In his State of the City address, Burt details the emergence of the city after the pandemic | News
Palo Alto Mayor Pat Burt used his “State of the City” address on Saturday to paint a picture of a city in transition, with key downtown areas moving toward car-free thoroughfares, l economy picking up after a strong downtown pandemic and signs of hope emerging from a continued effort to add affordable housing.
Speaking to approximately 80 residents and city staff at the Mitchell Park Community Center, Burt took the annual opportunity to provide an update on each of the city council’s four annual priorities: economic recovery, housing for social balance and economic, climate change and community health and safety. He warned of the dangers the city faces in the coming months, foremost among which is the growing risk of wildfires that can devastate the city.
He also outlined the city’s ambitious electrification effort and detailed the city’s efforts to invest in solar power and battery systems and to replace appliances that currently rely on gas to clean electricity.
Burt’s high-profile speech struck its most urgent note discussing the growing threat of megafires. He cited the 2020 fire season and the CZU fire, which destroyed large swaths of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Given Palo Alto’s location next to the foothills, the threat of fire became increasingly acute.
“We all saw what happened in Santa Rosa and Paradise, where entire communities were wiped out,” Burt said. “And we are on the edge of an interface between nature and the city. We are not exempt from all these risks.”
He linked that threat to the city’s ongoing climate change initiatives, efforts he said the city needs to accelerate. The council’s Sustainability and Climate Action Plan Committee, on which he sits, is currently refining the city’s plans to meet its 2016 target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2030, with 1990 as a reference.
Electrification, which involves replacing water and space heating systems and gas cookers with electric appliances, is by far the biggest part of the initiative. But Burt also spoke about the importance of improving bike safety and giving people alternatives to riding gas-powered vehicles.
The city, he said, has reduced its emissions by about 50% since 1990, although part of that was due to the sharp drop in commuters during the pandemic. With COVID-19 out of the equation, the proportion drops to around 42%.
“We’re almost 50% of the way to our goal,” Burt said. “We now have a huge focus in our utility staff, public works staff and city council to really come up with a climate plan that can really achieve our goals.”
The city also faces shorter-term challenges, including reversing some of the staff and service cuts the council made in 2019 to account for falling revenues. After cutting the budget by about $40 million at the start of the pandemic, the council is now slowly restoring the positions.
“We were still in an area where we’re encountering fewer city staff and fewer city services than we’ve had in this community for decades — and that’s a real challenge,” Burt said.
Many community members have had the opportunity to reflect during the pandemic on what they value in their neighborhood and what municipal services they value. He said he expects the next budget, which the board will begin considering next month, will make some moderate improvements.
“What we’re wrestling with now is how do we respond to the recovery that we’re trying to do and how do we bring those services back,” Burt said.
One aspect of the city’s economic recovery is to reinvent some of its downtown spaces. The council signaled earlier this year its desire to keep segments of California Avenue and Ramona Street car-free for the foreseeable future. Burt said these streets are having “truly amazing experiences” and will continue to improve as the city moves forward with improving the streetscape in both areas.
“We haven’t really invested in making them the aesthetic, dynamic, social and cultural gathering places that they have the potential to be,” Burt said.
Another area that will require extensive planning and huge investment is grade separations – the realignment of level crossings so that railway tracks and roads no longer cross. Various city councils have discussed over the past decade ways to reconfigure the lanes. To date, however, the board has yet to choose its preferred roster or identify sources of funding for a project that is priced, by some alternatives, at more than $1 billion.
Burt noted that the council has made progress in narrowing down its alternatives for the grade separation. At the same time, state and federal agencies are making more funds available for grade separation — a promising trend for Palo Alto, which Burt says has some of the most dangerous crossings in the state.
“In this discussion, we have often forgotten how essential it is to have separations that really eliminate this risk,” he said. “We’re moving forward. We’re going to have to ramp up again because the federal infrastructure funds have, for a long time now, dollars for grade separations.”
Another complex challenge facing the council is fulfilling a regional mandate calling for it to plan for more than 6,000 housing units between 2023 and 2031. Burt said Palo Alto has always been a leader in Santa County Clara in the provision of subsidized housing. Of the county towns, only Gilroy saw a higher percentage of its housing offered at below-market rates. But due to Palo Alto’s historic status as an engine of job growth, housing supply continues to lag well behind demand.
“There’s a huge gap between us as leaders and what the real demand is for that,” Burt said.
In the coming months, Palo Alto is expected to complete its new Housing Element, which identifies potential housing sites as well as new policies to encourage housing. It also sees an increase in applications for below-market housing developments, including two Santa Clara County-led projects on Grant Avenue and Charleston Road.
Despite these challenges, Burt sounded optimistic about the future of Palo Alto and Silicon Valley, which has demonstrated its ability to rebound from past economic downturns. The city, he said, is fortunate to be adjacent to what he called Stanford University’s “greatest generator of new ideas and technologies.” And Stanford’s research park continues to be populated with cutting-edge research and technology institutions.
“What we need to do is continue to be a stage of innovation and a place that businesses find attractive and where their workers want to continue to live because of the wonderful quality of life and services we provide,” did he declare. .