Palo Alto's plan to build a new police headquarters at 3045 Park Blvd. roared back to life Tuesday afternoon, May 7, when city officials and their consulting architect announced a breakthrough in designing the proposed facility, which just three weeks ago was seen as highly unlikely to meet the needs of the Police Department.
Under the proposal that the City Council's Infrastructure Committee discussed Tuesday afternoon, the new police building would be constructed by the Jay Paul Company as a "public benefit" in exchange for the city's permission to construct two, four-story office buildings with 311,000 square feet of commercial space between them. The buildings would go up at 395 Page Mill Road, next to AOL's Silicon Valley headquarters.
Tuesday's discussion came just weeks after the Infrastructure Committee, composed of four council members, learned that the site proposed for the police building may not be operationally feasible. Police Chief Dennis Burns expressed concerns that the building was being "shoehorned" into a site that would not fit the department's needs. After expressing surprise at this development, committee members agreed at their April 16 meeting to invite the city's consulting architect, Michael Ross of the firm RossDrulisCusenberry Architecture, for a presentation on the project.
Since then, the project has taken an upswing. Staff from the city and from the Jay Paul company have been revising the proposed design to make it work for the department. Burns told the committee Tuesday that officials from the police, planning, public works and the city manager's departments have "invested a tremendous amount of time" on the project and have made "significant strides."
The biggest change in the new design is that the police building is now a distinct structure. Under the prior proposal, the police headquarters was attached to a garage that was shared by the department and the office workers. Now, the department would be housed in its own building, which would be equipped with parking spaces for police vehicles. On Tuesday, Burns lauded the progress that has been made and said the project now looks like it will work.
"The building that we seek to build will meet the operational needs to serve the city for several decades," Burns said.
City Manager James Keene also voiced enthusiasm about the police building, which would replace the undersized and seismically unsafe facility at City Hall.
"We have a conclusion that a public-safety building can work on this site that is included in the proposal from the Jay Paul Company," Keene said.
The Jay Paul project, however, is far from a done deal. The council has yet to approve the development and the bulk of the environmental analysis for the giant development is just kicking off. The city expects to reach a decision on whether to approve the new office buildings next spring. At the same time, the Infrastructure Committee is exploring a possible bond measure for citywide infrastructure improvements that would be placed on the November 2014 ballot, an effort that could involve the police-building proposal.
The police headquarters is seen by the council as one of the most significant infrastructure needs in a city full of them. But Palo Alto's effort to build one has proved fruitless for more than a decade, with one proposal after another falling by the wayside. The most recent plan, which involved two Park Boulevard sites (not 3045 Park), collapsed in 2009 when the city opted to scrap its purchase option on the parcels.
Ross, who had been involved in Palo Alto's prior efforts to identify a suitable site for a new police headquarters, told the council Tuesday that he and Jay Paul's architect, Tom Gilman from the firm DES, have been working on a design that Ross believes "is really going to deliver a good public-safety building and a functional site to your town."
At the April 16 meeting, Ross said, there were still a lot of "loose ends' that needed to be tied up.
"We've taken the last two weeks to do that," Ross said.
Among the goals was making sure that the new public-safety building will be an "essential facility" capable of operating during a disaster and sufficient in size to accommodate all patrol vehicles.
"We wanted to have everything that is necessary for first-responder operations to be within this essential shell," Ross said.
Council members praised the recent developments. Marc Berman said that while the prior presentation "might have given us a heart attack," the progress since then has been good. Berman, who served on the 17-member citizens' Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission that developed a comprehensive report on the city's needs, called a new police building "vitally important for the future of the city."
"I think the entire exercise adds a lot of value, in terms of our ability to comfortable move forward in knowing it's a sufficient site," Berman said.
Mayor Greg Scharff also praised the work of the various architects and staff members who contributed to the evolving design of the proposed public-safety buidling.
"I think the solution-oriented approach is really great to see -- when everyone works as a team and comes up with something that works well," Scharff said.