While the nation is fixated on the heated presidential race and the slew of state and local measures that will populate the November ballot, Palo Alto officials are looking two years ahead and methodically laying the groundwork for a 2014 measure they hope will help them resolve the city's infrastructure woes.
The measure, which the City Council plans to discuss Tuesday evening, Sept. 18, is a major component of the city's plan to fix up aged infrastructure and replace obsolete buildings. The city's most glaring infrastructure need is a new public-safety building, a prize that has been eluding elected officials for nearly a decade. A recent report from the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission has described the cramped police headquarters at City Hall as "unsafe and vulnerable," echoing prior findings by various panels and experts. The task force's report notes that when public-safety facilities "decline into substandard or unsafe conditions, both those who use them and the community that depends on them are in jeopardy."
The public-safety building, which would house Palo Alto's police headquarters, its fire administration and its Emergency Operations Center, tops the list of infrastructure items that voters could be asked to fund with a bond on the November 2014 ballot, according to a new report from the office of City Manager James Keene. It is not, however, the only public-safety facility on the list. It is immediately followed on the 20-project list by "fire stations," another priority that was highlighted by the recent infrastructure report.
Both Station 3 at Embarcadero Road and Station 4 at East Meadow and Middlefield are more than 50 years old and lack sufficient space, the report noted. The city has found these buildings to have "extensive structural, code, and operational deficiencies," and a 2005 study noted that they fail to meet a laundry list of state and federal requirements, including the California Building Code, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
"Both Stations 3 and 4 are earthquake vulnerable, lack sufficient space for emergency supplies, lack safe separation of living quarters from the fumes of engines and hazardous materials, and can barely hold the two engines located at each as those vital pieces of equipment have grown in size and capacity over the years," the commission report stated.
The report estimated the cost of building new public-safety headquarters at $65 million. Replacing Station 3 and Station 4 is expected to cost around $6.7 million and $7.5 million.
The commission had recommended going to the voters this year with a measure that would fund new public-safety facilities. But the council decided in May that the city shouldn't rush into a measure aimed at raising revenue for infrastructure. Instead, members decided to spend time evaluating the various infrastructure projects, polling the community and designing a measure that would have the best chance of passing.
At the May 21 meeting, Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd argued that passing a bond measure is "very, very difficult" and said the city needs to have a "clear understanding of what it is we want to put out there."
The council's cautious approach was informed by the city's recent experiences with bond measures. In 2002, a measure that sought a $49.1 million bond to renovate and expand the Children's Library and to build a new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center flopped with 61.7 percent of the voters supporting it, short of the two-thirds majority required for passage.
Voters were more receptive in 2008, when they approved a $76 million bond to rebuild the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center, renovate Downtown Library and expand Main Library. Measure N passed with the support of 69 percent of the voters.
The same year, however, the council considered including a new police headquarters as part of the bond package. It refrained from doing so after poll results indicated that the measure would likely fail.
But while the council agrees that the public-safety building is the city's most urgent priority, it's not clear whether the November 2014 measure will include this facility. This week, council members heard a proposal from San Francisco-based commercial developer Jay Paul Company that would bring two dense office buildings to 395 Page Mill Road along with a garage on Park Boulevard that would also house the city's new police headquarters. Though council members didn't vote on the proposal, they generally supported the concept.
If the Jay Paul deal were to proceed, the 2014 ballot measure could target another item on the city's list of coveted infrastructure projects. These include improvements to Byxbee Park, which until recently housed the city's landfill and composting operation; a new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 at Adobe Creek; and deferred repairs to aged sidewalks, parks and buildings.
The new report from Sheila Tucker, assistant to City Manager James Keene, identifies the factors that staff believes contributed to the success of the 2008 library measure. These include the degree of the city's planning in the early stages, the community's knowledge about the issues involved, the type of funding measure selected, extent of community and media support and viability of the community campaigns.
The report suggests hiring a communication strategist and a public-opinion expert to gather data and assist the city with outreach. It also proposes creating a citizen advisory committee whose purpose would be "to supplement city leadership with external community partners and leaders to build broad-based consensus, provide input to finance-measure planning, and to be visible partners in supporting the city's efforts."
Top-priority infrastructure projects:
1. Public-safety building
2. Fire stations
3. Byxbee Park
4. Bike/pedestrian plan and bike bridge
5. Street/sidewalk "catch-up" repairs
6. Parks catch-up repairs
7. Buildings catch-up repairs
8. Post office
9. Charleston/Arastradero Road
10. Cubberley replace/expand
11. Cubberley deferred maintenance
12. Animal services
13. Civic Center
14. Los Altos water-treatment plant
15. Municipal airport
16. Municipal Services Center
17. Regional Water Quality Control Plant
18. Compost facility
19. Golf course
20. Playing fields (at golf course)