By Diana Diamond
Politicians Are Still Politicians: The Growth Debate ReversalsUploaded: Jul 31, 2018
It was a most unusual Palo Alto City Council meeting Monday, July 30. It was politics at its worst – or for some of the council members, perhaps politics at its best. And even here, in our fair city, some of the arguments they offered were not only a dramatic reversal of their earlier statements, but adroitly used to disingenuously bolster their points of view.
But before we begin talking about the office growth cap the council was debating, Mayor Liz Kniss made a surprising – incredible? –comment when talking about traffic in Palo Alto, one of the underlying concerns about more growth. She told the audience that she drives her car a lot and there’s really not a big problem. “I think some of our reports of traffic are really exaggerated. I think if you are willing to try alternative routes, not your normal route, I think you will find the traffic is not as overwhelming as you think.” Really? Our traffic problems are all because we drive the wrong streets, or are mental exaggerrations in our minds?
But does she drive around during commute times, when roads are packed with cars? What about Charleston and Arastradero, or Page Mill Road? What about noon hours at the El Camino-Embarcadero Road intersection or the daily congestion in one of this town’s most expensive areas, Crescent Park. One resident there said she is sometimes forced to park her car three blocks away and walk home – it’s faster than battling the traffic. Others struggle to get out of their driveways.
But back to the council meeting. The debate was focused on whether a citizens’ initiative to limit the future office growth in the city from 1.7 million square feet to 850,000 square feet by 2030 should be put on the November ballot or adopted by the council that night. The pro-growthers, Mayor Liz Kniss, Adrian Fine, Greg Scharff, Cory Wolbach and Greg Tanaka, indicated they wanted voters to decide in November while the slow-growthers wanted a decision that night.
Councilmember Greg Scharff had argued a while ago that the initiative was “pure populism.” The comprehensive master plan had recently been adopted and now some 3,1000 residents wanted it changed. Yet on Monday night he and Kniss argued that the only democratic way to decide was to put the initiative on the November ballot and let all the residents decide, and not have the council vote that night. How can one argue against populism one month and for a popular vote soon after?
Adrian Fine argued that if the reduced office growth cap was imposed, then the city would lose some of its hefty impact fees it was collecting from developers. Well, if a new development creates extra problems like more traffic, not provide enough parking, etc., the city collects “impact fees” to help remedy the problem. Yet these fees do not really cover the full cost of fixing it – the city has to fork out the difference. So if Fine says the city will lose some of these fees if there is less development, that is true. But the reality is with less development, there will be fewer impacts on our quality of life the city and will spend less repairing the damage the new developments produce. So we’ll save money.
Cory Wolbach, who didn’t say a word during the discussion, did an about-face from his nearly consistent pro-growth votes, and instead voted for council approval of the initiative. He wants to get re-elected to his council seat in November and he could see the outburst of public support for reduced growth. Yet he had previously argued that slicing the growth cap would result in fewer city services, but never mentioned that Monday. Politicans do things like that. And they also flip flop.