A decade ago, at the close of 2009, Palo Alto was reeling from a series of suicides among its youth, Facebook was settling into the Stanford Research Park, the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center in south Palo Alto had just opened its doors and Dennis Burns (now retired) was completing his first year as police chief.
Much has happened since then.
With this retrospective of the top stories of the past decade, we take a quick walk down memory lane, focusing on those events whose impact reverberated for years. Here’s a final look back before crossing the threshold into 2020.
An early-morning plane crash into an East Palo Alto neighborhood on Feb. 17 killed three Tesla employees, caused a fire at a preschool and damaged two other homes. Miraculously, no one on the ground was killed or seriously injured. The crash occurred after the twin-engine Cessna took off in fog from Palo Alto Municipal Airport, its wing clipped a power line and the plane hit a PG&E tower. Power was knocked out to all or parts of Menlo Park, Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Stanford and Mountain View. The incident exposed the vulnerability of Palo Alto’s infrastructure and prompted city leaders to discuss creating an alternative power source in the event of another disaster.
In an unusual clash, Palo Alto’s environmentalists split into two camps over whether a site near the Baylands should be used to build a waste-to-energy plant or conserved as open space. The battle culminated in Measure E, a November election in which proponents of the plant prevailed, resulting in the city setting aside 10 acres for a possible facility. While it has not been built, the vote continues to shape Palo Alto’s waste-treatment policies, with the city now considering building a recycled-water plant at the site.
Billionaire developer John Arrillaga came to city of Palo Alto staff in 2011 with an ambitious and zone-busting plan: a request to build two giant office towers and a theater at 27 University Ave., near the downtown Caltrain station. Staff held a series of private meetings with Arrillaga’s team, as City Council members later did, and in 2012 floated the idea of a city election on the project for the following June. But when residents learned about the project — and the opaque process — they came out in force, prompting the council to nix the project. The doomed project also marked a turning point for Palo Alto’s commercial boom, with developer Jay Paul subsequently withdrawing its own proposal for a major office development near Page Mill Road in the face of public opposition.
In an election battle that reshaped both Palo Alto’s political landscape and its zoning rules, voters overturned the City Council’s approval of a housing development on Maybell Avenue. The project, which included 60 apartments for low-income seniors and 12 single-family homes, was proposed by the Palo Alto Housing Corporation, which in the election’s aftermath focused on building projects in Mountain View and Redwood City instead. After the defeat at the polls, the council summarily axed the “public community” zoning process, which many developers had relied on in the past to win approval of large developments that exceeded the city’s zoning laws.
The start of a youth suicide cluster in late 2014, the second in five years, threw the Palo Alto community into action. Students became outspoken advocates for mental health reform — telling their peers “It’s OK to not be OK” — while their schools worked to alleviate academic stress and offer more support services. In the wake of the deaths by suicide came much change: campus wellness centers, school schedule changes, student advocacy groups, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigation into youth suicide, new social-emotional learning curricula and a heightened awareness of mental illness.
Buena Vista Mobile Home Park almost closed in 2015 after the Palo Alto City Council approved in May a resident-relocation plan submitted by the park’s owners. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors and the Palo Alto City Council tried to save the park by approving $14.5 million each toward the purchase of the park, but the owners rejected the offer in September. The Buena Vista Residents Association, which represented the 400 mostly low-income residents, filed an August lawsuit against the city challenging the council’s May closure decision. The court papers kept accruing: By November, the park owners also sued the city over its May decision, claiming the requirements were unconstitutional and tantamount to extortion. But all worked out in the end, with a $40.4 million deal inked in 2017 that preserved the mobile-home park.
When Santa Clara County Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Brock Turner to six months in county jail and three years of probation for the sexual assault of an unconscious and intoxicated woman on the Stanford University campus, he set off a firestorm whose embers continue to smolder. The sentencing, decried internationally as unjust and lenient, prompted protests, legislative changes and, eventually, Persky’s recall. The sentencing is now held up as an example of the mistreatment of survivors of sexual violence by the criminal justice system.
Turmoil in the Palo Alto school district reached its peak in 2017. There was the avoidable staff error that cost the district up to $6 million in unbudgeted union pay increases; a sexual-assault case at Palo Alto High School; the hotly debated and emotional decision to rename David Starr Jordan and Terman middle schools; and a spate of mid-year departures and end-of-year retirements of key staff, not to mention the early exit of Superintendent Max McGee in the wake of all of the upheaval. The district spent many months recovering from the build up of community distrust, low staff morale and general disruption.
Longtime residents of the historic President Hotel Apartments in downtown Palo Alto learned in June that they would have to vacate their apartments by November as part of a plan by the new owner, AJ Capital Partners, to convert the iconic building into a luxury hotel. Despite a grassroots uproar about the loss of housing, the developer proceeded with the plan, prompting evictions of all residents.
Editor’s note: The initial caption for the photo on Measure D incorrectly stated the position of the people featured in the image. They supported the Maybell project. Palo Alto Online regrets the error.
Read more of our year-in-review coverage:
- Palo Alto’s biggest, weirdest and wildest stories of 2019
- A year in Shop Talk: The openings and closings of 2019
- An interview with a rat — and other reporters tales: What Weekly reporters did to get a few of this year’s stories
- In Memoriam: A tribute to remarkable figures of the Midpeninsula
- Rising to the occasion: Photos illustrate how Palo Alto persevered in 2019
- Odd stories from 2019 we wish came straight from our imaginations