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.
Brian Hamachek wants to change City Hall culture to preserve the character of the city.
More than any other candidate in the City Council race, he believes that developers hold too much sway over city leaders and that Palo Alto needs to be protected from outside influences to preserve its charm. Even on the topic of housing, which he lists as one of his top priorities, he believes that moving fast could cause more harm than good.
“I reject some of that idea that increasing housing overall benefits the city and should, therefore, override the residents who live in that area,” he told the Weekly in an interview.
A software engineer who currently works at HP, Hamachek said he was driven to run for council by a contentious project near his home: Castilleja School’s plan to reconstruct its Bryant Street campus and expand enrollment. The project took six years, encompassed more than 20 meetings and concluded in May when the council approved the school’s plan but required it to downsize its proposed underground garage, decrease the number of special events it can hold and implement a “transportation demand management” plan that ensures more students don’t equal more traffic.
These conditions were not enough to sway Hamachek, who said he would not have voted for certain elements of the proposal, including the garage. He accused the Castilleja of “bullying” the neighbors and the council of “rolling over” in granting approval.
“It doesn’t seem like the city has been responsive to the (neighbors’) very reasonable concerns. I don’t think that’s how things should be,” Hamachek said.
Castilleja is not the only project that he opposes. He is generally against relaxing height restrictions for new housing developments close to low-density neighborhoods, and he argued in a Weekly survey that Palo Alto should not “cannibalize our existing single-family home neighborhoods” to meet state mandates for new housing.
In a Sept. 22 forum organized by Palo Alto Neighborhoods, Hamachek said he rejects the notion that existing residents “should have to sacrifice” for new housing. Though he said he would support relaxing the city’s 50-foot height limit in some corridors, he would oppose it as a “blanket policy,” noting: “If someone moves into a neighborhood with a certain feel, they should be able to expect that it stays that way.”
He also casts a skeptical eye on some developments currently proposed that, in his view, don’t “fit” Palo Alto. He gives as an example the proposal to build a four-story condominium complex next to Town & Country, a project that would require the council to rezone a site that is currently designated for commercial use and raise height limit.
“I think that would totally change the feel of that area,” he told the Weekly in an interview.
He is similarly against following the lead of Redwood City and Mountain View, cities that have used area plans to add thousands of housing units and new commercial developments. He pointed to San Antonio Road, where Mountain View recently orchestrated a building boom.
“It used to be a small shopping mall. Now it looks like a wall of apartments,” Hamachek said.
Hamachek’s preferred strategy for bolstering the city’s stock of affordable housing is leaning on partnerships with large businesses for assistance and providing density bonus, fee waivers and, where appropriate, a reduction in parking requirements. Much of the effort, he said in an interview, will entail converting office space into housing. He also said he supports lowering parking requirements for new housing developments in the downtown area and bringing back the city’s shuttle program, which was eliminated during the pandemic.
Despite his advocacy for preservation of the city’s charm as he knew it growing up, Hamachek acknowledges that a certain degree of change is inevitable and, in some cases, desirable. He is fully on board with the city’s effort to expand its fiber-optic network to all parts of the city. And when it comes to grade-separation of the rail crossings, he strongly favors moving train tracks underground, an option that the council explored and discarded because of high costs.
But on land use issues, Hamachek prefers the cautious approach. He recalled in an interview that his first exchange with City Hall came during the construction of Trader Joe’s at Town & Country, a project that he opposed at that time because of its potential traffic impacts. He reached out to city officials and learned from their responses about the large number of variables that go into land use decisions. He applied three times to serve on the Planning and Transportation, most recently in 2016, but did not get the appointment.
For Hamachek, preservation isn’t just about residential neighborhoods. It’s also about business districts. He laments the departures in recent years of longtime businesses, including Keeble & Shuchat Photography, Cho’s Restaurant and The Old Pro. He supports permanently converting California Avenue into a European-style pedestrian promenade and considering a similar move for University Avenue.
“So many iconic places are closing down. Not all because of being priced out, but I think that is a big role. And I think we’re losing an important part of Palo Alto when these businesses leave because they have a legacy here, and we need to support them best we can,” he said.
While hoping to keep the city dynamic, Hamachek also says he wants to maintain its accessibility. He lamented in an interview the recent changes to the Junior Museum and Zoo, which reopened last November with new admission prices and reservation policies along with new exhibits. It used to be a place where anyone could stop by on a whim to look at animals free of charge, he said.
“Now we have this San Jose-style zoo where you have to pay, you have to plan it out ahead of time, you have to schedule your trip in advance and all exhibits are associated with the person who donated money,” he said. “That’s not the Palo Alto that I know, and I don’t think it’s the Palo Alto that a lot of people know.”
He believes his commitment to preserving Palo Alto’s lower-key feel sets him apart from the field. At a recent forum organized by Palo Alto Neighborhoods, he emphasized that he was the only candidate who was born and raised in the city.
“I think that does give me a unique perspective on the city and one that ought to be really valuable on the City Council, especially protecting the city and maintaining the character that it had when I was growing up,” Hamachek said.
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.