Following the public resignation of Palo Alto Planning and Transportation Commissioner Kate Downing, the Stanford Political Journal has talked to multiple figures involved in Palo Alto housing policy.
As part of this series, SPJ interviewed Adrian Fine, the chair of the Palo Alto Planning Transportation Commission on which Downing served and a candidate for the Palo Alto city council (Fine is also a City Strategist for Nextdoor, a technology company). A Palo Alto native with a master’s degree in urban planning, Fine has been outspoken about his support for Downing and housing reform. In this interview, lightly edited for clarity, Fine discusses what he thinks about Palo Alto Mayor Patrick Burt’s controversial comments on job growth, the “prisoner’s dilemma” afflicting the Bay Area, and his plans for housing and transportation reform.
Andrew Granato: You are on the Planning and Transportation Committee in Palo Alto and you’ve worked with Kate Downing, and you’ve been very outspoken about what you say is the need to increase the amount of housing in Palo Alto. What specific policies do you think should be put in place or repealed to further that aim?
Adrian Fine: I’m chair of the planning commission, and I believe that Palo Alto has overbuilt offices over the past 10–20 years and that’s the cause of the jobs-housing imbalance, where we have all this traffic and parking issues, which understandably makes residents dissatisfied. I think in order to produce more housing we need to look at our zoning code and next year we’ll also adopt a new comprehensive plan for the city, at which point the city will go through what’s called the zoning ordinance update, where we say, ‘okay, how do we fix the zoning, how do we improve it to manage the goals that we want.’
My specific suggestions are once the zoning ordinance update is underway, we can begin using what’s called a coordinated area plan. This is a tool in between a comprehensive plan and a zoning update that allows the city to look at an area like California Avenue or El Camino and say, ‘along this corridor, we want to produce X new number of housing units, and here’s the infrastructure that has to go along with it, whether it’s transportation, park space, public facilities,’ and so it’s a way for the community to be in power, actually, and say, ‘along Cal Ave, we want a bit more housing here, but we also want more green space, we want to see a grocery store, whatever,’ and so it’s a way to get a mix of these broad general planning goals and rubber-hits-the-road zoning changes.
So I want to see Palo Alto use this tool, and it’s my belief that we need more housing choices. So it’s not just more housing, but different types of housing, whether it’s micro-units, small apartments, co-housing situations, or rental units. And this will alleviate some of the pressure on the market, because if you have multiple choices, folks can choose the housing that’s best for them. But we also need to do it in the least impactful places, particularly near shops, services, and transit.
AG: Housing and transportation policy are very intertwined. How do you see transportation policy working with this new housing plan?
AF: Transportation is the knottier problem, actually. In the Bay Area, we have like 24-plus transit agencies. Here in Palo Alto, we have SamTrans, BTA, Stanford Marguerite, Palo Alto Shuttles, and Caltrain, and we have to do a much better job of coordinating these projects.
So, I believe on the one hand that we have to support efforts like the electrification of CalTrain, we need to support BTA and make sure that Palo Alto doesn’t lose any bus routes, and finally we need to invest more in our shuttle system. We have this nascent shuttle system that works pretty well for some folks, but it needs to be expanded and really go into individual neighborhoods to serve residents. Linking it to housing, part of it is that housing, in some ways, can be taxed for additional benefits, whether it’s for affordable housing or transit uses. New development does provide us with the opportunity to fund housing and transportation improvements.
And the other side of transportation is, here in Palo Alto, we’re at the center of this transportation revolution in terms of services like Uber and Lyft, autonomous vehicles, and new parking technologies, so we have the opportunity to harness those services and systems to make better use of our existing transportation and parking resources.
AG: You mentioned that there will be a lot of community input on the plan that Palo Alto ultimately chooses. I’m assuming that you are generally in favor of increased density?
AF: I wouldn’t say that. I was born and raised in Palo Alto, and what matters to me is that we have community values of diversity, continuity, and inclusivity, and for me what’s worrying is when Palo Alto’s longtime mentors are being displaced from the city because of housing costs, or seniors are unable to move from their single-family homes to an accessible unit that is close to transit and services that they need, or young families don’t have the opportunity to make roots here. So it’s not about pro-building, or anti-building, or pro-density, or anti-density; it’s about what kind of community we want to be. In order to support an inclusive, diverse Palo Alto, we do need to manage change effectively, and in some places that does mean growing.
If we look at the whole spectrum of Palo Alto, the smartest and most environmentally friendly places to grow are California Avenue, downtown, and El Camino. Those are the areas which have services and transit, and those are the right places to go, particularly for young folks like you and me, our generation, who are using cars less and less, and so we should be looking at housing options near transit and develop some services.
AG: Previously, I talked to [Mayor of Palo Alto] Patrick Burt, and he used the phrase “gluttony for job growth” to describe the Bay Area’s attitude towards its economy. What do you think about the mindset that job growth has been excessive and should be tapered?
AF: I don’t agree with that, but I think the effects of job growth have been excessive, and we haven’t done a good job managing it. Over the past, I think, five or six years, the Bay Area has added something like 600,000 jobs and only 90,000 housing permits; that’s why we have these transportation and housing issues. I’m in favor of beginning to solve the jobs-housing imbalance with the link between them, which is transportation, but at the same time also figuring out ways to produce housing for the next generation. I think that’s very important. I don’t think cities here have a ‘gluttony for job growth;’ it’s actually that our zoning codes and policies make it much easier for developers and cities to produce office space.
In Palo Alto, there was recently this project proposing some amount of housing and office space, but as it went through the commissions, it progressively lost the housing square footage trying to fit our code. That’s not any person; that’s the system, which is out of sync with our needs as a community. Right now, in Palo Alto, right now it’s much more profitable for the city and developers to build office space, and we need to change those incentives. We have a lot of jobs here; that’s great for our economy and great for people who live and work here, or for folks who are retired, who reap the benefits of office workers paying sales tax, but frankly the scales have been too tipped in favor of office growth, and we need to re-focus on housing and transportation.
AG: In that vein, a lot of these structural incentives, like Proposition 13, come from the state level. I’m wondering what you think the role of the California state government should be, if, so far, given these local controls across the Bay Area, there has not been a sufficient amount of housing built, and some of that is due to this game theory play of ‘I won’t build housing because I think another city will build housing,’ and everyone does that same thing.
AF: It’s a regional issue: every city I talk to, they say ‘oh, we’re not going to build housing, someone else should do it,’ so it’s a prisoner’s dilemma. It’s terrible, and it’s the same with transportation. At the state level, I’m generally in favor of local control, but I think across California these problems are getting serious enough that that may change if we don’t step up. Recently, there has been a bill, I think on the Governor’s desk now, over accessory dwelling units, which is one part of the housing puzzle. The bill reduces local control over accessory dwelling units, saying, ‘here are the minimums, that’s going to be easier to build these units.’
There was also a bill called the as-of-right housing bill, which didn’t pass, that would have removed the ability of local residents to protest a project and stop it in its tracks once it fit the zoning code. I didn’t necessarily support that bill, but I think there is a changing mindset across our state that locals aren’t doing enough to solve the traffic and housing problems, and [it’s understandable that] the state is taking its first steps to really involve itself at the local level. I would prefer to see us solve our problems locally and regionally, and so I want Palo Alto to be known as a Bay Area leader in terms of investment in transportation and housing.
AG: Do you think that the political winds are shifting in that direction?
AF: I’m not sure. I don’t really have a great read on the political winds. I would say there’s a few coalitions that are starting to come together. There’s progressive housing folks, who may own their home here but realize, gosh, we really do need to provide housing for the next generation. Also, people who have moved here for great jobs: they’re immigrants, or American citizens, who come here and go ‘what’s going on, why am I paying $3000 a month for a closet.’ And there are a lot of homeowners in the Bay Area whose children still live at home. And there’s nothing wrong with that on the surface, but I think both generations are saying, ‘hey, this is fine, but it’s not quite normal, and we can solve this.’ I don’t know if the political winds are changing; they probably follow the community winds. There’s a few fairly pro-housing folks running in the Bay Area, and they’re talking about issues like displacement and twenty-first century transportation policy, so more folks are stepping up and saying that we have serious issues here.
At the same time, this is Silicon Valley; we can solve traffic and housing, you know? It’s possible. There’s Scoop, which does carpooling stuff; there’s a group called Streetlines, which is looking at parking technology management. There’s a lot going on here, and our civic culture needs to catch up with that.
AG: Your website says “I am going to reset the relationships with regional partners like Stanford, MTC/ABAG, nearby cities and counties, businesses, and nonprofits.” What does that look like?
AF: I’ve already been reaching out to council members and organizations in the Central and South Bay to get their take on how Palo Alto could be a better partner in the region. That is the hard work of government, and part of it is also Palo Alto making a better case for itself, where sometimes the county will come up with a pot of money, whether it’s for affordable housing, or for traffic improvements. In some cases, Palo Alto has not been at the table, and that’s a shame. We need to be at the table to advocate for our needs. We need to, and this gets back to the whole regional prisoner’s dilemma you mentioned, make a move. It’s really that simple, and that means that changes that we haven’t done yet should be on the table.
We should be looking to work more closely with Stanford, integrating with BTA or the Marguerite system, and supporting CalTrain as the region’s transportation backbone. I believe we need to be seen as a good partner to begin making changes here at home. Palo Alto and other cities on the Peninsula have really fought back against these regional and county bodies. I don’t think it’s been helpful. MTC is the regional finance for transportation, and we can badmouth them, but then we’re just not going to get the money when it comes time for them to disperse it.
AG: Do you have any final comment on how you’d like the housing situation to move forward from here, especially now that it’s a national story?
AF: I’d like people in ten years to look and say, ‘gosh, the Bay Area was facing serious challenges in housing and transportation and jobs, but they used some smart planning and implemented new technology systems and began working with their partners, and didn’t solve everything, but took a leadership role to fix this stuff and improved quality of life and created more opportunity for the next generation.’ That’s the end goal.
The last thing I’ll say is that, while housing and transportation are the hot topic, that’s maybe 20% of what the city does, and we need to focus on the 100%. Say, what are we doing in terms of parks, what about our police services, what’s next for our utilities. Many of those services the cities provide are at risk if we don’t solve the housing and transportation problems. But as a candidate, I do want to be a council member that looks at the whole range of city services, and that’s really important to me too.
Andrew Granato, a senior studying economics, is a contributing editor of Stanford Political Journal.