After years of failures and frustrations, Palo Alto has another shot now to build a new public-safety building that would replace the city's cramped and obsolete police headquarters in City Hall.
But this time, the city's prospects for the new police buildings may hinge on the council's willingness to approve a colossal development proposal that would significantly accelerate the transformation and commercialization of Page Mill Road, near California Avenue. The major project includes as its major components two four-story office buildings, a 116-unit housing development, a three-story parking garage and a public park.
The request by Jay Paul Company, which the City Council is scheduled to discuss Monday night, is one of the most dramatic and ambitious "planned community" (PC) zone requests the city has received in recent history. The zoning designation allows developers to far exceed the city's regulations in exchange for negotiated "public benefits." In this case, the main benefit for the city would be a public-safety building, a project that tops Palo Alto's long list of infrastructure needs.
The city's two most recent "planned community" projects -- the College Terrace Centre on El Camino Real and Lytton Gateway on Lytton Avenue and Alma Street -- attracted intense community scrutiny, with many residents arguing that the benefits offered by the development aren't sufficient given the massive scale of the new developments.
Jay Paul's proposal for 395 Page Mill Road and the surrounding area dwarfs both of those projects. It includes as its centerpiece two four-story office buildings near the existing three-story AOL building with basement garages with 1,170 parking spaces. The developer also looks to purchase three city-owned parking lots at 250, 350 and 450 Sherman Ave. and build on these sites a four-level parking structure with 6,600 square feet of commercial area; a public park; and 116 units of housing over two stories of parking.
The city, for its part, would get the police/fire headquarters that everyone on the council agrees is desperately needed. The new 44,420-square-foot structure would be the lower, front half of a larger parking structure that would include 546 parking spaces for tenants of the two office buildings, according to a new report from the Planning Department. The public-safety building, which would be located at 3045 Park Blvd., would also include 147 secured parking spaces.
Jay Paul currently owns the parcels at 395 Page Mill and at 3045 Park, while the city owns the three Sherman Avenue parcels.
If the city agrees to this proposal, it would have to allow Jay Paul to significantly exceed the area's zoning regulations, including density and height requirements. The report from Planner Jodie Gerhardt notes that the office buildings at 395 Page Mill would be 71 feet tall, which includes 15 feet of mechanical equipment. The police building would be 61 feet in height. Both are located within 40 feet of a residential zone, which means the properties have a height limitation of 25 feet.
Jay Paul's architect, DES Architects + Engineers, wrote in an application that the new office buildings "will provide space for growing technology companies, such as social media companies, from the start-up phase through the development of a mature company." Jay Paul bought the property, which was previously owned by Agilent, in 2006.
Even if the council agrees to make the exception and allow construction of the massive new structures, the city would still have to spend more than $30 million to make the projects possible. According to Jay Paul's preliminary cost estimates, the city's share of the public-safety building and associated parking would be about $20.1 million. Jay Paul has offered to provide the land, the structure and the interior shell for the new building, while the city would be responsible for the interior improvements and storage. The developer expects to spend about $26.7 million on the police headquarters, according to the new report.
Another $13.3 million in public funds would be required to pay for the parking structure at 250 Sherman, which would include surface parking and three levels of above-ground parking. The new parking structure would accommodate 529 cars.
Another "public benefit" that Jay Paul is proposing is the high-density housing project at 450 Sherman, which would include 116 one- and two-bedroom units with an average size of 700 square feet. Palo Alto officials have been looking for ways to encourage more dense and mixed-use development in this area because of its proximity to the California Avenue Caltrain station.
"The project would provide a new customer base for the retail, business and service sectors on California Avenue, and the proceeds from the sale of the land may be used by the city for development of the parking structure," the city's report states, alluding to the proposed public structure at 250 Sherman.
Jay Paul also proposed investing $1.26 million into a new public park at 350 Sherman.
The council first heard about the proposal at its June retreat, which focused on ways to pay for the city's infrastructure needs. A recent report from the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission identified a new police building as an urgent need, echoing similar findings from prior commissions. At 24,000 square feet, the existing police headquarters at City Hall is undersized, seismically unsound and, according to the commission, "unsafe and vulnerable."
After Keene mentioned the Jay Paul proposal, the council agreed to schedule a "prescreening" session in early September to get its first look at the request. The council will not take any votes on the project at its Monday meeting.
The city's multi-year search for a suitable site for a police building has thus far been filled with false hopes and disappointments. The council had earlier considered building headquarters at two properties on Park Boulevard. But after seeing the city's revenues plummet during the Great Recession and with no funding in place for the new building, the council decided in 2009 to drop its option to purchase the land.
Another idea was using the mezzanine at City Hall to expand the police building. But after analyzing this option, the city determined that renovating the dimly lit and seldom-used mezzanine would be too costly and that the resulting police building would still be too small.
At the June retreat, Public Safety Director Dennis Burns presented the council with four alternatives ranging in size from 31,738 square feet to 44,848 square feet. The building in the Jay Paul proposal would be in the higher range of this estimate, though it would still fall short of the 54,000-square-foot facility recommended by the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission.
Burns said in June that the goal is to develop a "true" public-safety building that would serve both the police and fire departments and would capitalize on the "efficiencies and synergies of having the police and fire administrations, 911 dispatch, the Office of Emergency Services and our EOC (Emergency Operation Center) under one roof."