After decades of debates, deferrals and disappointments, the Palo Alto City Council advanced on Monday the largest and most complex infrastructure project in the city’s recent history: a new public safety building in the California Avenue business district.
Once built, the building at 250 Sherman Ave. will serve as the new headquarters of the Police Department, the Fire Department and the Office of Emergency Services and house the city’s dispatch operation. The $118-million project will also include the city’s Emergency Operations Center — a meeting room where staff gathers to respond to emergencies — and a community room.
In considering the massive project, council members found themselves wrestling with two competing priorities: the need for an adequate public safety building and the need to prudently manage the city’s finances at a time when revenues are taking a big hit. While Vice Mayor Pat Burt and Greg Tanaka both proposed delaying the decision, the rest of the council voted to approve a series of contracts for the new structure — most notably, a $92.3-million contract with Swinerton Builders — and to approve the financing of the project through sale of bonds.
The council’s 5-2 vote also authorized approval of a $3-million contract for construction management with Nova Partners and a $1.7-million contract with Ross Drulis Cusenbery Architecture for design services. With the approval, contractors are scheduled to launch construction in the coming months and complete the public safety building in summer 2023.
The decision followed hours of debate, with just about every council member acknowledging the city’s dismal budget picture. Last year, plummeting revenues pushed the council to cut nearly $40 million from the city’s budget and to reduce positions in police and fire departments. Among the hardest hit of the city’s revenue sources was hotel taxes, which have dropped precipitously and which the council has been banking on for years as the primary mechanism for funding infrastructure improvements.
Despite the ongoing budget uncertainty, the council majority concluded Monday that the project is critically needed and should advance. Leaders of all three of Palo Alto’s public safety departments made the case for the new public safety building, as had prior police chiefs Pat Dwyer an Dennis Burns and former mayors Vic Ojakian and Judy Kleinberg, who had both served on the council in the mid-2000s. All emphasized the poor condition of the current police headquarters, which they argued is undersized, obsolete and seismically unsafe.
Police Chief Bob Jonsen called current police headquarters at City Hall “subpar, inadequate and frankly out of alignment with the city we serve,” an assessment that echoed findings from numerous citizen commissions and independent assessors dating back decades.
In early 2000s, the council explored the need for a new police building to replace the 1971 facility that the Police Department occupies today. The council commissioned a citizen task force that in 2006 issued a report that recommended “in the strongest possible terms that the City proceed expeditiously to build a new Public Safety Building.”
Ojakian, who co-chaired that committee told the council Monday that the current facility is “woefully short on square footage and has an abundance of issues that make it out of compliance with a number of regulations and common practice.”
Subsequent assessments reached a similar conclusion. Citing the cramped and seismically unsafe conditions in the current police headquarters, which is located in a City Hall wing, a specially appointed committee evaluating the city’s infrastructure needs called the existing headquarters “unsafe and vulnerable” in its 2011 report.
The sense of urgency didn’t always spill over to the broader public. Various surveys commissioned by the city over the years have showed that while a majority favors moving ahead with a new police headquarters, the support generally did not reach the two-thirds threshold necessary for approving a public bond. As a result, rather than going to the voters for a bond, the council included the project on its 2014 list of projects and asked voters to approve a hotel tax increase, with the understanding that proceeds would fund the items on the list.
The list included a bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101, two rebuilt fire stations, new garages in downtown and California Avenue and the public safety building.
With its $118-million price tag, the police building is by far the most expensive project on the list. The second most expensive is the $50-million garage that the city finished constructing last fall at 350 Sherman Ave., next to the lot where the police headquarters is set to go up. The projected price tag for the police building has roughly doubled since 2014, when the city estimated that it would cost about $57 million, though staff emphasized that the bids it had received in January are about 5% below the most recent estimates from city engineers.
The design and review processes alone are projected to cost about $10.2 million, of which $8.5 million has already been spend on design contracts and salary expenses.
In making the case for the building, Fire Chief Geoffrey Blackshire, Office of Emergency Services Director Kenneth Dueker and Jonsen all underscored the inadequacy of status quo. The existing 25,000-square-foot headquarters is far too small to accommodate the department and it fails to meet existing regulations pertaining to seismic safety, holding facilities and access by individuals with disabilities.
Jonsen said that while employees have been tolerating the cramped conditions in the existing police headquarters with few complaints, he is concerned that their tolerance is based on a shared assumption that their workplace would be improved once the new public safety building is approved. The new structure would be a three-story, 56,000-square-foot building with a two-level garage.
“Our current building does not represent Palo Alto,” Jonsen said. “Our community demands excellence from our public safety team and we need to provide adequate work facilities for the men and women who come here to serve.”
Tanaka had served on the infrastructure committee that identified the public safety building the city’s highest priority. On Monday, however, he criticized the plan to sell certificates of participation to pay for the new police building, a financing structure that he argued “seems to be circumventing the voters.” He contrasted the mechanism with the type of process that the city used to pay for new libraries: going to the voters and obtaining a two-thirds approval.
“If this is so valuable to the community, the community members should have no trouble voting for it. To me it seems to be more transparent and more democratic,” Tanaka said.
City staff, meanwhile, lobbied hard for the new police building. Dueker said the proposed structure is both a building and a “platform” that would allow the city’s emergency responders to withstand — and respond to – emergencies.
“It’s a place where we can physically do our work on one hand, but it’s also a place where our technologies can be installed and improved over time,” Dueker said. “It’s something that is meant to be … as future proof as anything we can do.”
The council majority agreed that it’s time to move ahead. Council member Alison Cormack cited the assessment of former Police Chief Dennis Burns, who had called the project “dangerously deferred.”
“It’s an enormous amount of money, and yet we find ourselves at a point in the saga where its’s time to bring it to a conclusion,” Cormack said.
Burt, meanwhile, suggested deferring the decision by a few weeks, until after the council received further information about the city’s long-term financial outlook and its broader capital plan. He also recommended scaling back the project by possibly removing one of the building’s two proposed underground levels and shifting some of the vehicles that were pegged to occupy those spots to the new garage on the adjoining lot.
Burt said that he didn’t believe that “the bottom of the worst economic downturn we’ve ever experienced is necessary the right time to do it.”
“Things have clearly changed since 2018,” Burt said, referring to the council’s approval of the building’s design. “The world has changed and our budget has drastically changed. The notion that we can necessarily have all things that were possible two years ago is not realistic in my mind.”
Council member Lydia Kou initially supported delaying the decision, though she strongly objected to Burt’s proposal to use a portion of the California Avenue garage for public safety needs. Doing so, she said, would constitute a betrayal of area merchants and nearby residents, who were banking on the new garage to provide them parking relief.
Council member Greer Stone was also ambivalent about the project. While acknowledging that the new public safety building is critical, he bemoaned the lack of a seismic analysis demonstrating the need for the new structure. And even though he initially supported Burt’s bid to delay the approval of the construction contract, he joined the majority after his colleagues agreed to direct staff to reduce expenditures relating to furniture, fixtures and equipment and to eliminate a proposal for construction cameras, which carried a $25,000 price tag.
Mayor Tom DuBois was more enthusiastic about moving ahead with the project, which had bedeviled generations of council members.
“I think we have the need, I think we have the financing and I think the time is right. … We should proceed and we should be proud that we’re doing what we can to ensure safety of Palo Alto residents and be able to respond to those that need help when they need it.”