Two city-owned parking lots on Sherman Avenue would make way for Palo Alto's new police headquarters, a parking structure and possibly a tiny park under a proposal that the City Council embraced Monday night.
In the latest milestone in the city's long quest to address its infrastructure emergency, the council unanimously directed staff to move ahead with constructing a three-story public-safety building that will also include the administrative offices of the Palo Alto Fire Department, the Office of Emergency Services and the Emergency Operation Center.
The project has been decades in the making. The existing police headquarters inside City Hall is famously cramped and seismically deficient. During the past two decades, at least six different studies have confirmed that the city needs a new police headquarters, most recently the 2011 report from the specially appointed Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission, which described the existing police hub as "unsafe and vulnerable."
But the search for a replacement has been frustrating and circuitous, dogged by economic hardships and lack of suitable sites. In 2009, the council flirted with the idea of building a police headquarters on Park Avenue, a plan that fizzled when the economy collapsed and the city withdrew from its lease option in the two properties (they have since been bought by Jay Paul Company, which is now planning on constructing an office development).
Since then, staff has analyzed more than 20 different sites, including near the the Los Altos Treatment Plant and along San Antonio Road. Last year, it adopted an infrastructure plan that names the public-safety building as the highest priority and in May, the council chose the the city-owned Sherman Avenue sites, which are located between Birch and Ash streets in the California Avenue business district.
On Monday night, the council reaffirmed its decision on the Sherman Avenue site and unanimously gave its nod of approval to a three-story design for the new public-safety building. The other option on the table was a two-story design that, while shorter, would have a larger footprint and require zoning exceptions. The three-story building, which would be roughly 45 feet in height (along with a parapet for equipment), is also favored by top staff from the city's public-safety departments. It would have a floor area of 45,454 square feet and a garage with 194 parking spaces.
In addition to moving ahead with the police building, staff was directed to pursue a parking structure on an adjoining lot, a project intended to compensate the California Avenue area for the lost parking spots and to address the parking pains associated with its recent vitality.
While the details of the parking structure have not yet been worked out, the council generally favored a garage with two levels of underground parking and retail on the ground floor. The new parking structure would include 460 parking spots, 160 more than is currently available on the two parking lots.
Michael Ross, an architect with the firm Ross Drulis Cusenbery Architecture and the city's long-time consultant on this project, said the three-story version offers several advantages over the two-story one. The building would be more compact; it would allow for future expansion of department operations; and it would have an operational basement with prisoner processing and other support functions, he said.
"In my professional opinion, both of these sites are suitable for the development of a public-safety building and parking garage and in many aspects superior to many of the sites we studied over the past few years," Ross said
Councilman Marc Berman, who served on the Infrastructure Committee before being elected to the council, observed that the existing police headquarters inside City Hall was already obsolete on the day it was built more than 50 years ago. The site on Sherman, while not perfect, is suitable for accommodating the new building, which has long been identified as the city's top infrastructure priority, he said. Berman particularly appreciated the flexibility that the three-story design allows.
"We're talking about building a public-safety building for the next 50 years," Berman said. "I think it's important that we build a public-safety building that can grow to additional needs that we can't anticipate today."
While the need for the public-safety building has remained steady, the cost estimates have been steadily rising. The council's infrastructure plan budgeted $57 million for the new public-safety building and another $9.6 million for a California Avenue garage. In today's heated construction market, the two projects have a combined budget of between $72 million and $97 million, according to staff.
The rising costs have not, however, dented the council's enthusiasm for a new public-safety building. While budget woes ended up sinking the city's 2009 bid for a new public-safety building, the city's economy is now soaring, with tax revenues significantly rising in every tax category.
Councilman Pat Burt noted that the rising hotel-tax revenues (buttressed by both new hotels and a 2014 measure that raised the tax rate from 12 to 14 percent) "should cover the difference and more between what had been our budget and what is likely to be the numbers."
Councilman Tom DuBois, the sole council member who favored the two-story building, was also the minority in expressing concerns about the rising costs.
"I think we can have a nice facility, but if there is a place to save money, we should start looking at those now," DuBois said.
Councilman Greg Scharff said the rising costs are to be expected. Because of the construction climate, costs up around 30 percent in every area. The council should assume that this project, like others, will be more expensive than when it was first budgeted (In fact, immediately after the discussion of the public-safety building, the council voted to cease negotiations with the design team working on the new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 because of rising costs).
"It doesn't mean anyone is wasting money or building a Taj Mahal," Scharff said. "I think it means construction costs have gone up."
At the same time, several council members made a case for making the building aesthetically pleasing. Mayor Karen Holman said the new public-safety building should satisfy all of the city's architectural standards. And Burt suggested that a proposed plaza in front of the police headquarters be instead converted into an "active little mini park."
"It can really be a great asset to the California Avenue area," Burt said.