Sun04202014

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Let the debate begin: Vibrancy among top issues cited by Los Altos council candidates at forum

The Los Altos City Council race kicked into higher gear last week when the six candidates on the Nov. 6 ballot faced off publicly at two events.

The candidates participated in a Sept. 17 forum – co-sponsored by the Los Altos Village Association and the Los Altos Chamber of Commerce – and addressed the Rotary Club of Los Altos Thursday.

Downtown vibrancy

At the forum, candidates offered their opinions on a variety of topics, including transparency and ways to engage the public in civic issues. Downtown vibrancy proved a popular topic among the candidates at the Los Altos Library.

Candidate Jerry Sorensen said his main issue boils down to a consistent approach by the city.

“I think you have to have an environment, you have to have a set of rules that people can live by and trust,” said Sorensen, a downtown property owner. “Otherwise you have rulers instead of rules.”

Sorensen accused the city of selectively enforcing sign ordinances.

“I know a couple of businesses that I obviously can’t name now, but they have signs that don’t comply with the new sign ordinance,” he said. “But the (city) staff has said, ‘Well, we like them, so we’ll just kind of look the other way.’”

Sorensen later told members of the Rotary Club that he “solved the riddle of economically vibrant downtowns,” pointing to office developments and parking as keys to success.

Candidate Jan Pepper said neighboring Mountain View’s ongoing development of The Village at San Antonio Center could have a “pretty significant effect” on downtown businesses.

“I think what we need to do is really figure out what we want downtown, figure out what kinds of businesses people in this community are interested in going to and make sure we get those in,” said Pepper, formerly the president of the League of Women voters of the Los Altos-Mountain View Area.

Current Planning and Transportation Commissioner Jon Baer told potential voters that vibrancy means “feet on the street. It’s as simple as that. … If you don’t have people, it doesn’t work.”

Baer added that the city has “put in zoning that encourages development where you want it,” noting that the city has “some rules that are not business-friendly.”

Candidate Anabel Pelham, a member of the Senior Commission, cited the need for “predictable zoning” and a “proactive traffic management plan” to increase vibrancy downtown.

She later told Rotarians that vibrancy includes the need for a “green master plan that integrates the downtown and the civic center and prioritizes pedestrians, cycling, public transportation and automobiles – in that order.”

Councilwoman Megan Satterlee, the lone incumbent in the race, pointed to the need to find “the right mix of retail, restaurants and services” to create a synergy downtown and in other commercial areas of the city. She added that the struggles of business districts outside of downtown, such as Loyola Corners, must be addressed as well.

Former Los Altos Planning Commissioner Jeannie Bruins said addressing vibrancy issues means better defining the downtown area.

“Do we want to be a restaurant row such as Mountain View?” Bruins asked. “Do we want to be retail-based? What is the balance that we need so that we can all learn to thrive in that particular target of where we want to go?”

Parking

The candidates touched on downtown parking, with Bruins and Satterlee stating their support for the city’s traffic management study currently under way, among other things. Baer concurred, calling the study “a good start” while adding that he supports a multipronged approach that includes future public-private partnerships for underground public parking.

Pelham suggested that underground parking could be “part of the mix” in solving parking issues but also posed the idea of adding a shuttle service for residents.

Pepper, meanwhile, suggested a specific, integrated plan for downtown.

“I think we need to know exactly what we’re going to be doing with the downtown as a whole,” she said. “What is that going to look like in the next 10 to 20 years? That will tell us our parking needs.”

Sorensen told both audiences that the city could increase its parking supply by 220 to 330 spaces by reconfiguring them.

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