Check out Palo Alto Online’s City Council Voter Guide for comparisons of all seven candidates’ views on housing, rail crossings, sustainability and public safety.
Realtor Alex Comsa likes to think big.
If he has his way, the Palo Alto Airport in the Baylands would be transformed into a residential community with about 6,000 dwellings; Stanford Shopping Center would be redeveloped to include housing on upper floors; and Cubberley Community Center would see an influx of apartments.
City Hall operations would undergo some significant changes as well. Instead of focusing on things like expansion of its fiber network, a project that Comsa does not see as necessary, city leaders will spend more time coming up with creating ways of putting public land to better use, both to generate revenue and to tackle problems like the city’s severe housing shortage. He wants the city to hire a team for a new Real Estate division that would be tasked with working on these projects and negotiating with large landowners like Stanford University.
Comsa is new to politics, but he believes his own experiences in real estate, as both a Realtor and a consultant on land use projects, would serve the city well if he were on the City Council. His goal, he said, would be to turn currently dormant city assets into productive ones.
“I truly believe we need to look at larger projects and really be in the driver’s seat again instead of looking at infill projects and being at mercy of developers,” Comsa told the Weekly in an interview.
Comsa, a native of Romania who lives in the Community Center neighborhood, believes Palo Alto is ripe for fresh thinking, particularly on housing. The council’s current approach, in his view, hasn’t always worked.
He cited as an example Alta Locale, the development on the corner of El Camino and Page Mill Road that was envisioned as a car-light “workforce housing” community with relatively affordable rents. The fact that it now charges more than $4,200 for its units, even those that are technically in the “affordable housing” category, is a sign that the council’s experiment with workforce housing has failed.
“I’m not sure we’re in the position of experimenting with Palo Alto’s future when we have 6,000 homes to be added over the next eight years,” Comsa said. “That’s a perfect example of a project that I would not have approved as it was approved.”
More so than other candidates, Comsa has been critical of the city’s plan to meet its Regional Housing Needs Allocation of 6,086 new housing units by 2031. In response to a Weekly questionnaire, he wrote that the plan “reflects the utter lack of real estate expertise and demonstrates how not having a real estate development office is hurting the city.”
His own proposals, however, don’t shy away from experimentation. The Palo Alto Airport, which he believes can accommodate up to 6,000 residences, including 1,500 affordable-housing units, and 20 acres of open space, is not a dormant asset to the pilots who use it or to the city administrators who have been working over the past decade to take the facility over from Santa Clara County and put it on sounder financial footing. There’s also the biggest question of whether the Baylands, an environmentally sensitive open space preserve, is a suitable location for a major housing boom.
Stanford Shopping Center is another place that he sees as a potential site for a housing influx. But unlike the airport, it’s not owned by the city, and anything the city does would need buy-in from mall operator Simon Properties and landowner Stanford University. Comsa wants to see the posh shopping center turned into something like Santana Row in San Jose, with retail, restaurants, bars and live music on the ground floor and four or five levels of housing on top. He thinks the city can get Simon to the table for such a proposal, which he estimates would convert a $1 billion asset into one valued at more than $6 billion.
“And our city will take advantage when it comes to property taxes coming our way in that property,” Comsa said.
While making better use of city real estate is high on his priority list, so is public safety. He recalled in a Weekly questionnaire an episode last fall when his son’s bicycle was stolen and he tried to get police to help him, to no avail. He ultimately found the bike being sold online, walked to the seller’s house and called the police on his way to request an officer. He ultimately got a ride back from an officer, with the bike in tow.
“Every time I open NextDoor or other platforms, I see nothing but crimes every other day,” Comsa said. “It’s really depressing. I also talk to business owners downtown, and it is also depressing to see shelves in CVS being blocked for $15 items.”
Here too, he wants a different approach and more reliance on technological solutions. In addition to boosting staff, he wants the city to invest heavily in license plate readers and to use artificial intelligence to analyze crime trends and deploy officers.
“It’s perplexing to me that someone commits a crime at Stanford Shopping Center, drives through Palo Alto for 20 minutes to (U.S. Highway) 101 and we’re not able to catch any of these guys,” Comsa said.
Though he is a political newcomer, Comsa does not see that as a problem. He has been vigorously campaigning in recent months in local neighborhoods and commercial districts, and his list of endorsers includes two dozen business owners based in downtown and California Avenue (these include Zola, Terun, Printers Cafe and the Patio). Comsa said that his lack of involvement with established political groups is, if anything, an asset because it ensures his independence. Many people he speaks to believe that the council is currently split “5-1-1,” with Alison Cormack and Greg Tanaka often dissenting and the rest of the council generally in alignment and tilted toward slow city growth.
“It shouldn’t be like that,” Comsa said. “We’re here to serve the community and do what’s best for the community, regardless of your (ideological) principles or the political party behind you and so forth.”
• Stay tuned: The Palo Alto Weekly’s endorsements in this race will be published on Oct. 7.
This article was originally published by Palo Alto Online.