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College Terrace neighborhood resident Doria Summa is well-known around town for both her skepticism of development, her neighborhood activism and her perfect willingness to be the sole dissenting vote.
The longtime land-use watchdog displays both qualities on a regular basis as a member of the Planning and Transportation Commission, where she reliably challenges and occasionally opposes developments that she believes run counter to the zoning code or a neighborhood’s wishes. She can fluently discuss the finer points of the code and the policies of the Comprehensive Plan, the city’s land-use bible.
Her knowledge and commitment to neighborhood protection both flow from her local experience. The Chicago native moved to Palo Alto in the mid-1980s and became heavily involved in her neighborhood group, the College Terrace Residents Association, ultimately becoming its president. She later served as the only resident representative on an advisory group charged with improving permitting operations in the city’s Development Center.
Other assignments followed: a seat on a citizens committee evaluating changes to the city’s Comprehensive Plan and, more recently, an appointment to a panel developing an area plan for a 60-acre portion of the Ventura neighborhood, around the former site of Fry’s Electronics. And since 2017, she has been serving on the planning commission, for which she is currently a vice chair. She makes no bones about her top priority.
“An important part of my role on the commission is to ensure that residents’ inputs, perspectives and priorities are incorporated into our recommendations to City Council,” Summa said in a response to the Weekly’s questionnaire.
Summa’s philosophy has often made her the sole dissenter on development proposals. In 2019, for example, she was the only planning commissioner to vote against a plan to replace the two-story building on El Camino Real that used to house the restaurant Compadre’s with a mixed-use development that includes 17 residences. She based her dissent on her belief that the city’s consultant erred in declaring that the 1938 adobe building is not historically significant. (“I think this could be a terrible mistake,” she said before calling for more public review.)
She was also the sole dissenter in a 2020 vote to approve a 102-apartment complex at 788 San Antonio Road and to relax zoning standards along a broader stretch of San Antonio. Though she said she supports the housing project, she suggested that the city is moving too fast in changing the zoning rules elsewhere.
“I don’t see how it can be workable in this area, particularly around traffic,” Summa said at the meeting.
Earlier this year, Summa applied her critical lens to the city’s most contentious project: Castilleja School’s contentious redevelopment plan. Having voted against the school’s proposal last November, she joined two other commissioners this year in calling for a revised proposal that would lower the school’s enrollment cap to 450. (The school, which currently enrolls 418 students, requested a gradual increase to 540 students). Summa also argued that the school should return in the future for a new permit if it wants to go beyond 450.
“It shows goodwill toward the neighbors, and I think the council will be comfortable with it,” Summa said. (The council upped the cap to 540 but accepted other restrictions supported by Summa, including the lowering of the number of special events the school is allowed to hold.)
Castilleja is not the only issue on which Summa hasn’t seen eye to eye with the current council. She is not a fan of the council’s recent agreement with the Sobrato Organization over the former Fry’s site at 340 Portage Ave., where the property owner will be able to retain most of its research-and-development space in exchange for providing the city with land for a park and a future affordable housing project.
“To me, it’s a big disappointment that after all the years that Fry’s site was zoned RM-30, what comes down the pike is loss of tens of thousands of square feet of retail and a lot more office,” Summa said in an interview.
She also called the council’s 2018 approval of a 55-apartment development on the corner of El Camino and Page Mill Road “a failure.” Envisioned as a car-light development with small units for employees who make up the “missing middle,” the development is now known as Alta Locale and charges monthly rents of more than $4,200. Even its 12 designated “below market rate” units were designated for those making more than 140% of area median income.
Summa noted that the project required the city to rezone a property that formerly had a “public facility” (PF) designation, making it suitable for parks, government buildings and public amenities.
“Those PF zones are very precious in our community,” Summa said. “I don’t think those are always the right places to put market-rate housing.”
On most land use issues, Summa’s views tend to align with those of the council’s more growth-cautious members: Tom DuBois, Eric Filseth and, most notably, Vice Mayor Lydia Kou. Like them, she has the support of Palo Altans for Sensitive Zoning, a political action committee that opposes pro-growth candidates.
Yet Summa is quick to say that she is not against change, which she views as inevitable. Recent state mandates and housing laws will ensure that more housing is built. Climate change will require the city to improve flood protection and prepare for sea level rise. And the redesign of the railroad corridor to separate rail crossings from streets will transform how we get around.
On the rail project, she generally agrees with the city’s preferred alternatives: constructing a “partial underpass” for Churchill Avenue and deferring the Palo Alto Avenue crossing until a broader study is conducted in the downtown area. She also favors constructing an underpass on Charleston Road and East Meadow crossings.
Summa isn’t daunted by the transformations to come. Palo Alto, she notes, has already changed greatly since she arrived here more than 35 years ago.
“It changed a lot but I’ve seen the zeitgeist be kind of the same,” Summa said in an interview. “Every loss of individual things is not a loss to me. It’s just a transition. It’s growth.”
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.