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By Diana Diamond

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 …