Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit Santa Clara County, some in Palo Alto have questioned the need for the new garage near California Avenue, a project that has been on the city's construction agenda for more than six years and that is slated for completion later this year.
In his "State of the City" speech earlier this month, Mayor Adrian Fine observed that the six-level garage, which includes two underground levels, will be the largest structure in the California Avenue business district and wondered whether the garage "will be a white elephant in a few years."
But as most businesses shut down and employees stay at home, the garage project is among those now deemed "essential" by the city. As such, work has been proceeding this week on the $50 million project, with workers from the construction firm, Swinerton, preparing to pour concrete on Friday.
Resident Dwight Clark is one of several residents who find this "troubling." When Clark dropped by the field office to inquire about the project, he was told this was "essential infrastructure," he wrote to the City Council last week.
"Actually, this is a two-year project for a parking garage – hardly something in the emergency category," Clark wrote. "Workers there intermingle in the same way the new law seeks to avoid. Surely the City can ensure that its public works projects honor the spirit and critical purpose of the new public health order."
The garage project, like other public works efforts, is exempted from Santa Clara County’s March 16 order, which required residents to shelter at home for all but essential functions. It also makes an exceptions for those who need to perform work necessary to the operations and maintenance of "essential infrastructure." This includes public works projects, construction of housing (particularly affordable housing), transportation improvements and utility work.
Given the broad exemption, the city has opted to move ahead with various public works projects in these categories, including the California Avenue garage, a new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 and the removal of a traffic median at the Charleston-Arastradero corridor, according to city spokeswoman Meghan Horrigan-Taylor. The city is also continuing to renovate and expand the animal shelter, which is operated by the nonprofit Pets and Need, and to replace water and sewer mains on Fulton Street and Ruthelma Avenue, respectively, Horrigan-Taylor said in an email.
She said city officials are "closely monitoring these projects and at this time are not anticipating delays or other project impacts." The projects, she said, are continuing at this time after discussions with local contractors leading these projects that included the importance of social distancing," she wrote.
Three days after the county announced its order, the city sent a letter to Swinerton, giving the company the option of continuing work or changing the contract to delay the project.
"City staff, such as inspectors and the City's project manager, will follow social distancing requirements when visiting the project work site," Holly Boyd, assistant director of public works wrote in a letter to Swinerton. "Alternatively, if Swinerton is unwilling to continue work on the Project based on health concerns or other concerns related to the Health Order, the City is willing to work with Swinerton to address the contractual implications by executing a no‐cost change order to extend the completion date for the Project."
The company decided to move ahead with the work. According to Meggie Hollywood, a spokeswoman for Swinerton, the company has taken numerous actions to comply with the orders mandating social distancing. This includes replacing major "all hands" work sessions with "multiple small stretch and flex sessions," increasing cleaning and disinfecting schedules of manlifts and providing additional personal protective equipment to lift operators, according to the company's site.
Hollywood told the Weekly that the Palo Alto work site, like all other company work sites, now has a "designated safety professional" dedicated to ensuring that all COVID-19 protocols are being followed.
"There's someone that is specifically making sure that the health and safety of our workers — as well as everyone else on site — is a top priority," Hollywood said.
Swinerton has also limited opportunities for workers to congregate by eliminating food trucks and staggering schedules, so that they have different lunchtimes, she said.
To date, she said, there hadn't been any cases of the coronavirus among workers at either the Palo Alto site or any other location where the company operates.
The city took a similar approach with other contractors. Horrigan-Taylor said each was given an option to suspend work if they wished to do so.
"Certain contractors have chosen to continue, and we support their ability to do so within our contractual relationship," Horrigan-Taylor said in an email. "The nature of this construction typically supports social distancing and enables workers to keep working. "
Even with the added precautions, the ongoing construction in the midst of the shelter-at-home order has raised some eyebrows in the community. One resident pointed to a project in Midtown where construction workers were installing an irrigation system days after the county order and asked on Palo Alto's Slack channel: "How is letting construction or other commercial activity continue unabated helping stop this virus?"
Palo Alto resident Liz Gardner pointed to another construction project that is happening in her neighborhood: the construction of a blocklong development on El Camino Real, between Grant and Sherman avenues, near the California Avenue business district. The two-story project will include about 10,000 square feet of office and retail space, as well as 13 units of housing, two of which would be designated for below market rate.
Gardner wondered why city officials are considering construction of "luxury apartments" essential. She told the Weekly that she is concerned about workers from other counties coming to Palo Alto and either contracting – or spreading – the virus in the city.
"We're supposed to be sheltering in place," Gardner told the Weekly. "It's a health and safety issue."
Editor's note: The story has been updated to reflect that the mixed-use project on El Camino Real and Sherman Avenue includes two below-market-rate units, not one as initially reported.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.