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About this blog: So much is right — and wrong — about what is happening in Palo Alto. In this blog I want to discuss all that with you. I know many residents care about this town, and I want to explore our collective interests to help ...  (More)

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Why does it take Palo Alto so long to get things done?

Uploaded: Jun 18, 2021
A recent headline in one of the local papers declared “City moves swiftly to …” A local city moves swiftly! Wow! I say. Because to me, local cities seem to take years to get things done.

Take the replacement of the Chaucer Street bridge spanning the San Francisquito Creek from Palo Alto to Menlo Park – a distance of about 130 feet Some residents are complaining it will be too big. --It’s draft image shows it to be about 44 feet wide and 132-plus feet long and have room for pedestrians to cross.

The need for a new Pope Street—Chaucer Street bridge occurred in February 1998, when the creek flooded. A Joint Powers Authority was created, of course, and during more than a 20-year span, the authority had two executive directors. The Army Corps of Engineers was called in, then called off, then asked again for help. Anyway, it is now 2021, and a bridge is being designed, with construction scheduled to start in 2024 – but only after a new Newell Avenue bridge is completed. I am guessing we will have a little bridge finished by 2030—32 years after the flooding. How in the world did California ever get the 1.7 mile-long Golden Gate Bridge completed in only four years?

My favorite long-time-to-get completed local project: improving traffic flow on
Embarcadero Road and El Camino by the Town & Country Center in Palo Alto. This traffic back-up started after Trader Joe’s opened in 2008, and soon the westbound traffic on Embarcadero lined up way past the Caltrain bridge crossing to the east. A good part of the problem was the fact that two traffic lights – one at the high school and one at the entrance to T&C operated independently, i.e., they were we not synchronized. And also backed up coming from the left-turn lane on El Camino onto Embarcadero. It typically takes two or three left-turn lights to get through the intersection.

Then-traffic Engineer Jaime Rodriguez said in 2010 the problem was “complicated” because Caltrans, Stanford and the city had to get involved. He quit and soon afterward was hired as a consultant for the problem, but a couple of years later the problem remained unsolved. In 2021, we still have the same problem, that no one is addressing or even talking about. In the interim, Stanford has created wonderful rotaries in campus areas that were always clogged with stop-go traffic problems. The well-designed round-abouts allow traffic to flow around a circle to ease in and out of an adjacent road. I won’t ask, but do wonder how Stanford can get things done so fast but Palo Alto can’t. Must be the temperature difference – or something.

Even the recent announcement from City Manager Ed Shikda that city staff will be returning to work at city hall, after more than a year because of coronavirus stay-at home policies, suggests this will be a long, drawn-out process, with little explanation why.

As the Weekly reported, “Palo Alto’s emergence from the emergency is expected to unfold gradually and incrementally, city staff say, with some suspended services returning almost immediately and others remaining in limbo for months.” I guess the city employees have to get used to coming back to work after coping with coronavirus. VTA has taken the same stance, which leads me to wondering how men fighting in World War II were able to bravely fight day after day. Yes, there was some PTSD, but most came back, got jobs, married and had kids.
The city's community centers — Lucie Stern Community Center and Cubberley Community Center — won't be open for general use until early August, Shikada said in an email.

Maybe delay is okay – the new mindset at City Hall. Take your time, do it slowly, there’s no real reward for getting thing done on time because it doesn’t make any difference. No merit pay– just great salaries, benefits and lots of time off.

Contrast that with local prominent developer and extremely generous philanthropist, John Arrillago, who reconstructed the entire Stanford Stadium, including resizing it, in just 10 months, as I recall.

There’s still lots of city to-do projects whose surfaces have not been scratched. After decades since the 1990s) of talking about a new public safety (police and fire) building, work is finally starting near California Avenue. The initial proposal for the building was expensive and expansive -- separate locker rooms, an extensive indoor gym (even though there was a full-sized gym down the street, public meeting rooms, private meeting rooms, on-site storage area for everything so police do not have to actually drive to storage units in Est Palo Alto etc. The current plans seem a bit more reasonable.

We’ve taken years to decide how to improve the Caltrain grade crossings because Caltrain was going to change to faster electric trains. That problem has temporarily solved itself because Caltrain’s electrification has been delayed, so Palo Alto’s delay on deciding to improve our grade crossing also is delayed. That worked out nicely.

And the city council decided this week to put aside for a year finding an acceptable-to-all housing/office balance at the old Fry’s site. This topic of what to do with the multi-acre site off El Camino has been going on since at least 2006, --- meetings, consultants, neighbor input and protests, etc. Developer John Sobrato, who now owns the site, wants lots of offices, and some housing. Some residents want lots of housing and few offices. We need a Solomonic decision here, I fear.

So why does it take Palo Alto so long to decide what to do? Part of it, I think, is a long-established tradition called “The Palo Alto Process,” which means opposing views need to be honored and if we talk long enough, a compromise can come about. Years ago, resident Le Levy, a former council member, described it to me this way. Palo Alto knows we have smart people living here, and if we are so smart, then there must be one right solution. So we talk and plan and investigate the issue for years, hoping the brightest view will prevail.

Great, but it still takes a long time to get things done.

I ask myself if I am too impatient. What’s wrong with waiting? As I mentioned above, city staff have gotten used to waiting because the issues they work on will continue and they will still have jobs.

But I think there is a bit more to it. In the corporate world, it’s the profit motive that is the driver. In our local community, residents have no profit motive, just an ardent desire to see more housing and less traffic. And developers have a financial interest in building more office space, but they are not in charge. And at city hall …
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jun 19, 2021 at 5:35 am

Online Name is a registered user.

Thanks for citing the T&C light fiasco which started me wondering about PA. Jaime Rodriguez not only delayed the project but also sabotaged it by putting it out for bid 2 weeks before the Christmas holidays and -- surprise surprise -- no one responded. After he resigned, PA rewarded his consulting company with a huge to fix the traffic light timing!! He then became a Los Altos traffic consultant and tortured a poor couple on a quiet street with an unnecessary but profitable 24/7 blinking traffic light shining into their windows. They finally got that sadistic idiocy overturned after a costly suit. Rodriquez continues selling blinking lights, road paint, etc

I never cared about PA politics until first getting frustrated and then increasingly infuriated at getting stuck at the T&E lights late at night. I began wondering what's wrong with this city -- all while figuratively crossing my legs after long drives home. Why did it let Rodriquez to concentrate om his own traffic consulting business at our expense? Why reward him with a big contract for light timing given his track record?? Then came Josh Mello who was even worse and who mobilized more residents until scuttling off to push Google's constant "car light" expansion.

Now that I am paying attention, I remain horrified. Our "Planning" Dept keeps showing up at meetings unprepared to answer even the most basic questions about projects we're paying them to review, the pathetic solar permitting process, etc etc.

WHY do we let this continue? WHY do we pay these people and their consultant gravy train big bucks while defunding our libraries and other services What's to be done?

Los Altos recently fired its city manager for repeatedly ignoring City Council directives "Chris Jordan gets $183,821 to resign as Los Altos City Manager" Web Link Thanks to Liz Kniss, if Shikada is forced out, he gets an extra year's salary, benefits and vesting!

Posted by Victor Bishop, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Jun 19, 2021 at 7:27 am

Victor Bishop is a registered user.

You forgot the bike bridge over 101. Of course that will be considered a success story since it was done in about a decade. Remember we needed an “iconic" bridge with a “wow" factor. So the bridge became an ego trip for a certain former council member. Then we needed a design contest, which the results of were ignored. By that time, the price had skyrocketed and we had to go back to the drawing board. Meanwhile other places put up bike bridges in a matter of months.

Posted by Cindy Pickett, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jun 19, 2021 at 10:08 am

Cindy Pickett is a registered user.

Since Rome could not be built in a day perhaps the PACC is adopting the same mindset?

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 19, 2021 at 10:51 am

Bystander is a registered user.

I also had wondered why Diana chose not to write about the bike bridge in her list.

I think it has taken about 3 attempts of announcing the closing 101 for the middle part to be put in place. Very pleased to see the span is now there and the final work can be completed.

For some reason, I am still holding my breath on seeing that it will open in time.

Posted by DianaDiamond, a resident of Midtown,
on Jun 19, 2021 at 11:11 am

DianaDiamond is a registered user.

Yes, THE bike bridge. The vinci finally agreed to do it for $10 million, as I recall, but then one or two council members wanted the bridge to make a STATEMENT about Palo Alto -- the bridge should be dramatic enough for 101 drivers to realize they are NOW in Palo Alto, and the drivers can tell they are because of our beautiful bridge. Several firms were interviewed, three became finalist -- and then the bid came in around $16M. So the council retreated because it was too expensive. It had waited too long to decide. So the council went back to its original plans but prices had gone up and the original design was going to cost around $14 million. Yes, the bridge is finally being built and I don't know what the final cost will be. But we acted in an entirely appropriate Palo Alto manner.


Posted by Anne, a resident of Midtown,
on Jun 19, 2021 at 2:08 pm

Anne is a registered user.

Thanks Diana. It's true, Palo Alto is broken. .Gennady Sheyner wrote a recent article about P.A.'s ridiculous delays for solar installations with the result that contractors don't want to do business here. I have lost faith in Palo Alto's ability to get things done and serve it's residents competently.

Posted by Laurian Decker, a resident of Stanford,
on Jun 19, 2021 at 3:47 pm

Laurian Decker is a registered user.

>>Why does it take Palo Alto so long to get things done?

Because no one (including PA residents and PACC members) are on the same page. Never have been and never will be.

Self-serving interests and future political aspirations have a way of circumventing actual progress.

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jun 19, 2021 at 5:01 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

"Because no one (including PA residents and PACC members) are on the same page. Never have been and never will be.

Self-serving interests and future political aspirations have a way of circumventing actual progress."

I think this council tries harder than the previous one that even denied we had a traffic problem so they could push for more offices and other big cap expenditures. Now it's usually a 5-2 vote.

At least most of this city council questions staff, tries to get them to define terms like "medical retail" and rejectis recommendations that simply take the easy way out. I doubt this CC would have hired a City Manager after only interviewing ONE candidate or rushing to approve a contract that rewarded poor performance. The former CC awarded him a package if he's fired FOR CAUSE or forced to resign that gives him an extra year's salary and benefits and pension vesting.

At least this CC is aware of our huge unfunded pension liabilities and isn't rushing to add an $450K in salary, an extra $100K in vesting and and extra year of benefits $??? to that debt.

Posted by Curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jun 19, 2021 at 5:17 pm

Curmudgeon is a registered user.

City Hall is not in the business of getting things done. It is the clubhouse for a group of folks playing a cosplay game called Government, and getting paid handsomely for it. They share the building with a chapter of the Church of Perpetual Process, who play their game for keeps.

Presiding over all is the Emperor Shikada who, contrary to some snide rumors, does wear visible clothes. But he is known to get very annoyed with that group of citizens calling itself the City Council who occasionally presume to exert authority over him, using the weary excuse that they won an election or two. Divided amongst themselves, they generally let him have his way.

You get what you Charter your City for.

Posted by Victor Bishop, a resident of Another Mountain View Neighborhood,
on Jun 19, 2021 at 6:27 pm

Victor Bishop is a registered user.

Diana- of course the former council member that made it a personal ego trip forgot that you are not supposed to be distracted when driving 65 MPH down a highway. I wonder if the city will name the bridge after her and if this will help her plan to have herself declared historic

Posted by Ronster, a resident of another community,
on Jun 19, 2021 at 9:43 pm

Ronster is a registered user.

The planning department in Palo A lot o is the dregs. Lost our plans. We had to replace them. All the plans are still on paper ... because what would they do with all their paper holders where they can't find lost plans in?

I could go on.

Posted by Joseph E. Davis, a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills,
on Jun 19, 2021 at 10:38 pm

Joseph E. Davis is a registered user.

The basic problem is government has low accountability compared to private businesses that have to care about making money. That's why government can take years and squander enormous sums - it's actually a feature, not a bug, for those hooked up to the gravy train. You can anticipate things getting even slower and more expensive as time goes on and the game players get smarter.

Posted by Parker Whitcomb, a resident of Stanford,
on Jun 20, 2021 at 9:52 am

Parker Whitcomb is a registered user.

"City Hall is not in the business of getting things done."

The PACC is more like a high school student body council...a popularity contest culminating with song & dance proposals by the duly elected.

Meanwhile the school district and principal are actually calling the shots.

Posted by Geraldine Pfister, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive,
on Jun 20, 2021 at 10:14 am

Geraldine Pfister is a registered user.

More like a Mayberry by the Bay.

Posted by Lucien Zabriski, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jun 20, 2021 at 1:34 pm

Lucien Zabriski is a registered user.

Rather than constantly complaining, disgruntled Palo Alto residents should petition for a different form of munipal government.

But there are no guarantees that a commission or mayoral form of city government in PA town would be any better.

The current elected city officials are reflective of the choices Palo Alto voters made at the election box.

So why complain about it after the fact?
It's called 'making one's bed...'

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jun 20, 2021 at 4:10 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

One of the things that really strikes me about Palo Alto is that so many people here are up to date on anything political at the State and Federal levels, but are completely clueless on what is going on here. The only reason some people know anything about local issues is because they have tried to get a permit or are wondering why the tunnel under 101 is closed (the fact that the bridge will replace the tunnel seems lost on them).

When it comes to voting for CC, they vote by name recognition or because someone has told them that somebody is a "nice guy".

We have too many nice guys running things here in town. But there are times that being nice is not a quality to get things done. I have often spoken with people who appear to not understand our local issues and unless it is putting a roundabout on their nearby corner, or wondering why Rinconada Pool is not open for family swimming on hot days, they just don't have any interest.

Until or unless more people start taking notice on what is happening I fear we will not get any progress on any of this.

Posted by Jesj, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jun 21, 2021 at 2:16 pm

Jesj is a registered user.

Agree with posters and Diana. Let's include the Middlefield library re-build fiasco, ongoing confusion at Cubberly, etc. Jaime Rodriguez was the city transportation engineer who - during a public meeting about the Cal Ave redo of parking and lane assignments - used the example of "University not having a traffic problem" (!??!) as an argument for the Cal ave project.

What do the people of PA expect from a City Council (who openly flout campaign finance laws; who wonder why people complain about traffic in PA since Channing is not busy) having NO accountability?

Posted by Online Name, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland,
on Jun 21, 2021 at 4:24 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

Re the Middlefield Library, ironically a stranger was complaining about it at the dog park mere minutes ago, saying she only patronizes Rinconada even though Mitchell is closer. The absurdity of constructing such a huge, flawed monument plagued by cost-overruns and delays AND lack of common sense because who puts an open children's playroom right near the entrance so the sound echoes up and disturbs everyone.

Unprompted this stranger went on about all the other problems she sees here and was insistent that city officials and some former city council members have been on the take -- beyond the obvious ones who ran their own transportation consulting businesses on our dime and then came back to sell us and Los Altos bollards, road furniture, road paint and annoying unnecessary blinking lights.

Where's the oversight?

Posted by YP, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jun 21, 2021 at 6:14 pm

YP is a registered user.

Why does it take Palo Alto so long to get things done?

Because PA is run by a bunch of liberals that want to micromanage every aspect of our lives....

Posted by Phil Carmody, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jun 22, 2021 at 9:10 am

Phil Carmody is a registered user.

Palo Alto is too large to manage in its current state as each neighborhood has its own priorities which at times conflict with those of the others.

A possible solution...split Palo Alto into North and South PA with the border at Page Mill Road/Oregon Expressway.

The northern portion of PA can remain quaint and NIMBY while south PA absorbs all of the future development and a sizable portion of the newly emerging property and business tax revenue bases.

The result will be two distinct PAs...one attractive and poor while the other is tacky-looking but rich.

Posted by Cameron Rivers, a resident of another community,
on Jun 22, 2021 at 10:23 am

Cameron Rivers is a registered user.

How about (4) Palo Altos?

East Palo Alto (San Mateo County and already in existence), North Palo Alto, South Palo Alto and a West Palo Alto which would encompass the Palo Alto foothills.

Each sector is distinct and the area on the other side of 101 could be called the Palo Alto Municipal Utilities District.

Eliminate the PAPD and consign all law enforcement duties to the county sheriff's department like they do in Contra Costa County.

And let the sheriff's department inhabit the new police building on California Avenue.

Fire department services could also be leased but using the existing fire department buildings throughout PA.

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