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.
In a seven-candidate race with zero incumbents, Ed Lauing is the closest thing Palo Alto has to a City Hall veteran.
Over his 15 years of service, Lauing has literally played a central role in wrestling with issues big (how to plan for 6,086 new housing units), small (should new accessory dwelling units be allowed to have basements?) and seemingly small on a grand scale but actually big on a local scale (should Castilleja School be allowed to rebuild its campus and increase student enrollment?).
Sitting in the central chair behind the dais in the Council Chambers, the executive recruiter is well accustomed to weighing the pros and cons of Palo Alto’s hot topic of the moment, steering the discussion and crafting motions that would bring the issue to a resolution.
He is also not new to campaigning. Two years ago, Lauing ran for council and fell just short, finishing fifth in a 10-person race for four seats. His main takeaway from that experience?
“I learned not to campaign in the pandemic, where 100% of the campaign is done in interviews,” Lauing told the Weekly. “The few times I tried to go door to door, ringing the doorbell with my mask on, stepping back, they still didn’t answer the door mostly.”
Now, he is enjoying going out into the community and meeting voters over coffee and social events.
“You can just really listen to their emotions on certain things.”
As a planning commissioner, he is no stranger to navigating deeply emotional issues. The Castilleja project, which the council approved in May after more than 20 meetings spanning six years, was a prime example. On one side were residents who argued that the school was asking for far too many exemptions and that its reconstruction plan, which includes an underground garage, was incompatible with the single-family neighborhood. On the other were school administrators and supporters who said the project would enhance both the school and the neighborhood while giving more young women a chance to obtain world-class education.
Lauing, whose approach tends toward caution and moderation, ultimately voted to approve the project but sided with colleagues who thought the enrollment should be capped at 450, well short of the 540 requested by Castilleja.
“It is time for this thing to close and it is time for some approval to be made,” Lauing said at an April meeting. “There’s an effective way to do that around this 450 number for now.”
Lauing is similarly moderate when it comes to housing. Affordable housing, he often says, is his top priority, and enabling more below-market-rate units is Palo Alto’s most effective way to address what he calls a “housing emergency.”
He strongly supported Wilton Court, a 59-apartment affordable-housing development that is now nearing completion at 3703 El Camino Real, and he wants to see the city enter into partnerships with large corporations and developers to obtain the funding that would be needed to subsidize more below-market-rate housing projects.
He is less gung-ho about market-rate developments, though as a commissioner he voted to advance several of them. These include a 102-apartment complex at 788 San Antonio Road and associated zone changes on the eastern segment of San Antonio that loosen development standards for residential projects. In doing so, however, he has consistently argued that any residential boom be accompanied by planning for transportation improvements. He only voted for the zone adjustments on San Antonio after his colleagues agreed to include transportation planning as part of the final motion.
Lauing also said he was “delighted” to advance a 48-condominium development at 2850 Bayshore Road despite findings by the Architectural Review Board that the project lacks a “unified and coherent design” and fails to ensure safety for pedestrians and bicyclists. (Because of recent state laws, the city no longer has the power to deny housing projects based on subjective standards of this sort.) He praised the project, which is replacing an office building, for solving a “double whammy” when it comes to correcting the city’s high jobs-to-housing imbalance.
Though housing is at the center of his campaign, on issues that involved a split between the commission’s pro-growth and slow-growth members, Lauing has tended to side with the latter. In November 2020, for example, he was one of only two commissioners who voted to reject the Castilleja project in its earlier iteration. And in 2018, he was part of a four-member majority that recommended not creating an “affordable housing” zoning district until more analysis could be performed.
Much like Mayor Pat Burt, who is endorsing his campaign, Lauing gravitates toward the center when it comes to both policy and City Hall politics. Before joining the planning commission, he spent seven years on the Parks and Recreation Commission, including three as chair. He helped create the city’s master plan for parks and recreation and reviewed the recent reconstruction of the municipal golf course, a project that improved flood control, emphasized the course’s Baylands setting and allowed the city to preserve 10.5 acres of land for future uses.
Lauing also serves as co-chair of the Housing Element Working Group, a citizens panel that came up with a plan for Palo Alto to meet a state mandate to plan for 6,086 new dwellings between 2023 and 2031. He supports the city’s strategies for building more housing on San Antonio but believes the council should be more engaged in negotiating with housing developers when it comes to details such as zoning exemptions and affordability of units.
“When it doesn’t pencil out, I don’t think we throw it away. I think we sit down with the developer and say, ‘What can we do?'” Lauing said in an interview.
Past Palo Alto elections have been simplistically characterized in the past as clashes between pro-growth and “residentialist” candidates. The fact that Lauing enjoys the backing of Palo Altans for Sensible Zoning, a political action committee that supports those in the slow-growth camp, could thus suggest to a casual observer that he is more aligned with the latter than the former.
But Lauing believes the conversation has shifted in just the last two years. Whether because of state mandates or personal beliefs that local teachers, police officers and firefighters should have a place to live close to work, just about everyone believes that Palo Alto needs more housing.
“I’m not hearing anybody or any neighborhood say, ‘We don’t want any housing,’ or ‘We don’t want any affordable housing.'” Lauing said in an interview.
Other priorities for Lauing include neighborhood engagement, better public safety and action on climate change. He also wants to balance the change that will need to take place with the need to keep local services affordable for local residents. He said he is troubled by recent proposals to raise ticket prices for the recently reconstructed Junior Museum and Zoo and likened this to a project that he was directly involved in as a parks commissioner: the reconstruction of the golf course. He said it was important to him to make sure that the new state-of-the-art golf course remains affordable to local residents, clubs and students. Today, the pass for locals is $76, which Lauing believes is too high.
“That’s another cautionary lesson that I learned. Even though worked on it so hard to try to keep that in place, it just got out of hand,” Lauing said. “We need to always be thinking about our own residents.”
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.