BY BRADEN CARTWRIGHT
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.