When Palo Alto officials began their journey nearly three years ago to refresh the city's aged infrastructure, their expansive wish list included an upgraded Cubberley Community Center, street repairs and a host of bike improvements, including a new bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101.
The City Council's plan, at the time, was to ask city voters to approve a bond in 2014 that would fund many of these improvements.
On Oct. 28, when the City Council convenes to consider its next steps, the infrastructure outlook they will be looking at will be starkly different than it did at the starting line. The city's Cubberley lease with the Palo Alto Unified School District remains up in the air, making its inclusion in a bond measure unlikely; the cost of the new bike bridge has been largely covered by regional grants, and the new police building's future remains loosely tied to Jay Paul Company's proposed but not approved office development on Page Mill Road.
At the same time, the city has more than doubled its expenditure on fixing up cracked streets and sidewalks, addressing one of the major problems identified by the specially appointed Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission in 2011.
Though many of these changes are positive developments, they have also created a problem for the council, which now finds itself quickly modifying its 2014 plans to keep up with political realities. Rather than preparing for a broad bond campaign of the sort that the city undertook in 2008 to renovate local libraries, the city is still trying to figure out what exactly it wants to do. Despite more than a year of staff analysis, eight meetings of the council's specially appointed committee and detailed polling, the city remains far from certain about what measure, if any, the voters will see next year. Rather than gelling into place, the plan for the 2014 election remains as uncertain as before.
After eight meetings spanning from March to Oct. 1, the four-member council committee charged with recommending a possible ballot measure instead recommended more polling and further exploration of various revenue options.
Some council members, including Vice Mayor Nancy Shepherd, remain enthusiastic about a 2014 bond to fund the needed public-safety improvements, but they also recognize that they are now racing against the clock.
"We're beginning to run out of time for the November 2014 ballot," Councilman Larry Klein said at the Oct. 1 meeting, after the committee authorized more polls and analysis.
Specifically, the city is now looking at five different options for raising revenues for infrastructure, most of which were not on the radar two years ago: an assessment fee to pay for new parking garages, through the creation of Mello-Roos districts; a one-eighth-cent sales-tax increase; raising the hotel tax by either 2 or 3 percent; a general-obligation bond to pay for public-safety facilities; and a general-obligation bond to pay for transportation improvements. Pending the council's approval on Oct. 28, staff and the city's polling company will also consider how voters would react to these revenue-raising measures in the context of city's revision of utility-users-tax methodology. The polling will be conducted in November and December, after which time the council is expected to decide whether or not to pursue a 2014 infrastructure measure.
The biggest wildcard in the conversation remains the police building. In 2011, the citizens committee argued that the project has been "dangerously deferred" and recommended floating a bond to pay for it "as soon as possible." But in June, the council learned that such a vote would be far from a slam dunk. According to a poll commissioned by the council, only 60 percent of the respondents to the poll gave high marks to "providing police officers with the facilities and resources needed to investigate and prosecute crimes committed in our community" and only 52 percent said they would support spending "$57 million to buy land and construct the public-safety building," well short of the needed two-thirds threshold needed (by contrast, things like bike improvements and fire-station upgrades received more than 70 percent support).
Another option for paying for the new police station also now looks shakier than it once did. The proposal by Jay Paul to build a new police building for the city in exchange for permission to construct 311,000-square feet of office space at 395 Page Mill Road has recently encountered a few technical and political setbacks. In April, the council's Infrastructure Committee agreed to expedite the review process for the dense new development, with the hope of having a traffic analysis in place by this fall. Instead, planning staff saw some problems with the preliminary traffic analysis, prompting delays. Staff is now working with traffic consultants to refine its methodology and looking at the traffic data associated with San Mateo's new police station, according to project planner Jodie Gerhardt. The report now isn't expected to be completed until December, she said.
At the same time, the "planned community" zone that Jay Paul is seeking remains as controversial as ever. The last such zone change that the council approved to enable a 60-unit apartment complex for low-income seniors and 12 market-rate homes on an orchard site at Maybell and Clemo avenues sparked a referendum petition that voters will decide upon on Nov. 5. For many opponents of this project, the fight is as much a referendum on "planned communities" in general. On Oct. 1, Shepherd suggested that given the current political climate, the city should take another poll to gauge public opinion on the police building and stressed the need to continue to work toward a 2014 bond.
"I think the needle might have changed because of the publicity around Jay Paul and the density in Palo Alto," Shepherd said when urging a fresh poll for a police-building bond. "We'd have better indication about the seriousness I have about having to get this public-safety building built. The council needs to get some direction from the community about how we're going to do this, whether it's through a PC or through this (tax increase)."
The resurgence of parking as a top issue has also changed the game. While new parking garages didn't factor into the discussion in 2011 or 2012, the council now sees them as one of the city's top priorities. At the Oct. 1 meeting, Mayor Greg Scharff observed that parking has become a "really high-profile issue," with many Professorville residents appealing to him to pursue more more parking garages. As a result, the city is looking at creating Mello-Roos assessment districts to fund parking garages.
"I think this may have moved," Scharff said, referring to residents' willingness to pay for more garages. "Every newspaper article in Palo Alto is talking about parking problems and what we're going to do about it. I bet the numbers have moved up."
With the clock ticking and so many questions unanswered, the council's Infrastructure Committee also tossed out another idea: Rather than rushing toward a 2014 bond for the new police building, waiting to see to see how the Jay Paul project shakes out and, if it falls through, asking the voters to pass a bond in 2016.