue)