The phenomenon of powerful neighborhood groups holding sway over the planning process makes me question the wisdom of mixing democracy and planning. In principal, democracy should be the preferred route for making decisions about the public realm. But democracy, in large part, is about making deals among competing interests, and not all interest groups — such as people who champion affordable housing, schools, open space and urban design — are sitting at the table when homeowners cut their deals with developers. Most often, neighborhood groups view projects through the lens of their perceived self-interest, and homeowners, especially those who do not have much background in planning, tend to define their interests very narrowly. One exception to this observation, and one that makes the public process look like the best route to good planning, is the University Park residential project in Palo Alto. Covering nine separate parcels just south of downtown, University Park is a new residential neighborhood currently being built next to a mature residential area. In this case, the neighbors were understandably concerned about preserving their neighborhood. What is pleasantly surprising is that they were also concerned about creating affordable housing and increasing housing density in a city that has one of the tightest and most expensive housing markets in California. The University Park area is a nondescript area of older houses, scattered commercial properties and apartment buildings. The area stretches between busy University Boulevard, the main shopping street of downtown Palo Alto, and a neighborhood of Craftsman bungalows known locally as Professorville, in honor of the Stanford University faculty who live there. While hardly blighted, the area might be described as an older, middle-class neighborhood that has been marked by an insensitive mixture of housing and tacky commercial development. The most conspicuous of these was a multi-story medical office building built in the 1950s that was both an eyesore and painfully out of scale with the neighborhood. When Palo Alto Medical Clinic proposed expanding this building, the neighborhood quickly organized to stop the effort. The neighborhood was also worried about an increasing trend of businesses setting up shop in single-family houses as affordable office space, which threatened to bring commercial levels of traffic to neighborhoods while thinning the precious housing stock. In 1999, the city set up a task force known as the South of Forest Study Area (SOFA) that created a list of recommendations for several residential neighborhoods south of downtown Palo Alto, including University Park. Those recommendations included an emphasis on home building over commercial development and limits on the size of homes, perhaps with the intent of discouraging affluent buyers from demolishing older homes and replacing them with "McMansions." (Recall that this was the late '90s, when the dot-com millionaires still stood tall in Silicon Valley.) The Palo Alto Medical Clinic, meanwhile, decided against the construction project in the face of community protest, and put the 8.5-acre property up for sale. This provided Palo Alto a rare opportunity in city making. A local builder, SummerHill Homes, bought the clinic property late last year. For some reason, the seller set an imposing task on the buyer: Put together a development plan and get entitlements in only six months. This requirement placed enormous pressure on both the developer and the city to complete a very large job of planning and design in a comparatively short amount of time. "We took the (SOFA) recommendations as our basic blueprint, and made some modifications to fit our needs," said Ric Denman, SummerHill senior vice president. In accordance with the recommendations, the University Park development agreement is almost entirely residential and codifies a stringent formula to keep houses small. (Technically, it is a floor-to-area ratio [FAR], limiting the amount of square footage that a developer is allowed to build on a lot of certain size. Here, the FAR limits floor space within a house to one-half the size of the lot.) The modifications included changing the site of a proposed park, and relocating five historic houses in University Park onto a single block; in conformance with neighborhood wishes, the developers also agreed to preserve and restore an historic African-American church and a commercial storefront known as the French Laundry on Channing Street. More impressively, the neighborhood demonstrated its sincerity for creating a new housing resource for the city. Activists supported several types of affordable housing, including what the developer calls "studio flats," which are "granny flats" that sit atop garages. Some neighborhood activists pushed to restrict the use of the studio flats to rental use only, guaranteeing that the units would be a housing resource to the larger community. Although that effort fell short, all the granny flats have separately metered utilities and off-street parking spaces so that all can be used as legal rental units. The same activists, not without opposition, further pushed for increases in the existing density of about seven to eight units per acre to about 10 units per acre in the single-family lots and about 25 units in the multi-family sites. The up-zoning caused one home owner to complain, in all innocence, of the coming "Manhattanization" of Palo Alto. In the final version of the plan currently being built, which was approved by the Palo Alto City Council earlier this year, SummerHill is building 72 condominiums, 22 single family houses, 19 of which have rental "studio flats," together with the historic properties mentioned above. On a separate block, the city's Housing Corporation is carrying out another part of master plan by building 53 affordable rental units. On an urban design level, the project promises to replace the tattered urban texture of University Park with a coherent residential neighborhood. Of course, Palo Alto residents were not that different in many ways from other neighborhood groups with property value concerns. But, possibly because they are part of a socially conscious university crowd, these residents were willing to buck Palo Alto's strident opposition to growth in general — and multi-family homes in particular — to increase the housing stock in a desirable area. That willingness makes the University Park process the most hopeful sign I have seen yet that democracy in planning can go beyond nay saying and NIMBYism and actually arrive at an enlightened solution for an entire community. Just don't try it in my neighborhood!