New mayor has a long “to do” list — helping La Comida, boosting small shopping areas, increasing code enforcement

Daily Post Staff Writer

New Palo Alto Mayor Lydia Kou is taking center stage in the council chambers with a list of priorities, and not all of them align with the city’s current direction.

“There are a lot of people in the community, as well as staff, that need to be reminded who it is that we’re representing and who it is that we’re working for,” she said. “I want to bring it back home: It’s about the residents in Palo Alto.”

Kou, who was elected as mayor on Monday, started an interview with the Post yesterday by pulling out a copy of the city’s organizational chart, with the residents on the top. Council is below the residents, and city employees are below council.

Throughout the year, Kou said she wants the city to have town hall meetings with residents to build up trust and explain what it takes to get projects done.

She then went through a list of her top priorities.

“There are so many priorities that I’ve wanted to put forward, so I have to look at things that I can make happen and that sound reasonable to my colleagues,” said Kou, who is in her seventh year on council.

• Evaluate the city’s agreements with nonprofits and regional boards

Kou said she is particularly interested in finding a dining room in northern Palo Alto for La Comida, a nonprofit that serves meals to seniors.

La Comida was kicked out of the Avenidas senior center at 450 Bryant St. in 2017, so seniors in northern Palo Alto have picked up their meals in to-go boxes for the last few years.

“They’re kind of like wandering Gypsys: They don’t have a place to go,” Kou said. “Having them have a permanent place here in north Palo Alto is something I’m going to be working on.”

Kou said she wants the city to push Avenidas to provide a dining room, as the senior center was developed after La Comida started serving meals 50 years ago.

Avenidas has a five-year, $2.6 million contract with the city to run the senior center until 2025.
Kou said she wants to look at all nonprofits that get money from the city and whether they’re providing a benefit to the public.

She also wants to explore the pros and cons of the city paying dues to regional groups such as the Cities Association of Santa Clara County and the League of California Cities.

“What are we doing in these organizations, and how are they actually benefitting Palo Alto?” she said.

The city pays $18,314 to the county association and $20,859 to the statewide league each year. Lobbying for and against state laws is the main purpose of both groups.

• Protect the natural environment

Council last year updated its “sustainability and climate action plan” that focuses on converting buildings from natural gas to electric appliances and continuing to have residents buy electric cars.

Kou is skeptical of technology that has been touted as a solution to climate change. She said she had her interns look at where electric car batteries end up, and they struggled to find an answer.

Kou also had concerns about the impact of making and disposing of solar panels and cloth bags.

She wants the climate plan expanded to focus on the natural environment. The city should preserve mature trees, expand marshes in the Baylands to protect against sea level rise and reduce the brightness of nighttime lights, because studies have shown lights harm birds and insects, she said.

Kou said she was excited that beavers were recently spotted in Matadero Creek, and she also heard that a fox was in town.

Kou wants to create more parks by requiring developers to donate land next to their developments rather than paying a fee to the city to improve parks elsewhere.

If a property is too small for a park, then Kou suggested that developers in the same area work together to donate one park that could serve residents of multiple developments.

• Focus housing efforts on populations with the greatest need

Most new housing in California should get built in places that have lower land values and that would benefit from economic development — not Palo Alto, Kou said.

“We can’t have infinite growth when we have a finite planet,” she said.

Instead, the city should focus on building subsidized housing for very low-income residents or specific populations, like the disabled or homeless, Kou said.

The housing market is complicated by international investors and other factors, and increasing the supply of market-rate housing won’t lower rents, she said.

“It’s very simplistic just to think we can build build build our way out and not have the prices keep on climbing,” she said.

Kou said she wouldn’t stand in the way of a state mandate to allow 6,000 new homes in Palo Alto over the next eight years, but she doesn’t like the state’s method of counting units and ignoring amenities, like parks and shopping.

Kou said developers should reserve 30% or 35% of their units at a below-market rate.

Cities have struggled to get even 20% affordability, as developers say a larger ratio of rent-restricted units means their projects won’t make enough money to get built.

• Hire more code enforcement officers

Kou said she wants to hire at least five code enforcement officers to respond to complaints about gas-powered leaf blowers, idling cars and buildings that aren’t following their permits.

The city has funding for three code enforcement officers, but that isn’t enough in a city of Palo Alto’s size, Kou said.

Speeding cars is also a problem, but that would be handled by police officers, she said.

• Support resident-serving businesses

Rather than focusing on Palo Alto’s two downtowns, Kou wants the city’s economic consultants to look at how to improve the Midtown, Charleston and Edgewood shopping centers.

These shopping centers serve neighborhoods and allow residents to stay in town to shop, she said.

She’s looking forward to the consultants coming back with a long-term plan, 10 or 20 years, for attracting businesses that residents want.

“It’s not only big tech companies that we should focus on,” she said.

Kou, 56, was elected in 2016 and 2020, so this is her final term.

As mayor, Kou will run meetings and set the agenda along with City Manager Ed Shikada. Vice Mayor Greer Stone will be her stand-in.

Kou was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Sudan and Guam before moving to Palo Alto in 1998. She is a realtor and a property manager and lives in the Midtown neighborhood with her husband.


  1. I understand her point that Cities Association of Santa Clara County and the League of California Cities ought to benefit us in some way, but I am concerned that if we decide to pull out of them that we further our image as a city that only cares about itself and doesn’t work well with others.

    • Who cares what our “Image” is to the other cities? We should re-purpose that money so that it solves problems for residents, like fixing potholes or extending library hours or finding warm places for the homeless to sleep. If you’re worried about “image,” I’d rather that we have an image of fixing problems and making life better for people that the image of a government that’s busy on regional boards that are meaningless to people.

  2. If Mayor Kuo wants to make things happen for Palo Alto residents, she should prioritize the Cubberley site for future development as a community center. Such development should include increasing the City’s ownership of the site from PAUSD in a fiscally responsible way. The current Cubberley buildings are at the end of their useful life and it is time for renovating Cubberley. Actions speak louder than words!

    • Ken, I think she’s trying to accomplish things that can get done in our lifetimes. Palo Altans will be arguing over Cubberley well into the 22nd century. Do you really think that could be done in a year? You need to take into account the history of Cubberley and the constant squabbling by residents. I’m glad her list contains things that can be done now, not 100 years from now when we’re all using Transporters to get around, and instead of walking, we’ll be levitating down sidewalks.

  3. 1. “Kou wants to create more parks by requiring developers to donate land next to their developments rather than paying a fee to the city to improve parks elsewhere…If a property is too small for a park, then Kou suggested that developers in the same area work together to donate one park that could serve residents of multiple developments.”

    Why should developers bear the burden of donating land for a park that benefits the community at large? This is like the gunman’s offer: your money or your life. In this case, it’s: if you want to develop your land in a useful way, you have to donate part of it for a park. If the part of the land is worth more in the hands of the city, then pay the developer for the land. If not, it means the property is worth more in the hands of the developer. Simple fairness bars government from forcing the developer alone to bear public expenditures which, in all fairness, should be borne by the public as a whole.

    2. “…increasing the supply of market-rate housing won’t lower rents, she [Kou] said…’It’s very simplistic just to think we can build build build our way out and not have the prices keep on climbing,’ she said.”

    Kou flunks the most fundamental principle of economics, that when supply increases, prices will go down. The main reason why housing is so expensive around here is due to the heavy hand of government regulation on the operation of housing markets through tools like zoning, endless permitting requirements, and the city’s system of exactions and restrictions.

    If Kou wants to fix these problems, the first order of business is remove any and all permit restrictions on housing that are not related to public health and safety.

  4. Good for Ms. Koufofor working to preserve and improve local resident0serving shopping — and by extension sales taz revenues.

    Ms Kou;s point about the need for affordablee housing is well-taken, esp since there’s no proof that increasing the amount and density of market-rate housing will cause housing prices to fall. If there was, high-density cities like Manhattan, Tokyo etc.etc would be bargains rather than the most expensive in the world.

    Why should developers bear the cost of parks? You might also ask why residents and neighbors should bear the costs and inconvenience of greedy developers who ckaim there’s no need for them to provide parking because no one wants cars (which is of course nonsense at least for many decades and until there’decent public transist.

    Oddly, the sane people who insist on density in the name of making everything more affordable just cut funding for it whike barring cities from changing the absurd housing mandates that don’t relect the tanking economy,layoffs, construction slowdown…

    Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom, facing a projected $22.5 billion deficit, released a new budget proposal calling for $350 million in reductions from the $11.2 billion set aside for affordable housing programs over the next few years.

  5. OMG, Jam, do you honestly believe “there’s no proof that increasing the amount and density of market-rate housing will cause housing prices to fall.” There are numerous studies by researchers on the left, right and center that show an increase in supply reduces rents. Here’s a recent one:

    Building more housing lowers rents for everyone


    This nearly rounds up all of the recent research on the subject:

    New Round of Studies Underscore Benefits of Building More Housing

    June 2, 2021

    The law of supply-and-demand actually works. Make more of something and the price goes down, if supply and demand are the only two factors.

    Rents are higher in big cities because the lack of land raises the price of construction beyond what the market can bear.

  6. Good for her, Kou has been listening. League of Cites et al., don’t benefit Palo Altans in any way, and their purpose is to impose the will of state electeds on local government, and had a large role in reducing public comment times during the pandemic. Palo Alto has all the brains, the money, and all the power and yet it’s council constantly votes against its own people’s best interests. Until this week Tanaka & Eshoo seemed to be the only ones that understood that, good to see Kou has a brain too.

  7. OMG, Ann, do you honestly believe that deep pocketed lobbyists never use to statistics and studies to lie to push their goals? I could fill this post box with citations to books and video re “How to Lie with Statistics” but you could do that yourself.

    Do you honestly beiieve that scraping rent-controlled apartments to replace them with $5K a month apartments /$2 million condos is lowering the price of housing?

    Do you honestly believe that the companies who spent literally hundreds of millions of dollars to DENY their gig workers benefits and unemployment insurance did so because they “care” more about their workers than their bottom line?

    • It’s hard to argue with people who believe in conspiracy theories because as soon as you present evidence to them that refutes their claims, they make up another story. If you don’t believe in the idea of supply-and-demand, which was advanced by Adam Smith in the 1700s, I’m not going to be able to help you. So believe what you want.

      • Ann, you’re not understanding JAM’s point. He or she says that “deep pocketed lobbyists” influenced people even in the 18th century like Adam Smith, George Washington, Peter The Great, Marquis de Lafayette and even Mozart and Bach. Those “deep pocketed lobbyists” were everywhere. Of course they made up the law of supply and demand. There’s no evidence to support it whatsoever! I’d write more, but after waiting in line at In And Out, I’m about at the window. No proof of supply and demand here!

  8. The issue isn’t supply and demand; if you build enough, of course prices will fall. The issue is the “enough” part, and the implied assumption that just getting rid of zoning and CEQA will spur the private sector to build so much new supply that prices actually fall enough that low and mid-income workers can afford them.

    Alas, the Libertarian Dream – remove regulations and the private market will solve our social problems for us – doesn’t happen in this area. Private developers simply will not build so much housing that rents fall – they need those rents to cover their project costs. Even studies that do find price impacts from upzoning, and many don’t, find at most small impacts, and usually located elsewhere than the upzoning itself (“moving chains”).

    Private-developer economics support “A” housing for “A” earners; upzoning and CEQA tweak the margins enough to produce modest developer profits on modest amounts of expensive housing, but not enough to help low and mid-income workers, which is why American cities have tried so hard for so long to operate public housing. Even the few units you get from BMR inclusion rates are often gamed by making those “120% AMI” which is essentially market rate anyway (see: 2755 El Camino Real – “BMR” units got a $50/mo discount from $3,000+/mo).

    Kou’s words may be inexact, but she’s essentially right: there’s no free lunch. If you want affordable housing, then it has to actually be paid for – which Kou’s entire tenure on City Council has been in support of, and unlike some so-called “advocates” who piously call for Affordable Housing while simultaneously opposing business taxes and impact fees to fund it.

  9. Public housing always turns out bad. Google “Cabrini Green”. Go to any town in America and if you want drugs or a hooker, find the public housing project. Let’s avoid this in Palo Alto.

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