Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Of The People, By the People, For the People?

Downtown Los Altos, California, summer 2011.

In my little hometown, we've been living a construction nightmare for a year. Based on the letters to our local paper, the Los Altos Town Crier, the majority of our citizens have been mystified, then angry, to see every downtown intersection torn up during the past twelve months.

This is partly because our city installed new sidewalks and benches downtown just ten years ago. 

Lots of people liked them. Ten years is a very short half-life for sidewalks and intersections in a town of only 28,000 people.

Well, now we have new zebra crosswalks. We used to have the painted kind which stayed neat and tidy because they could always be repainted with a couple of bucks worth of Benjamin Moore.  

Our new ones, which caused interminable traffic tie-ups during their installation, are made of some sort of faux stone which is so porous that after a few months of use they are now stained with the inevitable splashes of soda, ice cream, chai tea, coffee, and car oil that follow wherever there is foot and car traffic.

The intersection of Second and Main Street in Los Altos, California with our "new" zebra crosswalks.

In other words, after all that construction, and all those millions of dollars, our intersections now look like they belong in the dirty parking lot of a wrong-side-of-town strip mall.

The city council that approved this, also approved the removal of some on-street parking so they could build "bump-outs" at some of the corners. Now, with fewer places to park, this same city council says we really need to build multi-million dollar high rise parking garage. And aren't those pretty?

Along First Street, the main route through town, the work was supposed to be completed before the holiday shopping season. But it isn't. Thus merchants, who were sold these changes as big improvements for local shoppers and thus told they would bring a boost to their businesses are frantic. After a year of no shoppers due to the construction--not to mention the dubious economy--they now face a disincentive for locals to go downtown during Christmas.

The new 45' office-and-condo building going up adjacent to one of our parking plazas. 

And this first controversy--replacing sidewalks and intersections that were not in need of repair or replacement--doesn't even touch on the new three-and-four-story buildings we've all spotted rising like giant intergalactic aliens amidst the one-and-two-story adobe buildings of our historic downtown.

But worse is yet to come. This same city council has approved a "Master Plan" to tear down our entire City Hall, youth center and police station, as well as our beloved apricot orchard, to build an $81M "Phase One Community Center Plan" including new and larger versions of the above as well as a new senior center--and to slip this past the voters with a propaganda campaign devised by a consultant which mentions nothing but the goals of  "helping to keep our seniors independent" and "helping to speed our police officers' abilities to respond quickly in emergencies." Indeed.

In other words, the taxpayers of Los Altos just paid a consultant a $100,000 to figure out how to sell themselves a bond issue by telling themselves as little about it as possible.

Our present City Hall and police station sit behind a traditional Santa Clara Valley apricot orchard, a living monument to our valley's agricultural roots.

I honestly thought these kind of tactics were only found in Washington D.C., where I once covered budget bills passed at 2:00 a.m,  or in big corrupt eastern cities. As a result, I've been tossing and turning the last few nights and wondering how this charming little town--where my parents found refuge after the trials of World War II--managed to lose control of its government.

I can only deduce that power and greed are irresistible motivators, even in a small town. If we are very generous, perhaps we can rack it up to bad judgment.

Yet, I retain faith in my fellow citizens and believe once they are informed about what is going on, they will turn their puzzlement in to anger and their anger into energy and their energy into action. Both Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill prevailed when the enemy inside their governments was almost as demoralising at the enemy without.

The Los Altos City Hall and the apricot orchard is slated to be torn down, for two more years of construction, as part of the $81M "Phase One" of a Master Plan approved by our city council.

For now, our local leaders are sowing the wind. I look forward to the follow up. That's when those who sow the wind, must reap the whirlwind.

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Don Meuler said...

Occupy Los Altos! Have you considered running for city council? Not really kidding here - the voting booth is a great place to express outrage and actually accomplish something.

Robin Chapman said...

With luck, we can beat this the old-fashioned way: with the power of the majority voters. I don't know if we need a new community center, city hall, youth center etc. etc. But I don't like paying for marketing being used to propagandize myself. A genuine discussion would be helpful--but that isn't what we are having.

Devon C. said...

Is the city council blind to what benefits they already have? Definitely need a new city council.

Robin Chapman said...

I think a number of us are trying to determine the "why" behind all this. There aren't a lot of possibilities. You've suggested one. Corruption and greed might be another. The only other one I can think of it just because they can--and that doesn't sound logical to me.