Palo Alto, Calif.
The capital of Silicon Valley is ready to abdicate. A few weeks ago, bizarre as it might seem, Palo Alto Mayor Patrick Burt came out against jobs. “We’re looking to increase the rate of housing growth,” he told Curbed San Francisco, “but decrease the rate of job growth.”
Think about that. Almost every mayor in the U.S. is wracking his brain trying to entice jobs into town. Yet Palo Alto—3.8% unemployment, a magnet for the geek class, the place that nurtured Facebook—is telling everyone else to get lost.
I had to meet this guy. Near City Hall, I pulled my (proudly gas guzzling) car into a spot between a white Tesla and a black Tesla. This was the Coral parking zone, giving me two hours before I had to move to the Lime zone. Nearby stood the Epiphany, a new $800-a-night hotel, just down from the ancient House of Foam, fulfilling all your polyurethane and polystyrene needs. Next to the Verizon Wireless store, the old Stanford Theater was showing a Ruth Chatterton double feature. Palo Alto, 65,000 people sitting on 26 square miles of some of the most valuable land anywhere, is certainly a town of contrasts.
The city doesn’t have a mayoral election. Instead, the council members, some of whom identify as slow-growth “residentialists,” install one of their own as mayor for a one-year term. Now it’s Patrick Burt’s turn, and he’s making the most of it. “Big tech companies are choking off the downtown,” he told the New York Times.
Right before the mayor went rogue, one of the city’s planning commissioners, Kate Downing, resigned in an open letter. Her family, she said, couldn’t afford to live in Palo Alto any longer. She’s got a point.
Michael Dreyfus, a top real-estate agent in the area, says the cheapest home for sale is a three-bedroom, one-bathroom, 959 square footer on about an eighth of an acre that backs up to train tracks. The asking price (are you sitting down?) is $1.35 million. Or he can sell you a place with five beds and four and a half baths on less than half an acre for $17.5 million. OK, that one is in desirable Old Palo Alto, but it isn’t even that old—no cobblestone streets or anything
I wanted to ask Mayor Burt: Is stifling job creation really going to help? Or would that only boost surrounding towns? Palo Alto has already capped the annual growth of office space. It took years to approve a new $5 billion Stanford Hospital extension, which the area desperately needed. Even worse, there is a funny quirk in the zoning laws that limits what’s allowed in so-called Pedestrian and Transit Oriented Development areas (downtown). This includes restrictions on research and development, a catchall for limited manufacturing, “storage or use of hazardous materials,” and “computer software and hardware firms.”
I can tell you outright that the only hazardous materials in an office of software coders are their high-test caffeine concoctions. But the software firms are many. Amazon has its search team in Palo Alto. The big-data firm Palantir has been gobbling up buildings for its engineers. Facebook had several before moving to neighboring Menlo Park. SurveyMonkey has a huge site near the train station.
Even Palo Alto’s residential areas are filled with startups, real-life versions of Erlich Bachman’s house from HBO’s “Silicon Valley.” They’re easy to spot, having more cars parked during the day than at night. These companies offer high-paying and productive jobs that are great for society.
Someone asked on Quora, the question-and-answer website—whose offices, not coincidentally, used to be right across the street from City Hall before being moved to neighboring Mountain View—“Will Palo Alto Mayor Patrick Burt really be able to ban tech companies?” One outlier’s answer included this line: “The way to moderate housing prices in the face of growing demand is to . . . build more housing.”
Mayor Burt told Curbed San Francisco that he wants “metered job growth, and metered housing growth.” To me, “metered” implies pay as you go. The city government’s job should be to build out infrastructure to meet increased demand.
The thing is that Palo Alto has plenty of room. The city reaches from the San Francisco Bay all the way up to the top of the hills holding back the Pacific Ocean. The city says that only 0.5% of “developable land” is vacant. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.
In 2011 residents passed a measure with 65% of the vote to take 10 acres of city parkland and turn it into a composting facility. If my math is right, that’s enough room for 80 “affordable” homes. Sounds like Palo Alto has room but chooses not to make it available for anyone else. It’s not exactly NIMBY—Not In My Back Yard. But maybe IGMYOOL—I Got Mine, You’re Out Of Luck. That’s the definition, I suppose, of a residentialist.
Even downtown has room: upward. Most buildings are two stories, maybe three. Only one, filled with lawyers and venture capitalists, hits 15 stories. Though there’s also City Hall, which is eight floors. I took the elevator to the seventh to see if I could drop in on Mayor Burt. Turns out mayor is a part-time job. Mr. Burt’s full-time gig is running a medical-technology company doing research and development in . . . Palo Alto. Hmmm.