Editor's note: This story was part of Palo Alto Online's April Fools' Day Express.
In their latest effort to raise revenues and refresh the city's dilapidating infrastructure, Palo Alto officials approved a land-swap plan Friday that involves moving the city's animal shelter to the current site of the downtown post office, relocating the historic MacArthur Park restaurant to the unoccupied mezzanine at City Hall, building an auto row in the Baylands and constructing a waste-to-energy plant at Gamble Gardens.
The agreement, which the council approved by a 7-2 vote, with Councilwoman Karen Holman and Councilman Greg Schmid dissenting, aims to address a series of recommendations from the specially appointed Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission, a 17-member citizen panel that surveyed the city's infrastructure needs and came up with creative ways to raise revenues. In addition to swapping dozens of public facilities, its recommendations also included putting the city's historic namesake tree, El Palo Alto, on eBay; selling two traffic lanes on California Avenue; and opening city-run marijuana dispensaries.
"Tough times call for tough choices," City Manager James Keene said at a strategic retreat Friday meeting. "With pension costs rising out of control and our General Fund stuck with a structural deficit, we really have to start making serious changes, including taking a hard look at possible revenue generators and the sizes and locations of all our public facilities.
"Sometimes, the only way to save our crumbling infrastructure is to move it," he added. "I'm confident that this game of musical chairs with our buildings will help us save money and get some desperately needed cash."
The building shuffle will significantly change the face of downtown Palo Alto, most notably the area immediately adjacent to the University Avenue Caltrain. The city has allowed philanthropist John Arigato to build a 35-story building near the train station along with a theater. The building is at the site of MacArthur Park restaurant, a historic restaurant that was used as a meeting place for soldiers and their families during World War I.
This would be the second relocation for the restaurant. The building was moved from Menlo Park to its present location in 1919.
"I know it's for the good of the city, but this is not doing wonders for the cottage's self-esteem," said James MacArthur IV, owner of MacArthur Park. "It took us 93 years to settle in here, and now we have to start packing again."
The restaurant won't have to move far. The council has agreed to move it to the City Hall's mezzanine, a dark, cavernous loft above the police station that currently houses dozens of dangling wires, phone lines and an access ladder. Councilman Sid Espinosa said the place will need a little "freshening up" but quickly added that he's confident the restaurant will flourish in its new location.
"I'm extremely excited to welcome MacArthur Park to City Hall," Espinosa said at a press conference in the mezzanine. "The dangling wires will add a dynamic element to the historic restaurant, and the prime downtown location will ensure heavy foot traffic and financial viability.
"This restaurant will put the first-and-a-half floor of City Hall on the map."
The swap will bring the city $220 million in "public benefit" funds from Arigato, whose project will far exceed the site's zoning regulations. Arigato also agreed to fund the relocation of the legendary Hewlett-Packard garage from its current location on Addison Avenue to Lytton Avenue. The move aims to appease Downtown North, a neighborhood where residents have long complained about parking shortages.
The idea of moving MacArthur Park to the mezzanine surfaced just weeks after the council proposed another major downtown change -- bringing the city's animal shelter to the Hamilton Avenue post office. Palo Alto last week completed its purchase of the post office from the United States Postal Service and briefly considered putting the city's permitting operation into the building.
That move, however, was regarded as too onerous.
"They've got a ton of papers, maps, drawings and file folders in the current Development Center -- just TONS," Keene said, shaking his head. "We don't even want to think about having to move those."
Plus, the council decided the time is ripe to relocate the animal shelter from East Bayshore Road to downtown to make space for revenue-generating uses in the Baylands. Because of the severe space constraints in the Birge Clark-designed post office, though, the animal shelter will no longer accept any animal larger than a medium-sized Chihuahua.
Palo Alto also expects to generate $5.3 million annually in sales taxes from its new auto row in the Baylands. The Emily Renzel Wetlands will have to be dredged to allow the development, which will feature four dealerships and three digital billboards. As a "public benefit," the auto dealers have agreed to provide a giant digital billboard with the words, "Welcome to the Baylands!" in blinking, fluorescent lights.
Because of the impact of the new dealerships on the nature preserve, the council decided to abandon its controversial plan to build an anaerobic digester in Byxbee Park. Instead, the digester -- a waste-to-energy facility that converts food waste and yard trimmings into electricity -- will now be built at Gamble Gardens, a nonprofit group whose 2.5 acre estate on Waverley Street is filled with fragrant flowers. Councilman Larry Klein said the goal is to reduce greenhouse gases by placing the new waste facility in a central, pedestrian- and bike-friendly urban setting.
Councilmembers also reasoned that the sweet musk of dahlias, roses and lavender would mask the stench of rotting banana peels and worm-processed yard leafs. Vice Mayor Greg Scharff said the move would further enrich Gamble Garden's collection of local and exotic flora.
"Cherry blossoms, apple cores -- it's all nature, anyway," Scharff said.
Happy April Fools' Day!