Palo Alto’s Unrepresentative Citizen Engagement Process Distorts HSR Realities
Last night the Palo Alto City Council met to discuss its response to the Alternatives Analysis for the San Francisco to San José section of the HSR project. The city’s response is predictable: they’re attacking the planning process and making demands about the design options:
The letter identifies what the city considers to be a number of shortcomings of the report. “The lack of adequate information regarding financial, environmental, and right-of-way impacts precludes a reasoned determination of preferred alternatives, both for the City and the public,” the letter states.
“It focuses on the shortcomings, and also identifies which alternatives we think are most viable for our community,” Mayor Pat Burt said of the letter.
The authority’s analysis evaluated multiple options for the placement of tracks along the route, considering tracks that are elevated, at street level and below ground.
Palo Alto’s preferred option would be below-grade tracks which would have the least impact on city residents, institutions and businesses. However, the city said it cannot yet take a position on what it would most prefer of the three below-grade alternatives — open trench, covered trench or deep tunnel — as it requires more information to make a comparative assessment.
The city found the aerial viaduct, elevated berm and at-grade options to be unacceptable.
None of this is particularly surprising, given the way Palo Alto officials have been handling the HSR discussion since Prop 1A passed. That’s what I want to focus on in this post. While I’m sure the comments will be full of good and informed analysis of the design options, my concern here is with the entire approach the city of Palo Alto is taking to this discussion.
In short, it is becoming increasingly clear that Palo Alto’s planning and citizen engagement process is a failure, distorting true public opinion by favoring a small, vocal elite at the expense of a silent majority whose opinions are much more supportive of new density and new transportation solutions – but whose voices are rarely ever included in the city’s planning process. The city of Palo Alto has not undertaken a thorough and inclusive assessment of what all of its residents really believe about HSR. Instead they have been swayed by a well-organized group of advocates, whose views may not be shared by the city at large, into adopting a stance toward HSR that may not be supported by the population and may not reflect the true will of the people of Palo Alto.
To be clear, this is a problem experienced throughout California. CEQA does not provide for a truly democratic or collaborative planning process, but instead institutes an adversarial planning process where those who are hostile to a project are empowered to fight it. City planning processes don’t much help, since those who are hostile to a project can dominate a public meeting and create an atmosphere where those with different views do not feel empowered to share their views.
While one might argue it’s incumbent upon citizens to take the initiative and be an active participant in the democratic process, it is equally important that cities do whatever outreach they can to ensure that they have a representative sample before making final decisions on major projects. After all, HSR critics and opponents frequently demand this of the CHSRA. It should be demanded of Palo Alto as well.
As a recent Stanford University study indicates, however, Palo Alto has failed to provide an effective process of citizen engagement on planning-related issues, instead hewing to a process that does not adequately reflect the true public opinion of city residents. Significantly, this study focuses not on the HSR project, but on an update to the city’s Comprehensive Plan in the area near the California Avenue Caltrain station. The study provides a damning analysis of the city’s failure to reach out to all of its residents. Authored by Katie Martinez, a student in the Program in Urban Studies at Stanford, isn’t yet available online (though I’m told it will be soon), but I have a copy and will share some of the insights below.
Here’s how Martinez explained the study:
I began my research in Palo Alto by first observing and analyzing the neighborhood workshops used during the Palo Alto Comprehensive Plan Update. These workshops revealed who was participating, how they were participating and what they were saying. I then took these opinions voiced in the neighborhood workshops and compared them to opinions from residents in the neighborhood surrounding California Avenue, going to be directly affected by Comprehensive Plan Update. The opinions from the residents in the California Avenue neighborhood at large were accumulated through a survey I created and distributed during the summer of 2009. After receiving opinions from 230 residents in the California Avenue neighborhood and interviewing residents who live in and around the area, it became evident that the opinions from the surveys and those from the workshops were conflicting. From the analysis of these two contradicting opinions, this research concludes that planners are not receiving opinions in the neighborhood workshops representative of the neighborhood going to be directly effected by the change. Unfortunately, city planners are making their decisions for the future of the California Avenue neighborhood based off of a small group of self-selected citizens who are able and motivated to attend the workshops, instead of a representative portion of the neighborhood, who are hesitant or excluded from participating.
Specifically, she found that although a significant majority of those that attended a planning meeting or workshop were opposed to new housing and new density near the California Avenue station, her survey of the residents nearby, conducted along scientifically valid lines, showed the opposite views were held by most residents:
The second question, which also aimed to measure how respondents felt towards more housing, asked how supportive a resident would be to new housing near the California Avenue Caltrain Station. A surprising 75% percent of the survey respondents were “supportive” or “very supportive” to the addition of new housing near the Caltrain station….
The third question measured how supportive residents were of new housing that included both housing and retail stores within the same building, or in other words mixed-use development. Again this question revealed startling results regarding citizens’ opinions towards housing. Sixty-five percent of residents were “supportive” or “very supportive” to the addition of mixed-use housing in their neighborhood. Only 23% were “opposed” and 12% “very opposed”.
Martinez’s analysis is that there really is a “silent majority” in Palo Alto whose voices are not being heard:
My survey unveils a large silent majority of residents in Palo Alto that do not participate in local government processes. Therefore, according to the Tiebout Model and Williams Model the majority of residents in Palo Alto are silent and consequently are either choosing to act loyal and trust the local government to figure out the problem on their own or exhibiting neglect and not participating because they know their opinion will not be effective due to local government participation framework and past experiences with a local government that does not value or stress participation.
In order to address this, Martinez proposes the following:
I therefore propose to the planning department a framework of participation that consists of enhanced neighborhood workshops, an online venue for participation and surveys to ensure that the opinions gathered through the other two avenues of participation are representative of the community as a whole.
The full study goes into much more depth on these solutions, and they are worth adopting not only by the city of Palo Alto, but by cities across the state. I know that here in Monterey, planners have been making use of online plans and a more enhanced neighborhood workshop process for a few years now, and by all accounts it produces positive results.
However, it does appear that Palo Alto’s process as studied here – which is roughly similar to what has been employed by the city for HSR – fails to meaningfully engage the public. As such, it is very difficult to see Palo Alto’s stance on HSR as being representative of the true feelings of the city’s residents.
In contrast, the November 2008 election in California saw record voter turnout – around 70%. That makes the passage of Prop 1A a legitimate reflection of the true views of the people of California and represents a very clear, very strong mandate to build HSR.
Voter turnout in the Peninsula was at least 70%, and there Prop 1A passed with around 60% of the vote. We now have reason to believe that public support for HSR has increased on the Peninsula since November 2008, despite – or perhaps because of – the persistent attacks on the project by a small but vocal group.
Palo Alto has previously called on the CHSRA to improve its public outreach. It seems clear that the city needs to do the same, in order to ensure that its decisions on HSR reflect what the people of the city actually want, and not just giving grease to the squeaky wheels.
P.S.: On behalf of Californians For High Speed Rail, I want to thank everyone who came out to the HSR reception at the State Capitol last night. I especially want to thank all those who recognized my name from this blog, and complimented my work on it. It really means a lot to know that what we do on this blog and in our offline organizing is noticed and appreciated. Thanks.