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Los Altos council sets preliminary focus for year

From affordable housing to emergency preparedness, Los Altos City Council members reviewed a grab-bag of issues as they sought to set 2020 priorities at a Feb. 5 special council meeting billed as a “retreat.”

Ranging from land use to the environment, council members outlined a set of what they deemed realistic goals for the year. At the same time, members laid the groundwork for discussing major projects in the years ahead, such as a downtown performing arts center.

City Manager Chris Jordan noted that the decisions at the retreat were preliminary and would be finalized at the council’s Feb. 25 meeting.

With consultant Debra Figone acting as facilitator, council members constructed a worksheet of priorities and objectives.

Land use

Under the oft-discussed issue of land use, the council vowed to amend zoning codes to “provide objective standards and to achieve compliance with state law while retaining maximum city discretion.” The wording acknowledged the pro-housing changes in state laws but retained “discretion” for local control – especially voiced by Councilwoman Anita Enander.

“The city can retain control by doing their own studies,” she said.

Reflecting major decisions in 2019 – the approval of high-density housing at 5150 El Camino Real and the city’s purchase of land at 999 Fremont Ave. in Loyola Corners – council members agreed to revisit and establish land-use mix in commercial districts and make required zoning changes. Areas of focus included the El Camino Real corridor in Los Altos and designation of parklands in the playground and orchard areas of the city’s civic center. Also up for designation: a 0.4-acre property at 745 Distel Drive, provided as open space by the 5150 El Camino developer as a condition for approval.

Under a priority to provide “workforce housing,” the council agreed to offer more “opportunity” and “accessibility” for affordable housing, including allowance of more accessory dwelling units. Council members opted to focus on meeting state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Allocation units rather than accommodate “missing middle” applicants – those making too much to qualify for affordable housing but not enough to buy in Los Altos on their own.

Turning to the “downtown visioning,” a reference to a conceptual plan completed in 2018, the council committed to modest improvements cited in the proposal, such as parking lot restriping and creation of a loading zone. Members also agreed to consider a strategic plan for a downtown theater being developed by a citizens group.

Facilities, frustrations

The council prioritized improvements to city facilities and infrastructure, pledging to see through completion of an emergency operations center at the police station, as well as work toward expansion of the city’s main library in the years ahead. Discussion also touched on a possible bond measure to finance the city’s asset needs.

A key objective centered on council members moving back to city hall before the end of the year to hold meetings. Due to one or more council members’ health problems at the council chambers, meetings have been held in recent months at the Los Altos Youth Center, including the retreat last week. Nothing has been made public thus far on what it would take to address the health concerns and move meetings back to city hall.

The impasse prompted a frustrated Enander to remark, “Whatever we do, let’s get it done by Dec. 1, 2020, so we can hold our next reorganizational meeting back (at city hall).”

Other signs of frustration surfaced amid predominantly cordial discussion among council members. During land-use talks, Mayor Jan Pepper said city priorities with environmental considerations were “nowhere to be found.” Both Pepper and Councilwoman Lynette Lee Eng complained about too much talk and not enough action.

“Each time a project comes up, we say something, then we contradict ourselves,” Lee Eng said during a discussion of workforce housing. “If we’re going to do it, let’s do it.”

Council members seemed split on their support for a downtown theater. Councilwoman Neysa Fligor suggested working ahead on parking solutions to accommodate such a theater. Pepper recommended a theater as a way of increasing downtown tax revenue.

But Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins noted, “The theater is not ‘If we build it, they will come.’ … The city does not have the money to build a theater.”

Enander and Lee Eng said the city has higher funding priorities. Resident Roberta Phillips echoed those sentiments, asking, “Do we need a new theater or do we need to fix the things we have?”

Additional priorities

Among other retreat priorities, the council agreed to keep the ongoing construction for a new community center on track for completion by the end of the year. It also listed public safety, emergency preparedness, community engagement and traffic safety as key priorities in 2020.

As part of an environmental priority to “create a healthy, sustainable community,” members said they would consider adoption of a reach code, update the city’s Climate Action plan, review adoption of a healthy-city initiative, discuss bans on plastic water bottles and plastic straws, and push for more commercial recycling and composting.

Before council members listed their priorities, they let residents voice theirs. Two local high school students pressed the council to consider climate change in their decisions. Library Commissioner Pierre Bedard urged the city to pursue completion of a park in north Los Altos and advocated for a new library. Donna Poulos and Sue Russell emphasized affordable housing. Downtown property owner Kim Cranston stressed the importance of improving citywide emergency preparedness, noting that only a skeleton crew of emergency professionals would be available if a major quake hit at midnight.

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