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Newly retired Portola Valley councilman was key player in Town Center rebuilding

Since its incorporation 50 years ago, Portola Valley has not lacked for volunteers who will give of their time to the civic life of the town. Residents with long memberships on commissions and committees are not hard to find, and many would have to use double digits to tabulate their years of activity.

One of the longest serving has been Ted Driscoll, who retired on Dec. 11 after 20 years on the Town Council, including five as mayor. He previously served on the Planning Commission and the Architectural and Site Control Commission, and like every council member, was also a liaison to meetings of the council's many advisory committees on matters such as trails and paths and emergency preparedness.

The council sometimes needs a particular talent -- familiarity with the law, for example, or the ability to mediate a dispute or conduct a real estate transaction. Mr. Driscoll, an entrepreneur and venture capitalist with degrees in architecture and geology, seems to have been right at home. He lives in a town populated by entrepreneurs, where residential architecture is a top priority in preserving the town's "rural" character, and where geology is important. The infamous San Andreas fault runs through town.

As it happened, Mr. Driscoll was on the council in 2003 around the time that evidence surfaced that faults ran under Town Hall -- a converted elementary school building. After several community workshops, a plan arose to abandon the 50-year-old school and build a new complex on more stable ground a few hundred feet to the west. The four-year project came to a close in September 2008, when the new complex was dedicated.

Smooth sailing it was not, and Mr. Driscoll was in the middle of it. He headed a citizens advisory committee to solicit ideas about the project, and soon heard from residents opposing it who went so far as to form a resistance group. The school was a cherished institution; relocation was unnecessary, they said heatedly. The school had been good enough for 50 years, they said. It could do for another 50.

Talking science

Mr. Driscoll was the council's point man in making the case that some buildings would come apart in a major quake. The opponents enlisted their own technical expertise. An emeritus professor with geo-technical engineering experience came before the professional geologists on the town's Geologic Safety Committee to argue why a new complex was not needed.

The elementary school could be retrofitted "with a few architectural changes," the professor said. The paths of earthquake faults change as the soil changes, including when the soil is compacted by a concrete foundation or penetrated by tree roots. These elements "effectively reinforce" the site against faulting, he said.

In a 2007 interview with the Almanac, with the project in its third year, Mr. Driscoll commented on the views of non-scientists. "I think if you were to have a vote right now (on) whether people believe there will be an earthquake in the 21st century, I believe there'd be a significant (group) that says no," he said. They may be right, he added, but not on reasonable grounds. "They will wish that there wasn't one, therefore there isn't going to be one."

Mr. Driscoll said he took on "a little challenge, my cross to bear that reason could convince people and that if I had a chance to talk to them offline, or talk to them in a smaller (venue) or talk to them with drawings and with experts, that we could get everybody to move to consensus. I don't think that really happened, and some people sort of solidified in their position."

Once the project got rolling, the council faced the reality of the town's green ambitions: taking the old school apart piece by piece, re-using as much of it as possible, dealing with innumerable construction and design issues, and seeking the highest (platinum) award for green construction. Mr. Driscoll led the way, and with a secondary goal in mind.

Role model

"I would be very proud of a platinum building," Mr. Driscoll said in 2007. "I am prouder if we make a platinum building that other people learn from."

Portola Valley is home to leaders who control budgets, he said. Maybe they can be shown that green buildings are on a par with traditional construction, cost less to run, and create markets for recycled materials. "There is a kind of preconceived notion in the public that super green buildings, that green sustainable buildings, are much more expensive," he said. "We're finding that it's not the case."

The complex did win a platinum award in 2009 from the U.S. Green Building Council, along with nine other awards, including five from the American Institute of Architects. Press coverage included regional and national outlets.

Go to this link for a detailed description of the complex's green elements.

The effort also tapped community spirit. As the buildings went up, volunteers raised about $17 million of the necessary $20 million, with town reserves contributing the remainder. Had the council asked voters to authorize a municipal bond measure, the opposition might have won the day, given that passage would have required a two-thirds majority of the votes.

Mr. Driscoll described his strategy as transparency and resolve: be open about everything but retain the council's authority. "They're the elected representatives of the town, they stood for election, not once but in some cases multiple times, and that's the way representative government works," he said.

Lessons from four terms on the council? "You need a thick skin," Mr. Driscoll said. "Even in guest opinions, people will say things about you that are not things they would say in polite company. ... Yes. You need a thick skin."

Colleagues comment

"Ted is the purest politician I have ever known," Councilwoman Maryann Moise Derwin said in an email. "Everything he did was motivated by a deep desire to do the right thing by the residents of Portola Valley because he truly loved the community. His departure from the council is a profound loss for all of us."

Mr. Driscoll's contributions "have been nothing short of monumental," former mayor Gary Nielsen said at Mr. Driscoll's last meeting.

On the Town Center project, "a lot of us were involved but (Ted) was the leader and we needed a leader," said Planning Commissioner Arthur "Chip" McIntosh. "Ted has been extremely generous in volunteering his great talent for all these years."

"Ted, thank you for everything," said ASCC Chair Danna Breen.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story asked Mr. Driscoll about lessons he learned after five terms on the council. The interview in which that question was posed dates from 2007, when Mr Driscoll was in his fourth term.

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