Silicon Valley is about disruption and change. Move fast and break things. Los Altos isn’t. It’s about comfort and familiarity – an old friend. McMansions don’t live in our town – despite what some newcomers want when they initially show up with grandiose plans. The role of the Design Review Commission, as expressed by a long time commissioner, is to moderate the rate of change, thus allowing change at a pace that is comfortable, but incremental. Anyone walking through residential neighborhoods sees incremental change as 1950’s and 1960’s ranch houses are being replaced by single story modern and larger, but not overwhelming, two story homes.
Los Altos is about evolution, not revolution. Though many have wanted a vision for our town, what we really want are the small changes that make it a better, more comfortable place to live and raise a family. We don’t want a wrecking ball – we want a hammer and crowbar. The community wants more restaurants in downtown – specifically more restaurants that are moderately priced and provide both good food and good service. Too many of our restaurants fail on one or both of those measures. A few pass with flying colors. We want more outdoor dining. But what we don’t want is an entire parking plaza replaced by outdoor dining, or as some would call it, a food court. We don’t want the look and feel of downtown Mountain View, or worse yet, downtown Sunnyvale. But that is what many downtown property owners and developers want as they seek to capitalize on our town.
Measure A (the ill-fated bond measure to build a large, fancy new community center) failed miserably because it was about a big change – both in terms of the building as well as the cost. The residents weighed in, and evolution has instead taken us to something far more modest in both scale and cost. There was a lesson there, but some members of our2017-2018 City Council failed to learn from it.
Maybe that failure of the Council to learn is because the world we live in has less to do with democracy than ever before. Special interests now have the opportunity to magnify their impact. We have all read about what has happened via social media. But even without it we can and do get an echo chamber. Yes, there was lots of input into the Downtown Vision Plan, but what came out likely does not reflect what the majority of the community wants. Proponents point to all the community organizations which supported the plan. But what no one mentions is that half the organizations in town are run by a small handful of the same group of people pushing their agenda. It’s not whether their agenda is right or wrong, but the reality is that it is all the same folks doing the talking, and the greater community did not weigh in until this election.
Change is hard, it is controversial. Elections are often the epicenter of those controversies. The election of 2018 gave the voters of Los Altos the opportunity to weigh in. Measure C originated and was promoted by very sincere residents who, unfortunately, were political neophytes. They were ill-prepared to deal with the robust opposition generated by almost all of the political heavyweights in Los Altos, many of whom are among the same groups that supported the Downtown Vision Plan. Measure C lost, but given how intense the opposition was, not by very many votes. There was and is a strong groundswell of concern, and the Measure almost certainly would have passed with flying colors but for the poor wording regarding its impact on leases.
For many, Measure C was needed because what they considered to be a run-away City Council, with Mayor Mordo as the prime mover, shaker, and catalyst. He claimed that a survey showed that 80% of Los Altans want “more vibrancy,” but failed to mention that an equal percent value even more the “small town atmosphere” of Los Altos. And yet no survey asked residents about the tradeoffs between the two.
Ironically, the voters were given that exact choice this past election. Mordo stood for aggressive, rapid development, with grandiose plans for our civic center and downtown – placing developments on eight of the ten parking plazas with funding from selling portions of the civic center land, and allowing all single story properties on Main Street and State Street to add a second story without concerns for additional parking. Other politically active downtown property owners were financially eager for these changes as well. Anita Enander stood for the opposite. When presented with these two choices, the voters replaced Mordo with Enander. While Enander won with a very modest margin, it is always remarkable whenever a sitting mayor is ousted.
So who was the real winner of the 2018 election? Evolution, not revolution. Measure C lost, but the voters essentially removed the need for Measure C by electing representatives more aligned with their vision of our town. The run-away Council is now stable. Who were the real losers? For the many sincere opponents of Measure C who wanted to preserve representative government, they won. For the many proponents of Measure C who wanted to slow down development and protect our town, they also won with a Council that we believe better represents the values of the community. The leaves the real losers as a small set of downtown property owners interested in aggressive redevelopment of our downtown.
As an appropriate confirmation that Los Altos continues to be doing the right things to preserve its small town character and charm, an article in the recent Town Crier explained that a Washington, D.C. consulting firm released its selection of the “best cities” with populations of 25,000 to 100,000. Los Altos is the only city in California so selected and ranked the seventh in all of America.
The people of Los Altos are not stupid. If our entire town ain’t broken, don’t fix it with a wrecking ball. Instead, just put in the right people as our representatives and allow incremental change to continue. So welcome Neysa and Anita! We’re pleased to have you as our representatives who are respectful of the great community we already have.