Public construction projects usually get more expensive, but on Monday night the Palo Alto City Council got good news: planners have shaved $4 million from the costs of the public-safety building and the proposed Mitchell Park Library and Community Center.
The savings were discovered by a committee of outside experts – including architects, construction managers and other building officials – that formed at the request of the City Council in February.
The public-safety building would cost $68 million rather than $69 million if the city purchases both parcels on Park Boulevard and separates the parking garage from the police headquarters, Assistant Public Works Director Mike Sartor said.
Sartor presented the committee's findings in a no-vote study session.
That doesn't account for the financing expenses, which pushes the total cost of the project to about $80 million. The city intends to pay for the 50,000-square-foot building with certificates of participation (COPS), allowing the city to finance the project without relying on two-thirds of voters to pass a bond measure.
The city had been favoring an alternative, L-shaped building with a three-story above-ground parking structure that would only use the larger, 1.2-acre parcel. In November, city employees even concluded that configuration would save $5 million.
But the cost-review committee found that layout was inefficient and would require the entire parking structure, which was linked to the building, to meet the high seismic standards required for emergency operations centers, boosting the cost considerably, Sartor said.
Instead, a two-building design that uses the entire 1.5-acre site at Park Boulevard, Page Mill Road and Oregon Expressway would reduce construction costs by $3 million and other expenses by $1 million, he said. The other design, which was also studied in the environmental report, would also eliminate 2,000 square feet, Sartor said.
The city would need to buy the second, .3-acre lot, adding about $3 million for a total $1 million in savings.
The city received a letter of intent today from Brown Fairchild Investment Company, which owns the smaller parcel, Sartor said. In November, the council approved the purchase of the 1.3-acre parcel for $10.9 million.
Although pleased with the savings, council members still had potential refinements.
Councilman Yiaway Yeh said he wanted to know which components of the building were required.
"I'm not aware of anything in the building that is not needed," Sartor said.
Yeh also asked about the proposed community room.
The community room is really a training room for classes, volunteers, regional meetings and task forces, although it could also be used for community meetings, Sartor and Police Chief Lynne Johnson said.
Councilman Pat Burt said he would like city staff to research using less of the site so part of it could be sold off again after the city purchases the additional .3 acres.
That could delay the project and potentially change the environmental report, Public Works Director Glenn Roberts said.
The cost-review committee also took about $3 million off the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center by refining the design estimates and adjusting the inflation estimate to accord with the slowing market, Sartor said.
The city is also researching less-expensive methods of managing the construction bidding processes for both projects, Sartor said.
The cost-review committee included engineer Doug Hohbach, architects Tony Carrasco and John Northway, construction manager John Gaston and representatives from the cities of Mountain View and San Jose.
Sartor said the staff plans to return to the council in June for approval to purchase the smaller site and expand the design contract.
The council will decide whether to place the library projects on the November ballot in July, Acting City Manager Kelly Morariu said. She said the city is also doing additional polling to assess public support for the projects.
In other business:
* On a 7-2 vote, with council members Jack Morton and Peter Drekemeier voting no, the council agreed to study initiating an "Open City Hall" online project.
The Berkeley-based nonprofit Kitchen Democracy has developed an online program that allows anyone interested to comment on upcoming council agenda items.
Users would have to register, but could remain anonymous.
The agenda items would be phrased as yes/no issues, with opposing commenters segregated to prevent attacks, according to a memo authored by council members Yoriko Kishimoto, Pat Burt, John Barton and Mayor Larry Klein.
The four council members have seen a demonstration of the project and said they were impressed.
Kishimoto said she thought the effort would cost $50 per agenda item (only significant community matters would be included) and Klein estimated one year would cost $10,000.
Burt said he was assigned to ask Kitchen Democracy follow-up questions about its services.
"The responses were pretty satisfying," Burt said.
"There's no contract we have to enter into. … It's very flexible. … We all went into it with concerns," Burt said.
He said it is not intended to substitute for more widespread changes to the city's Web site.
It will supplement, not replace, all the other methods residents have to communicate their views with the council and city staff, Kishimoto said.
But Morton wasn't sold.
"This is not how you engage the community," he said. "You do that by talking to them."
The council's Policy and Services Committee will discuss the proposal at an upcoming meeting.
* On an 8-1 vote, with Councilman John Barton voting no because of the additional cost for housing units, the council boosted the amount of park land new developments must acquire. Rather than three acres per 1,000 new residents, housing projects must now provide five acres per 1,000 residents.
(Staff Writer Becky Trout can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.)