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About this blog: I grew up in Los Angeles and moved to the area in 1963 when I started graduate school at Stanford. Nancy and I were married in 1977 and we lived for nearly 30 years in the Duveneck school area. Our children went to Paly. We moved ...  (More)

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What Kind of City is Palo Alto?

Uploaded: May 12, 2014
Residents have been invited to participate in a discussion of "our Palo Alto" kicked off with a meeting on "Who We Are'. This post explores what kind of city we are.

Nancy and I lived and raised our children in two neighborhoods near Duveneck Elementary School. They were great single-family home neighborhoods and, if one never ventured out, could have been in a quiet suburb somewhere. I feel confident that residents in Barron Park and other PA neighborhoods have the same experience.

But these are neighborhoods, not the entire Palo Alto community. When I came here in 1963, I came to a city that was home to one of the world's leading universities. In addition by then Palo Alto was home to a regional medical complex, a regional shopping center and a regional research park. Despite the peaceful feeling inside our neighborhood, I knew Palo Alto was not a typical suburb.

Over time all of these regional centers grew and kept pace with changes within how they operated. Stanford has more buildings and homes than when I came in 1963. The campus is fuller and older facilities have been modernized. The same is true for the medical center and related Welch Road facilities and is true also for the shopping center and research park.

I have worked downtown since 1969 and have seen the business area expand up and out. Our city is very popular. We have near the highest home prices and are the sixth largest job center (not including the campus) behind San Francisco, San Jose, Oakland, Santa Clara and Fremont.

And Palo Alto sits in the midst of a region where job growth is surging, where 50% of the nation's venture capital was invested last quarter and where people want to live and work.

That's the Palo Alto I live in. So, for me, the challenge of the Comp Plan update is to make both parts of Palo Alto thrive—the wonderful neighborhoods and the regional and world centers of innovation and excellence. And, yes, there will be more traffic so we should be figuring out how best to respond.

While some projects that come before the city involve council discretion and should be thoroughly examined for public benefits, most growth occurs under existing rules and rights—another reason to plan carefully.

If you agree or disagree with my view of our city, please jump in. Tell readers what kind of city Palo Alto is for you—quiet suburb, university town, regional center of activity?

If you want to complain about past decisions or the city council or staff, find another blog to post on—there are many.
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Posted by Jan, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on May 12, 2014 at 5:18 pm

"3. Tense times are coming.

Palo Alto is a city with at least two strong personalities -- a haven for newly arrived startups and a community of intellectuals with deep roots in the city. These two sides don't always complement each other, said David Harris. So while city officials talk about turning California Avenue into something like Mountain View's vibrant Castro Street, Harris thinks Palo Alto's future may look more like San Francisco's Mission Street, where a well-documented culture clash is taking place between newly minted tech millionaires and longtime residents who gave the neighborhood much of its eclectic character and who can no longer afford to live there. Harris, who was recently evicted from his own Mission apartment, said the colossal amount of wealth and conspicuous consumption in Palo Alto might make it hard for the city to sustain its intellectual, counter-cultural current. "If that (current) loses out to the conversation on the street about Teslas versus the new hybrid Porsche, the city is in trouble." "

It is difficult to know why our city officials would get involved with David Harris. Who set up this agenda? Steve, I know you and respect you, and I hope you were not involved with the invitation.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on May 12, 2014 at 5:44 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.


I see you quoted the Weekly article on the Who We Are community meeting. What are your ideas about what kind of city PA is?

P.S. I had nothing to do with the invite list.

Posted by reconciliation, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 12, 2014 at 10:24 pm

Steve Levy,

"If you agree or disagree with my view of our city, please jump in. Tell readers what kind of city Palo Alto is for you?quiet suburb, university town, regional center of activity?"

PA used to be more of a quiet suburb

It's always been a University town

It's a global center of activity, not really "regional"

It was never at risk of becoming Detroit, and probably never will have that risk. The problem is that it has no infrastructure or space to build out, and it would be plain silly to build up.

Enter Oakland. I was just there the other day to see an art expert with offices near downtown. Granted, their offices were gated, and there are crime issues (last time I was in the hills I had my car broken into). Anyway, this area near downtown looked sort of deserted in the way Chelsea in Manhattan looked 20 years ago. The offices though could have been Soho. The sun was shining, it was peaceful, and I could see the downtown skyline.

If I were a big company, office and housing developer, I would hang my hat there instead of trying to squeeze myself into a two mile corridor on El Camino. You can hop on/off all the major highways, it has the Bart. Somebody needs to inform the world that Oakland is only 45 minutes away. It also has a University nearby and the place has unbelievable potential.

I don't know the politics, I'm just evaluating on the basis of visuals, space, etc. Same California sun. Palo Alto will never be able to grow in the way other nearby areas can.

Posted by boscoli, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on May 13, 2014 at 5:59 am

Even if we wanted to grow out, Palo Alto is physically incapable of doing so due to its geography. We are limited by the bay on the east and the hills on the west. So those who demand we keep expanding are dooming us to become another Hong Kong, forever squeezing in more and more people and more and more office buildings into a small area without nearly enough space infrastructure to support it.

Posted by Robert, a resident of another community,
on May 13, 2014 at 10:46 am


I'm not quite sure where the Hong Kong comparison comes from. Is it hyperbole, or do you seriously think that's what Palo Alto is going to become sometime soon? BTW, here's an example of housing in Hong Kong - Web Link

Posted by Alan, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven,
on May 13, 2014 at 11:52 am

I can't imagine Palo Alto becoming Hong Kong. A few taller buildings near the train station doesn't make it so.

That said, Hong Kong is remarkably livable in spite of the population density.

Posted by boscoli, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on May 13, 2014 at 6:57 pm

Hong Kong, London, Paris, are all remarkably livable in spite of their population density, but is that the lifestyle we want in Palo Alto? Population density also brings serious crime and other maladies like serious air pollution that this town does not deserve. That is the lifestyle and life style will eventually get if we continue developing and squeezing in more and more people into such a small space. There is also the small detail that those cities have world class public transportation systems, and we don't.

Posted by Garrett, a resident of another community,
on May 13, 2014 at 7:15 pm

I agree Palo Alto won't become like Hong Kong, nor would Silicon Valley.

On side note, what about the people living in Oakland, will become another SF Mission, look how well that is playing out. Displaced can go to Oakland or the rest of SF workers, then we have Silicon Valley and the idea of developers can just change Oakland.

If we could built ferry service, complete BART around the bay, another bridge it might happen.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on May 14, 2014 at 11:35 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

I can't imagine the city staff or council giving much credibility to people saying PA is like Hong Kong or Detroit or SF or even close.

On the other hand PA is not like Tracy or Orinda or Gilroy or Pacifica.

And PA to me is not like Mt View or Redwood City or Sunnyvale in that none of these places have a university and a regional shopping center and a regional medical center and a regional research park and 2 1/2 CalTrain stations and access to employment nodes from both 101 and 280.

One reader has said what he/she thinks PA is, Does anyone want to argue we are a quiet suburban village? Or offer their take on what kind of city PA is?

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on May 14, 2014 at 11:51 am

stephen levy is a registered user.

As to geography limiting PA growth, readers may wish this were true but experience says otherwise.

The main part of Stanford campus is the same size as when I went there 50 years ago but there are many more buildings and homes. Hamilton Avenue downtown is the same size as it was 50 years ago but there is much more square footage. The lot where we used to live is the same size as when we lived there but the new home has two stories and is closer to the street as are many homes that used to be smaller.

Outside my back window are two buildings being replaced by taller buildings but the lot did not get bigger.

Most, not all but most. of this occurred by right for the property owners.

And there a lot more legal potential for denser development no matter who sits on the council.

Besides the legal rights, PA sits in the middle of a surging economy and next to a major center of innovation. This is a very attractive location.

Which is why I think we need our best effort to plan wisely, including careful scrutiny of what we get for discretionary zoning changes, instead of either talk of us becoming Hong Kong or pretending that more growth can be stopped as in the many posts that say "NO MORE Condos or offices".

I don't think that is either legal or desirable but planning for the future is something residents can and should have a role in.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on May 14, 2014 at 6:36 pm

I think a lot depends on how you define "suburb". If you think of suburb as the outskirts or a large city (San Francisco or San Jose, perhaps) then that would be one view. If you define "suburb" as I do as being somewhere that is not a major urban city, or as rural farmland/open space, then Palo Alto does fit the bill. However, and I think strongly about this, Palo Alto is not a city alone, we are linked with our neighboring cities and as such we should be partnering with them as we look at things like growth, urbanization, traffic, housing, infrastructure, etc.

To look at Palo Alto and assume that all the people who live here are going to work here is unrealistic. Likewise all the people who work here are not going to live here. Realistically, people change jobs more often than they move house so a job change of less than 20 miles is not going to make a house move. Likewise, in a household of two people who are both in full time employment, it is most unlikely that they are both going to be working in the same city. Realistically, people who live in Palo Alto are going to be visiting neighboring cities for social, shopping, recreational activities and people from neighboring cities are going to be coming here for similar reasons. San Antonio Shopping are, should not be (even if they are trying to do so) become carbon copy of Stanford Shopping Centre. Downtown dining in University Avenue or California Avenue, should not try to copy Castro Street, etc. Shoreline Amphitheatre is not just for Mountain View residents, neither is Palo Alto airport just for Palo Alto. Shoreline movie theaters are not the same as the ones we have here, they serve different moviegoers.

As a result, we should be welcoming Mountain View residents to our shops at Stanford, our clique movie theaters as well as our airport and other services. Likewise, Palo Alto residents can shop at neighboring Costco, Target and yes even Walmart.

When it comes to looking at a vision of what Palo Alto is as a City, we have to remember that thinking of it as a stand alone City is wrong. We can't survive without our neighbors and they probably quite like being close to us also.

When it comes to infrastructure, such as police, fire, etc. we don't need several sets of top jobs and admin systems, one shared HQ could suffice with separate sub offices in various locations. When it comes to discussing traffic, public transport, etc. we should be doing so with not only our immediate neighbors, but our neighbors all across the Bay Area.

We have to stop thinking of City issues as something that affects only us. We have to start thinking much more along regional issues, whether just mid Peninsula or the Bay Area in its entirety. The sooner we start doing this, I think, the sooner real progress will be made.

Posted by stephen levy, a resident of University South,
on May 15, 2014 at 3:48 pm

stephen levy is a registered user.

I agree that PA and our neighbors are partners in planning for the future and the surge of growth that is happening now.

People do live and work in different cities but most live and work in the SF to SJ area.

It is also true that PA is not supposed to house most people who work here.

First the numbers don't match. We have 9+ % of the county jobs and are asked to plan for 3+ % of the county's new housing.

Moreover we are a relatively high cost area and are likely to house higher income earners who work up and down the peninsula, not everyone who works in PA.

I agree with resident above that each city can specialize to some extent and we can shop, dine and seek entertainment across city lines.

Our quality of life and economic vitality as a peninsula and broader region is linked to the cooperation and planning for the region as whole to work that each city is a part of.

Posted by new PA resident, a resident of Midtown,
on May 15, 2014 at 11:07 pm

As a new resident to Palo Alto, I would like to share my thoughts on what makes this city unique. I think one of the main reasons why Palo Alto is such a desirable place to live, particularly for families, is that it has the best elements of suburbia and city life. Like the very best suburbs in the Bay Area, it feels very safe and comfortable and offers excellent public school and amenities. However, it avoids most of the downsides of other suburbs in that Palo Alto is also a relatively cosmopolitan town, with a high density of academics and creative professionals, and venues for the performing arts and sporting events through Stanford. Although New York City or San Francisco it is not, one does not feel s/he is sacrificing too much in the way of intellectual and creative stimulation by living here. In this manner, Palo Alto is a very unique city that only a handful of other cities in the world can come close to matching.

Posted by Garrett , a resident of another community,
on May 17, 2014 at 9:55 am

I think City of Palo Alto and Mountain View along with others take the lead on building a freeway from the Stockton area. This freeway should have RBT line down the middle, platforms and waiting areas. The.frewway should have self driving car lanes, car pool lanes. Off the freeway entry and.exit points for public and private shuttles, parking for those catching the shuttles or the RBT.

Thousands and I mean thosands of homes are planned or being built in Stockton alone.

Freeway should end at Central Expressway

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