Our Palo Alto pseudo-mandate

Civil Disobedience in Thoreau's sense is more like a combination of civic engagement and move-on.

Civil Disobedience in Thoreau’s sense is more like a combination of civic engagement and move-on.

I’ve been meaning to organize my thoughts about Our Palo Alto, and the workshop I attended last week, at the Elks Club. I was seated, via purportedly random processes, at a group of 7 that included insiders Steve Levy and Ray Bachetti, as well as announced-candidate for City Council Tom Dubois and staff person Elena Lee.

The overall context is my incredulity about the process: How is “Our Palo Alto” not a $325,000 subsidy of the developers? Or, how is “Our Palo Alto” not a $325,000 slush fund for the re-election of incumbents, especially commercial real estate lackeys Greg Scharff and Nancy Shepherd?

Elena Lee, who has been on staff for 7 years and worked for San Jose before that left me two items in need of follow up: 1) she seemed a little fuzzy on a document I saw or have on file called “California Avenue – Ventura Plan” — I asked whether this document is obsolete or just obscure, and her answer was unconvincing. 2) she made a vague reference to a court case coming out of Petaluma about the limits of zoning, and how the public sector is bounded by law. I am concerned that City Staff is being told that Democracy does not include the right of citizens to band together to fight special interests, and the real estate industry.

Let’s keep in mind that in Palo Alto itself the commercial real estate industry is a billion dollar industry; it’s largely privately-held so data is a little sketchy but a quick calculation would show commercial values here approaching $30 billion such that a 5 percent return on investment would describe a $1 billion in yearly activity; while not monolithic there are clusters of properties held by certain families and individuals, and they seem to communicate, correspond and organize, if they are not a RICO-enforceable racket outright. They are certainly better organized and have a greater incentive than the so-called Residentialists. If you consider that our civic budget is about $150 million, and maybe $10 of that is to regulate development, you can see why and how, at a basic level, the industry has so much momentum in recent years. And to the extent that staff seems to want to serve industry –at The Development Office — rather than regulate it on behalf of We The People, you could argue that this special interest is largely unregulated or out of control.

The Grand Jury Report of June 6, 2014, which is limited in scope to two deals and one developer, would support the idea that there is a compromise in the ability of the people -thru leadership, staff, elected Council and appointed Commissioners and Boards — to assert its will. How much of the apple bushel is corrupted by the rotten apple it is difficult to say, but we’d probably better ask. Be wary of bureaucrats too willingly offering you a nice yummy spoon of apple-sauce.

Meanwhile, I was struck by something Steve Levy set in our little exercise, in which we had about 90 minutes to pretend to be city planners and practice not standing up to these special interests. He muttered something about “property rights” having priority over rule of law, in reaction to something I said about whether it is time, beyond the commercial real estate rout, to enforce a moratorium on Monster Homes and tear-downs.

Likewise, Ray Bachetti, a former Stanford University vice provost who now lives in town, says he promotes “smart growth” or something but I seem to doubt he speaks on behalf of the little people who might benefit from below market housing and is more about helping or siding with developers who make money hand over fist even when they throw a bone to the middle class, as evidence, in certain ways, by the proposal to upzone a certain property on Maybell for the Palo Alto Housing Corporation.

My table also included two people, a husband and wife, who live in or near Barron Park and were involved in the referendum that became Measure D. I counted nine tables of seven or eight people each, and maybe ten staff and free-lancers working for the Our Palo Alto thingy (I called it a Dog and Pony show, below), or about 70 people all in — hardly a mandate. And I did wonder to what extent the proceedings were rigged so that the two or three “trusties” at each table were more about indoctrination than outreach or this being a dialogue.

I used the opportunity (and not just to bait Levy and Bachetti) to practice stumping for my proposal to try to zone the Fry’s Property as a park rather than more housing. Would a park in Ventura be a gentler way to gentrify that area, where average home values are about 60 percent of Palo Alto average? I flipped thru my Parks of Palo Alto booklet (produced by PAHA) to suggest that Greer Park could be a precedent for Ventura Park (and why not call it, working title Gary Fazzino Park?). Greer Park came about when the Palo Alto drive-in folded and the taxpayers reached out to keep the land a public amenity. So if Fry’s is falling victim to the disruptive nature of the internet (Ebay et al), why not move them downtown — perhaps to 456 University — and I bite my tongue saying this — and use that land for public benefit. As it stands the momentum is with the large South Bay developer getting their way to bring housing and the citizens nodding their consent. It would take quite an effort to not give this 400 pound gorilla what it wants.

But we can at least talk about it, right?

Meanwhile the four choices the Our Palo Alto workshop people were given were two types of growth and not much discussion to “doing nothing”. I said that even “doing nothing” takes a huge amount of effort to stand up to the industry, like standing in front of a tank. The fourth choice was a magic type of non-development that would use “green thinking” and hypothetical new technologies as rationalize to slow growth. I find that in 20 years as an environmentalist  the “green-wash” forces have advanced a lot faster than green thought itself. (I founded my small concert company, Earthwise Productions, as a type of spin-off of Bay Area Action, where Peter Drekmeir cut his activist teeth).

A letter to an editor today suggested that a June, 2014 directive by Council, to include electronic vehicles charging in all multi-unit housing proposals, was some sort of special industry concession. I will have to think about that. I wasn’t at those meetings. But I did notice that the oversized and under parked building at Lytton and Alma, the so-called Lytton Gateway, has the insult to injury effect of having fewer street-parking than you would expect, partly due to locating the chargers on our not their property, and partly by their landscaping — between the street spaces. It’s like they are saying their building is too nice for mere mortals to park in front of it, or there is a quota on us.

I had also asked for an accounting and or pro forma about the $325,000 Our Palo Alto campaign, which I mistook for a private sector event at the first meeting. Too slick. Too much cheese –literally. No answer after more than a month. By the way, the Grand Jury report also faulted Palo Alto for its shabby response for request for information.

Maybe I have to send a more formal request to City Clerk Donna Grider for my request to be officially heard. I sent a response to someone, presumably on the public payrolls, who sent me mail, from “Ourpaloalto@cityofpaloalto dot org”. I also wonder about how it helps transparency for civil servants to operate behind pseudonyms. Curiously a particular city staffer, who I met at a meeting and then ran into in from of City Hall last week, who works on Our Palo Alto, it would seem, told me that I was not receiving info about subsequent events because someone had lost the sign-in sheet that my name and address were on. (If so, how would she know that?)

There are about 130 days until an election here and things are getting, in my humble opinion, curiouser and curiouser.

Another way to say it: sixty years after The Founding Fathers, writer scholar patriot Henry David Thoreau wrote a famous essay suggesting that then-current leadership should either step it up to the level of the Founding Fathers, or step aside and let a new group try this experiment called Democracy, and America. (The essay was called “Civil Disobedience” by the way, not by Thoreau but by his editor, although in today’s terms it is probably better called “Civic Engagement or Move-on”; it’s more about dissenters with enacting a type of constructive engagement with leadership than some type of gathering in the streets, as it was taught to me at Dartmouth College, back in the 1980s).

There’s a book by George Packer called “The Unwinding” that is quite recent and instructive here. By his model Democracy is something that we must attend to, or it will run down.

Gunn graduate George Packer, of the Palo Alto Stanford Packers writers clan

Gunn graduate George Packer, of the Palo Alto Stanford Packers writers clan

Stay tuned.

Our Palo Alto does not speak for me. It seems, among its faults, to beg the question that both high density housing AND commercial office space will continue and offers us a narrowly framed pseudo-choice of types of reactions. Further: is it debatable whether we even need to revise let alone amend the Comp Plan, or is that another orchestrated interpretation of what we the people have wanted and are working on? Likewise, the Downtown Cap is a promise we made to ourselves, why are they making it seem archaic, why give it mere lip-service? And I think there are many of us who would stand up for what is best for 60,000 current Palo Alto residents and risk a bureaucratic response from pseudo-governmental (and probably biased, or tainted) regional entities like ABAG, pushing for more housing.

As a liberal arts graduate, still liberating and continuing my studies even 30 years past the granting of my diploma, I think we need to question a lot of what is served up.

edit to add: one mitigating factor in my otherwise jeremiad little speech, and I can just here Steve Levy and his little mocking fake laugh — he actually did this aloud when I suggested to the table that Ventura could use a park — is that I ran into someone I met 40 years prior, at Hebrew School, Charlie Knox, a free-lance strategist for Our Palo Alto, who is a Paly grad and son of former City Manager Naftali Knox. I’d rather see a product of our system in full-time permanent position of authority here rather than some of the ringers brought in by City Manager Jim Keane who seem united by ideology rather than having effervescent merit. Or, if the special interests our that pervasively corrupting, at least if they corrode one of our own we know who to blame for it: ourselves.

edit to add: at 4:33 on Monday, June 30, 2014 I posted a 99 percent verbatim version of this under Steve Levy’s latest column, at Palo Alto Weekly and TS town square –comments board. I will check back to see how he edits or responds. Who knows, maybe he is right that “property rights” trump the will of the people, but I would have to have that broken down for me, and or wait for the courts to say it.

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Barron Park,
0 minutes ago

Aha, it took me two weeks to figure out that when you say “TS” you mean “town square” — there are about six other uses of that TLA search-able.

Meanwhile, I’s been thinkin’:

‘ve been meaning to organize my thoughts about Our Palo Alto, and the workshop I attended last week, at the Elks Club. I was seated, via purportedly random processes, at a group of 7 that included insiders Steve Levy and Ray Bachetti, as well as announced-candidate for City Council Tom Dubois and staff person Elena Lee.

The overall context is my incredulity about the process: How is “Our Palo Alto” not a $325,000 subsidy of the developers? Or, how is “Our Palo Alto” not a $325,000 slush fund for the re-election of incumbents, especially commercial real estate lackeys Greg Scharff and Nancy Shepherd?

Elena Lee, who has been on staff for 7 years and worked for San Jose before that left me two items in need of follow up: 1) she seemed a little fuzzy on a document I saw or have on file called “California Avenue – Ventura Plan” — I asked whether this document is obsolete or just obscure, and her answer was unconvincing. 2) she made a vague reference to a court case coming out of Petaluma about the limits of zoning, and how the public sector is bounded by law. I am concerned that City Staff is being told that Democracy does not include the right of citizens to band together to fight special interests, and the real estate industry.

Let’s keep in mind that in Palo Alto itself the commercial real estate industry is a billion dollar industry; it’s largely privately-held so data is a little sketchy but a quick calculation would show commercial values here approaching $30 billion such that a 5 percent return on investment would describe a $1 billion in yearly activity; while not monolithic there are clusters of properties held by certain families and individuals, and they seem to communicate, correspond and organize, if they are not a RICO-enforceable racket outright. They are certainly better organized and have a greater incentive than the so-called Residentialists. If you consider that our civic budget is about $150 million, and maybe $10 of that is to regulate development, you can see why and how, at a basic level, the industry has so much momentum in recent years. And to the extent that staff seems to want to serve industry –at The Development Office — rather than regulate it on behalf of We The People, you could argue that this special interest is largely unregulated or out of control.

The Grand Jury Report of June 6, 2014, which is limited in scope to two deals and one developer, would support the idea that there is a compromise in the ability of the people -thru leadership, staff, elected Council and appointed Commissioners and Boards — to assert its will. How much of the apple bushel is corrupted by the rotten apple it is difficult to say, but we’d probably better ask. Be wary of bureaucrats too willingly offering you a nice yummy spoon of apple-sauce.

Meanwhile, I was struck by something Steve Levy set in our little exercise, in which we had about 90 minutes to pretend to be city planners and practice not standing up to these special interests. He muttered something about “property rights” having priority over rule of law, in reaction to something I said about whether it is time, beyond the commercial real estate rout, to enforce a moratorium on Monster Homes and tear-downs.

Likewise, Ray Bachetti, a former Stanford University vice provost who now lives in town, says he promotes “smart growth” or something but I seem to doubt he speaks on behalf of the little people who might benefit from below market housing and is more about helping or siding with developers who make money hand over fist even when they throw a bone to the middle class, as evidence, in certain ways, by the proposal to upzone a certain property on Maybell for the Palo Alto Housing Corporation.

My table also included two people, a husband and wife, who live in or near Barron Park and were involved in the referendum that became Measure D. I counted nine tables of seven or eight people each, and maybe ten staff and free-lancers working for the Our Palo Alto thingy (I called it a Dog and Pony show, below), or about 70 people all in — hardly a mandate. And I did wonder to what extent the proceedings were rigged so that the two or three “trusties” at each table were more about indoctrination than outreach or this being a dialogue.

I used the opportunity (and not just to bait Levy and Bachetti) to practice stumping for my proposal to try to zone the Fry’s Property as a park rather than more housing. Would a park in Ventura be a gentler way to gentrify that area, where average home values are about 60 percent of Palo Alto average? I flipped thru my Parks of Palo Alto booklet (produced by PAHA) to suggest that Greer Park could be a precedent for Ventura Park (and why not call it, working title Gary Fazzino Park?). Greer Park came about when the Palo Alto drive-in folded and the taxpayers reached out to keep the land a public amenity. So if Fry’s is falling victim to the disruptive nature of the internet (Ebay et al), why not move them downtown — perhaps to 456 University — and I bite my tongue saying this — and use that land for public benefit. As it stands the momentum is with the large South Bay developer getting their way to bring housing and the citizens nodding their consent. It would take quite an effort to not give this 400 pound gorilla what it wants.

But we can at least talk about it, right?

Meanwhile the four choices the Our Palo Alto workshop people were given were two types of growth and not much discussion to “doing nothing”. I said that even “doing nothing” takes a huge amount of effort to stand up to the industry, like standing in front of a tank. The fourth choice was a magic type of non-development that would use “green thinking” and hypothetical new technologies as rationalize to slow growth. I find that in 20 years as an environmentalist the “green-wash” forces have advanced a lot faster than green thought itself. (I founded my small concert company, Earthwise Productions, as a type of spin-off of Bay Area Action, where Peter Drekmeir cut his activist teeth).

A letter to an editor today suggested that a June, 2014 directive by Council, to include electronic vehicles charging in all multi-unit housing proposals, was some sort of special industry concession. I will have to think about that. I wasn’t at those meetings. But I did notice that the oversized and under parked building at Lytton and Alma, the so-called Lytton Gateway, has the insult to injury effect of having fewer street-parking that you would expect, partly due to locating the chargers on our not their property, and partly by their landscaping — between the street spaces. It’s like they are saying their building is too nice for mere mortals to park in front of it, or there is a quota on us.

I had also asked for an accounting and or pro forma about the $325,000 Our Palo Alto campaign, which I mistook for a private sector event at the first meeting. Too slick. Too much cheese –literally. No answer after more than a month. By the way, the Grand Jury report also faulted Palo Alto for its shabby response for request for information.

Maybe I have to send a more formal request to City Clerk Donna Grider for my request to be officially heard. I sent a response to someone, presumably on the public payrolls, who sent me mail, from “Ourpaloalto@cityofpaloalto dot org”. I also wonder about how it helps transparency for civil servants to operate behind pseudonyms. Curiously a particular city staffer, who I met at a meeting and then ran into in from of City Hall last week, who works on Our Palo Alto, it would seem, told me that I was not receiving info about subsequent events because someone had lost the sign-in sheet that my name and address were on. (If so, how would she know that?)

There are about 130 days until an election here and things are getting, in my humble opinion, curiouser and curiouser.

Another way to say it: sixty years after The Founding Fathers, writer scholar patriot Henry David Thoreau wrote a famous essay suggesting that then-current leadership should either step it up to the level of the Founding Fathers, or step aside and let a new group try this experiment called Democracy, and America. (The essay was called “Civil Disobedience” by the way, not by Thoreau but by his editor, although in today’s terms it is probably better called “Civic Engagement or Move-on”; it’s more about dissenters with enacting a type of constructive engagement with leadership than some type of gathering in the streets, as it was taught to me at Dartmouth College, back in the 1980s).

There’s a book by George Packer called “The Unwinding” that is quite recent and instructive here. By his model Democracy is something that we must attend to, or it will run down.

Our Palo Alto does not speak for me. It seems, among its faults, to beg the question that both high density housing AND commercial office space will continue and offers us a narrowly framed pseudo-choice of types of reactions. Further: is it debatable whether we even need to revise let alone amend the Comp Plan, or is that another orchestrated interpretation of what we the people have wanted and are working on? Likewise, the Downtown Cap is a promise we made to ourselves, why are they making it seem archaic, why give it mere lip-service? And I think there are many of us who would stand up for what is best for 60,000 current Palo Alto residents and risk a bureaucratic response from pseudo-governmental (and probably biased, or tainted) regional entities like ABAG, pushing for more housing.

As a liberal arts graduate, still liberating and continuing my studies even 30 years past the granting of my diploma, I think we need to question a lot of what is served up.

edit to add: one mitigating factor in my otherwise jeremiad little speech, and I can just here Steve Levy and his little mocking fake laugh — he actually did this aloud when I suggested to the table that Ventura could use a park — is that I ran into someone I met 40 years prior, at Hebrew School, Charlie Knox, a free-lance strategist for Our Palo Alto, who is a Paly grad and son of former City Manager Naftali Knox. I’d rather see a product of our system in full-time permanent position of authority here rather than some of the ringers brought in by City Manager Jim Keane who seem united by ideology rather than having effervescent merit. Or, if the special interests our that pervasively corrupting, at least if they corrode one of our own we know who to blame for it: ourselves.

edit here as you see fit, answer that and stay fashionable, or do what you will:

Why would property rights trump the will of the people?

edit, more edits, always more edits: here is a link to a 2005 interview with Naphtali Knox, note the correct spelling, who started in civic life here in 1972 and was a chief planner if not City Manager. And I don’t think it nepotism to select for a generational continuity in civic service — Charlie described briefly a civic resume with stints in Telluride, Colorado and the East Bay. Similarly, I recall thinking at my Gunn 30th that I would trust my average classmate in leadership here relative to what we got or get. Sometimes I think a random process, like with jury duty, would better serve us than the Democracy for which we have settled, by which we have been saddled. There is a type of vacuum of inaction that the Machine — Ginsburg’s Moloch if you will — requires.

another: “answer that and stay fashionable” is the title of an AFI album, during the time they played Cubberley Community Center. I have a weird habit, being a former North Beach ad guy and SXSW concert promoter, of slipping rock and pop references into my dialogue, mainly to confuse people. When I am feeling inclusive I restrict such to 40-year-old Dyanisms: Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters, which to me means don’t send a gadget to do a job that requires heart.

or if you have 40 minutes for deep background, here apparently is the full-album, by AFI:

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About markweiss86

Mark Weiss, founder of Plastic Alto blog, is a concert promoter and artist manager in Palo Alto, as Earthwise Productions, with background as journalist, advertising copywriter, book store returns desk, college radio producer, city council and commissions candidate, high school basketball player; he also sang in local choir, and fronts an Allen Ginsberg tribute Beat Hotel Rm 32
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