No, Palo Alto isn’t going to ban coding

A report in The New York Times on a culture clash taking place in Palo Alto set off a bit of speculation as to the possibility of “a ban on coding,” as the article put it. Well, don’t worry. That’s not going to happen.

It was Mayor Patrick Burt himself who was quoted in the piece, and whose office was reported as looking into such a ban. I contacted Burt and the city council to see if they could provide a little clarity.

“Unfortunately, the Times article did not capture accurately the issue,” he wrote in an email.

The downtown area, he explained, has never actually been zoned for “software and hardware research and development,” the category under which many tech companies fall — instead, large parts of the city have been zoned for the purpose, specifically the 10 million square feet of the Stanford Research Park. But tech companies have established themselves downtown as well, and until recently no one really made a big deal about it. A city council representative intimated much the same thing in another email.

“A couple of larger companies have decided to stay in the downtown area as they grow,” Burt wrote, “taking over nearly all office space that becomes available and driving out the local service and business service companies as well as start ups who cannot compete for that space with the larger and more affluent companies. These smaller companies have been getting driven out of the downtown, creating more of a monoculture than what has been a more diverse and vibrant environment.”

“What I and some of my colleagues on the city council are considering is to clarify and update our downtown zoning codes,” he continued. “We are interested in for the first time formally allowing ‘Research and Development’ in the downtown up to a certain size, but not allowing large corporate campus functions to take over.”

So it seems that far from banning coding downtown, the plan is to legalize it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the move couldn’t be considered hostile to some of the companies that have helped make Palo Alto the town it is today. Especially when seen in the light of another piece of regulation recently introduced that limits new office construction to 50,000 square feet per year in the same area.

What some see as unsustainable growth is reflected in, as with other tech-heavy towns, a jump in the price of living. Former Planning and Transportation Commissioner Kate Downing resigned in August, citing a lack of progress in accommodating affordable housing and other measures.

“I struggle to think what Palo Alto will become and what it will represent when young families have no hope of ever putting down roots here,” she wrote. “And meanwhile the community is engulfed with middle-aged jet-setting executives and investors who are hardly the sort to be personally volunteering for neighborhood block parties, earthquake preparedness responsibilities, or neighborhood watch. If things keep going as they are, yes, Palo Alto’s streets will look just as they did decades ago, but its inhabitants, spirit, and sense of community will be unrecognizable.”

A familiar refrain for many a resident, and not just of Palo Alto, I’d wager. Just what to do about that horrendously complicated issue is a whole other ball of yarn, of course. But with the city putting the brakes on new office development, things may slow down enough that housing and infrastructure can catch up.