News

Editorial: Project creep at City Hall

$4.5 million lobby 'refurbishment' tough to swallow

A project that was intended to be a renovation of the cramped conference room next to the City Council Chambers has somehow mushroomed into a glitzy redesign of the entire Hamilton Avenue-facing lobby of City Hall.

Like the minor home-remodeling project that keeps expanding beyond the intended scope and sends costs soaring, the city staff quietly turned this relatively minor renovation into a major and complex project designed to change the entire experience for visitors to City Hall.

It also created a cascade of other impacts, including the relocation of staff members in four different city departments.

And it happened largely in stealth mode, slipping through on the consent calendar at the City Council's June 16 meeting without discussion as the council focused its time and energy that night on ballot proposals for reducing the council size and extending term limits.

Unfortunately the media, including the Weekly, was guilty of missing this item in advance of the meeting, although Weekly reporter Gennady Sheyner picked up on it and last week dug into the story and the city staff's explanation.

With contracts signed and work starting immediately, there is apparently no turning back on this project. It is a great example of how a lot of money can get spent with little, if any, public scrutiny, and how years of prioritizing and lamenting about needed infrastructure projects can be bypassed by a simple budget amendment placed on a consent agenda.

The entire council, which approved the items on the consent calendar by a 9-0 vote, is complicit in not raising questions about how this expansion came about and why it was not given the chance to approve it prior to the bidding process (which, by the way, only attracted a single bidder.)

For years, the city's leadership has undertaken a painfully detailed process, including establishing a blue ribbon citizens commission, to identify the city's most urgent needs for infrastructure improvements. At the top of the list is the need for a new public-safety headquarters, followed by renovation of two fire stations, street, sidewalk, park and bike transit improvements, upgrades at Cubberley and many more.

At a price tag that has grown to $4.5 million, the renovation of the City Hall ground floor should have had to compete with these other city infrastructure needs. It is inconceivable that most Palo Altans would have put this project ahead of the ones already identified, and its approval undermines the city's credibility as it wrestles to find funding for projects that are more important than this one.

So what is in store for the public when these improvements are complete? By the staff's description, it will rival the lobby of a high-tech company.

Visitors will enter a lobby equipped with an "interactive digital media public art element on the wall" and a new glass-walled community meeting room with multiple LCD screens, high-definition cameras, and sliding doors so the room can be opened to the lobby for overflow crowds. "Open government and technology are the key principles" of the project, according to the staff report, and City Manager Jim Keene says the focus is to make the lobby "welcoming to the public and also work for the public's business."

The utility department's customer service staff will move downstairs, which conveniently allows some of the costs of the project to be charged off to the utilities. Elevator interiors and bathrooms will be spruced up and new signage will help direct the public.

City Hall is 44 years old, poorly designed and compares horribly with that of neighboring cities. The city has already invested millions of dollars in other upgrades to the building, and these improvements solve identified problems. We don't dispute that.

But that is no excuse for how this project and expenditure received council approval. Presenting an expansion to the original project in the form of a budget amendment after the project had been bid and a contract negotiated is not good government, particularly with all the rhetoric about our infrastructure needs.

For a project whose goal is stated as achieving a "more open atmosphere to encourage public participation and community access to City Hall," it is ironic that public participation was so neglected in deciding if this was a good way to spend $4.5 million. Perhaps when the project is complete, the new environment will somehow enable the kind of discussion this project deserved.

Comments

Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 11, 2014 at 9:41 am

"It is inconceivable that most Palo Altans would have put this project ahead of the ones already identified..."

Which is precisely the reason for the stealth. Staff could never have gotten its palace remodel past an aware public on a non-complicit council.


Posted by A resident, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 11, 2014 at 10:46 am

This is appalling. Where is the accountability of the staff who decided on this? They should lose their jobs.


Posted by No Leadership, a resident of another community
on Jul 11, 2014 at 10:54 am

Where is the leadership fro City Council on this and on so many other issues? Secretiveness along with arrogance seems to the the recipe for Palo Alto.


Posted by M Anderson, a resident of another community
on Jul 11, 2014 at 10:55 am

So the editorial department are also architectural critics I guess. The City Hall, which is more than 44 years old was designed by Edward Durrell Stone, an architect who defined Modernism and designed the Stanford Hospital, the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center in New York. One might not like Modernism but the building is not designed poorly. Many buildings designed before computers were a ubiquitous part of our life need refurbishment now and then. This much maligned building deserves to be looked at with fresh eyes, having spent years in City Hall it functions quite well and is an asset to the community and a great piece of architecture although I know I'm in the minority opinion in this regard.


Posted by Wondering?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2014 at 11:23 am

> City Hall is 44 years old, poorly designed and compares horribly
> with that of neighboring cities.

In what way is the building poorly designed? How long has this poor design been realized? Was it poorly designed originally? And how does it compare horribly with other city headquarters? Any examples?


Posted by Let's rethink this, please., a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 11, 2014 at 11:50 am

The Council Conference Room does need some limited work. I think the rest of the project is unnecessary, and I'd prefer to see the money spent elsewhere.

Can Council revisit this?


Posted by Silly, a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jul 11, 2014 at 11:54 am

Appalling.

Start holding them accountable by taking away ALL of their parking spaces. Let them experience the joy of their decisions like the rest of us.


Posted by A neighbor, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 11, 2014 at 12:13 pm

I wonder in what way this renovation benefits the city and its residents. I guess it will impress the visitors to the City Hall. And then?


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 11, 2014 at 12:26 pm

" The City Hall, which is more than 44 years old was designed by Edward Durrell Stone, an architect who defined Modernism and designed the Stanford Hospital, the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center in New York."

Not to mention the Palo Alto Main and Mitchell Park libraries. The hospital and libraries are (were, in the case of Mitchell) prime examples of his screen period. City hall is from his later obsession with vertical columns.

City hall was designed as a monument rather than as a working, workable building. No doubt our innocent city fathers were so ga-ga over having a tall white monolith of Palo Alto's very own (nya nya nya, Menlo and MV) that they overlooked its lack of function.

The usable footprint of any floor above ground level is ridiculously inadequate. The top two floors proved not usable at all. Nor was the pergola that originally encircled the plaza, which had to be removed early on because it was not seismically safe.

Spueaking of seismic, much concern has been expressed about the seismic stability of the city's emergency operations center in the building which, curiously after decades of expressing concern, remains there, ready to collapse in the Big One.


Posted by a resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2014 at 12:28 pm

I fund this expenditure quite shocking to say the least.


Posted by Lived here 55 years, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 11, 2014 at 12:37 pm

SURPRISED BY DO MORE-PAY MORE. DUH-THIS IS PALO ALTO!!!!!!


Posted by can someone please explain, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2014 at 12:58 pm



This may sound like a dumb question, and I know I should probably read all the relevant documents, but can someone please explain what the consent calendar is?

I've noticed items that were scheduled to be discussed, bypassed and passed by consent.

Can someone please explain how this works? Can anything pass by consent?


Posted by grew up here, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 11, 2014 at 1:38 pm

Silly project for sure.

But this did catch my attention even more: "City Hall is 44 years old, poorly designed and compares horribly with that of neighboring cities."

I have no idea what this editorial comment has to do with the story - a misguided and expensive remodel project - what is being implied here - that we need a NEW city hall?

This one was in fact designed by an important architect - it is a good example of an architectural era and genre - smart people write the PAW's editorials - what's with this?

If the our fair city cannot build a library - and back in the 1950s - 1960 it seemed to be able to build a lot of stuff pretty darn well, thank you very much - why even bring this up in the context of an out of control staff, poor oversight, and a dumb, expensive project yet to be completed?

Just makes me wonder...


Posted by pat, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 11, 2014 at 1:45 pm

Only one contractor bid on the project, with an estimate 19% higher than the construction cost estimate. But the city signed on with him. I wonder if they would have been so eager if it was their own money.

Back in 2012, the remodel was budgeted for only $1.28 million. Obviously, that wasn't grand enough for Palo Alto's city hall.

Here's what the city council approved:
Web Link

Summary of Project Funding
Existing Funding Source (from Capital Improvement Fund)
Amount allocated
City Hall First Floor Renovations (PE-12017) $2,183,733
Facility Interior Finishes Replacement (PF-02022) $380,000
Council Chambers Carpet (PF-11001) $80,000
Civic Center Infrastructure Upgrade (PF-01002) $61,643
TOTAL CURRENT FUNDING $2,705,376

FUNDING SOURCE (BAO)
Transfer from Community Center Development Impact Fee Fund $686,298
Transfer from Electric Fund $133,687
Transfer from Gas Fund $133,687
Transfer from Wastewater Collection Fund $133,687
Transfer from Water Fund $133,687
Transfer from Fiber Optics Fund $133,687
Transfer from Technology Fund $499,335
Total New Funding $1,854,068
TOTAL PROJECT FUNDING $4,559,444

SUMMARY OF PROJECT EXPENDITURES
Construction Contract $2,718,350
Contract Contingency (10%) $271,835
Design Fees $278,285
Architectural Construction Administration $141,565
Public Art $150,000
Furniture $300,000
Wayfinding Systems Construction $307,450
Other $145,000
Total Project Expenditures $4,312,485
Anticipated Return to Infrastructure Reserve $246,959


Posted by Wondering?, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2014 at 1:46 pm

> The usable footprint of any floor above ground level
> is ridiculously inadequate.

Inadequate for what? Hold dances for the masses, or getting work done in offices?

The business of the City has been conducted in this building for the last forty-odd years. Can one say that the work product of the City has been inadequate due to the premise that the building is inadequate?

As to the seismic issues concerning the building--it sounds like it should be torn down and replaced with another state-of-the-art building?

Well--if the current City Hall is inadequate--then the process that brought us this building, which includes an approval by rank amateurs sitting on the City Council--will likely bring us another inadequate, and unsafe, building.

Opinion is fine--but opinion is not fact.


Posted by person in palo alto, a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 11, 2014 at 3:09 pm

True to form the city manager, city council and staffers have misread the people of Palo Alto. They misread us regarding Maybel senior housing, the grand scheme of Arrilaga at 27 University Ave, the Buena Vista fiasco, infrastructure repairs to the city and now the renovation of city hall. It looks like the people listed above believe that Palo Altans have money ($$$$) trees in our backyards. The council etc. made a pretty significant statement by voting 9-0. They do not care about US! Hopefully some of them will not be abler to be on the council again: the revolving door city council members- you know who they are; the council member whose close business relationship smacks of bribes, the members who are looking for 12 years terms-God Forbid! We might as well in in a dictatorship.


Posted by Manic spending spree, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2014 at 3:16 pm

The City Manager is on a manic spending spree. He needs to be stopped.
He seems concerned with our image to outsiders so remodeling the Conference Room isn't glitzy enough. I'm not sure what is behind his actions.
Or maybe he wants to empty the city coffers before the next election so as to handcuff the next administration.

I wonder what he's working toward. Maybe going to work for one of those developer-contractor? like his ex-deputy Steve Emslie is doing?


Posted by Bob Moss, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 11, 2014 at 3:57 pm

The project also is renovating Council chambers with new carpets and seating. The old rows of seats have been removed and new ones will be installed this month. I agree the cost inflation and expansion of work done is excessive. There are lots of other infrastructure projects that need the money more.


Posted by Peninsula Commuter, a resident of another community
on Jul 11, 2014 at 4:51 pm

I said it before, but it's worth repeating. I've been in the City Hall lobby and Council Chambers many times and they are both perfectly adequate. Sure there is need for improved audio/visual systems, but certainly not the wholesale renovation being built for mega $$$. How ironic that the City can afford projects like this, but can't afford to pay Utilities workers competitive wages. Reliable, safe gas and electric utility systems have more value to the City than converting City Hall into a City Manager's palace.


Posted by Enid Pearson, a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 11, 2014 at 5:51 pm

When Stanford & PA hired E.D Stone he was considered a neophyte. Stanford was Stone's first hospital and city Hall was a close replica of a high rise in Salt Lake City. The Main Library covered the block, Ramon to Bryant and Forest to Hamilton. It was torn down.When the council decided to replace the destroyed library they were going to hire Stone. Outcry forced the council to have a contest and Bob Busse won the contract. I was the only CC member of 11 to vote against all projects except the Busse award. By 1971 the Council had been reconstituted. But it takes constant vigilance and it's not always possible.

It is painful to watch the city spend 4.5 Million dollars on an overblown renovation while our historic Lucy Evans Interpretive Center and Boardwalk deteriorate. So far funds are denied or put far into the future. The Center if we wait long enough may not be salvageable.


Posted by Eejits, Every One, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2014 at 6:01 pm

Why aren't large expenses like this required to go to a third-party approval process, or a vote? [Portion removed.]


Posted by Corruption, a resident of Professorville
on Jul 11, 2014 at 7:32 pm

The answer to all the questions raised in the above comments is simple.
Corruption, corruption, corruption, at city hall. The city council doesn't care about Palo Altans. In the November election, the council will find out that Palo Altans don't care about the incumbents running for re election, either. The city manager needs to be fired, too.


Posted by Elaine, a resident of Ventura
on Jul 11, 2014 at 7:49 pm

April Fool's in July, right? You have got to be kidding.


Posted by eating cake, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2014 at 9:10 pm

@Enid Pearson,
I agree. And when Maybell orchard was purchased, the City estimated the value of the orchard itself (if one sold off the houses on the perimeter) to be about $6.5 million. I'm sure if the City had asked the residents to cough up the $2 million difference, just the neighboring residents would have done it to save the orchard for Parkland. (Go over there, even in this drought, the 100 established trees still live with no added watering.) But no, the City could not be persuaded to even temporarily purchase the orchard, as it had the right to do with first right of refusal, to just allow residents the chance to raise the money for it themselves.

Frankly, given how nice City Hall is as it is, we should ask Councilmembers to pay for it themselves.

I hope someone is keeping a running list for a nice long ad in the election...


Posted by Julian, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 11, 2014 at 9:17 pm

That's easy - it's a boondoggle. You can tell by the surruptitious way they got the project approved. If it were a valid need, they would have had no fear about running it through an open process.

Again: dump the council and the Planning Dept. ASAP


Posted by resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2014 at 9:24 pm

It's the culture of City Hall on display here. It pervades everything and explains all of it - the overdevelopment and bonuses, exemptions, giveaways
to developers, the destruction of the neighborhoods, the trashing of the character, qualities and livability of the City.


Posted by eating cake, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 11, 2014 at 11:31 pm

Yes, just outrageous that they would claim this is for the public, when holding meetings on the other side of town on a regular basis, especially for issues concerning the other side of town, as well as upgrading technology TO ALLOW REMOTE PARTICIPATION in real time, would be far more helpful.

Actually, City Council holding meetings on the other side of town, and taking a pledge to ride their bikes or take public transit, especially in the dark, would probably be even more helpful....


Posted by Steven Nelson, a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 12, 2014 at 8:43 am

"What is the consent calendar?" As an elected local gov. official (school board) let me give you my personal perspective: it is a process to smooth flow of routine items in a local legislative meeting - that often is abused by staffs to slip things through. Anyone can show up at a public council or school board meeting and ask to speak ("pull") any contract on a Consent Agenda. It's pretty vital that the Mr. Moses and reporters and elected officials do this - for ALL questionable contracts. If there is a possibility of dissent - by even one elected official - shame on staff for putting it on Consent (IMO).
- Consent items usually get approved in mass - unanimously - because they should have no controversy. Every citizen, who gives all Consent items "a pass", is in some way also responsible. The price of democracy is ...


Posted by Fred Balin, a resident of College Terrace
on Jul 13, 2014 at 10:06 pm

Fred Balin is a registered user.

Good points; good editorial, including acknowledgement of The Weekly, as well as the public, not catching the significance of this item in time to bring it to the council and the larger public's attention before consent calendar vote.

This is all the more reason why the release of city council staff reports should be much earlier, preferably a minimum of two weekends prior the hearing as is required in San Joe.

Residents pressed for this in late 2009, as part of a reform package following the late-submission shenanigans during the Alma Plaza and College Terrace Centre PC hearings.

Then candidate-for-city council Greg Scharf campaigned on this issue, which was cited by the Weekly as a reason for its endorsement, Web Link

In early 2010, city manager James Keene cleverly defused the issue by unilaterally moving the council packet back one day, from Thursday late afternoon to Wednesday late afternoon.

But the council went further with the following inclusion in its Policy and Procedures Handbook: "For major, complex projects and policies, the City will make every effort to distribute these reports two weeks prior to the meeting when the item will be considered." [See bottom of Page 5 at Web Link ]

Complex projects and policies have been regular council fare over the past 4 and a half years, but the release of staff reports prior to Wednesday late afternoon have been few and far between.

Council candidates — new and incumbents — as well as all other members of the current council should come together now to push this important transparency issue forward:

First, the current council policy must enforced.

Second, it should be explicitly stated that any agenda item with a financial expenditure of city funds of over a certain threshold — certainly anything over $1,000,000 — be included in the definition of a complex project and be subject to the wider window-of-review stipulated in the current council policy and procedures.


Posted by curmudgeon, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 14, 2014 at 9:25 am

"The business of the City has been conducted in this building for the last forty-odd years."

This should read "SOME of the business of the city... ." The Planning Department, for one, leases bookoo thousand square feet for $ umpteen hundred thousand annually in an office building across Hamilton from city hall. For an education, look up the numbers. They are not small.

I seriously doubt anybody could Hold dances for the masses anywhere above the mezzanine. It's all offices, desks, and cubicles up there. Go look.


Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 14, 2014 at 11:04 am

> But the council went further with the following inclusion in
> its Policy and Procedures Handbook: "For major, complex
> projects and policies, the City will make every effort to distribute
>these reports two weeks prior to the meeting when the item will be considered."

Guess it depends on how you define "every effort".

Thanks, Fred, for reminding us of these points. Seems that it's time for the Residents to start making an issue of this with the Council. If Scharff did campaign on this—then we'll need to make sure that he gets a chance to bring us up to date on how his campaign promise was kept.

Given the complexity of some/many of these projects—I wonder if three weeks might not be a better target for public distribution of the documentation?

There are so many things the City could do to increase the transparency of its processes—and it just refuses to do so. Let's hope that this point is brought up to the next crop of candidates—and see what they have to say about fixing this problem.


Posted by Wayne Martin, a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 14, 2014 at 11:17 am

> This should read "SOME of the business of the city... ."
> The Planning Department, for one, leases bookoo thousand
> square feet for $ umpteen hundred thousand annually in an
> office building across Hamilton from city hall.

Underneath this sentiment, and others suggesting an inadequacy in City Hall, comes the counterpoint that no single building can be expected to handle all of the City's business. Clearly the presence of the City is distributed throughout the jurisdiction. Storage for all of the City's heavy equipment, and vehicle fleet, is not going to be placed in a downtown location. Same goes for the fire stations, and the libraries, other community service facilities, and generally—police stations. There really is no reason that the planning department needs to be in City Hall.

Clearly—the City's service delivery model is spatially distributed. One main question when going about the design of any City Hall is to ask; how much growth can one expect at that location, and how much distribution of function can be effectively achieved when that growth occurs.

Another question too is whether the space is effectively utilized in City Hall building. The cubicles/offices at 250 Hamilton are pretty generous—compared to most private sector offices.

And these days—with high speed data networks, it would seem that offering high speed access to City employees would be something at a City with a fiber ring would have accomplished a long time ago. Yet, there seems to be little in the way of any idea of what an e-government is, or could be, in Palo Alto.
---


Posted by anonymous, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 14, 2014 at 1:00 pm

It seems as if there's no common sense employed. It's like, it's all or nothing. To ME, this city spends taxpayer money in an appalling fashion. If one objects in this case, I suppose it's then:
oh, so you oppose providing appropriate city worker space? OF COURSE NOT, it's just that these appear to be overly grandiose plans and expenditures without public discussion.
I am all for benchmarking with neighboring cities on city hall and other facilities. Good idea. Likely some upgrades ARE needed. But THIS much?!
I understand the need to upgrade or replace the public safety facilities. That's clearly IMPORTANT.
I also understand Palo Alto employs many more city workers per resident. We need to have some sensible middle ground, deal with important matters first and discuss cosmetic ideas and extras such as interactive digital media whatnot in an open, sensible way. Maybe we want such things, maybe we don't want or need them.
The first step is awareness, then I hope we all can take time out of our busy lives to hold local public officials more accountable to being SENSIBLE.


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