Palo Alto’s density debate: Fictions of niceness

Opinion by Natasha Patel
March 1, 2015, 8:38 p.m.

Palo Alto wears a cloak of shamelessness. Its visible and fettishised layers – its emphasis on the home-grown, organic, sustainable, its productive yet laid back vibe and its newly minted motto “Healthy City, Healthy Community” – have helped elevate the city to the rank of top 100 places to live. Peel back the veil of the perfect community equipped with great schools and a frequently filled communal ballroom, and you’ll find a moral underbelly made raw from contradiction.

53 percent of Palo Alto residents self-identify as Democrats, while only 17 percent identify as Republicans. The city’s public legacy of progressivism is further established by its recent voting record and by the nearly 22 year-reign of Anna Eshoo, the area’s consistently-elected Democratic Congresswoman. Despite the region’s perceived blue-collar values, in 2013, Palo Alto residents clamored over a feat of “democracy” when it overturned a city council measure to build 60 units for low-income seniors and 12 units for single families. City members continue to mobilize around the “anti-density” movement. The movement brings together community members who have raised their voices in response to increasing construction of office space and resident-dense housing space – apartment-style buildings that are multiple stories high.

Labeling oneself as anti-density in a place of rapid economic growth does not make one a champion of small towns everywhere; rather, it highlights the greed of wealth-exclusive communities. The density debate has been rekindled this past week when the city council announced it would hear a proposal to cap new developments of research and office space on March 2nd. In the eyes of many residents, limiting new workspaces correlates to limiting new housing space for those who may end up working within these offices. Granted, the city does have important infrastructure concerns, including the congested streets and lack of parking in the downtown area.  However, when area residents argue that “high density housing” might ruin Palo Alto as a “nice place to live,” what is also being said is that affordable housing that attracts middle to lower income families ruins the niceness of expensive, low density housing – that middle to lower income families detract from niceness. Furthermore, healthy cities and healthy communities value niceness above socioeconomic diversity.

Despite opposition to population-dense building structures, at the close of 2014, Stanford was able to push through a 180 unit plan intended for space along California Avenue. While planning for this space has been in the works since at least 2005, Stanford’s ability to secure 110 luxury flat-style homes and 70 single-family homes speaks both to our university’s capabilities and its hold within the Palo Alto community.  By extension, it also speaks to our community ties and related responsibilities as students.

As Stanford students, embedded within a culture defined by fictions of perfection and progress, we must understand when the local moral code inadequately depicts the circumstances. In such a situation, we must stand outside of the local morality in the realms of ‘immorality’ or perhaps amorality and demand difference. In Palo Alto, the local morality asks us to maintain the “character of the neighborhood;” it assumes a sense of idealism about the status quo. As a reaction to the anti-density movement, a new group called Palo Alto Forward has joined in on the infrastructure and housing development conversation. While the group is pro-development, it does not list affordable housing as a priority in its platform.

In the past, other Daily columnists like Neil Chaudhary have called for students to take advantage of Stanford resources in order to mitigate the consequences of nearby gentrification. Chaudhary calls Stanford to make use of funds like the EPA Social Ventures Fellowship ($10,000) and Social Impact Grants ($1,000) to positively affect the lives of East Palo Alto residents. While I would reaffirm Chaudhary’s call to action, our involvement in this realm should extend beyond deployment of short term projects.

In some senses, Palo Altans are right to emphasize the importance of character. A serious dedication to uplifting the lives of the economically marginalized might be most aptly construed as a fact about one’s character. Long-term commitments like watchfulness of our respective purchasing power–understanding the kinds of businesses our dollars might benefit – are imperative. At the same time, I would be remiss to prioritize the individual’s action or character above all else. Undermining gentrification, a systemic problem, requires reformulating our collective sense of character: demanding affordable housing at the cost of change.

Contact Natasha Patel at natashap ‘at’ 

Natasha Patel '16 is a junior studying Philosophy and Education. She is from Bakersfield, CA and is passionate about empowering others through education, community organizing, and social justice causes. Natasha formerly served as the President of the Stanford Democrats and as an Undergraduate Senator to the ASSU. You can contact her at [email protected].

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