Editorial: Service hub needs new home

Decision to rebuild municipal services center, animal shelter would provide opportunities for creative solutions

If Palo Alto has an Achilles Heel most city officials would say it is the handful of public buildings that easily could crumble when a major earthquake hits the region. From purely a safety standpoint, there is general agreement that the police station, two firehouses, the municipal services center and the animal services building all are in dire need of replacement.

The challenge is to find a way to pay for this infrastructure work, along with the many other needs competing for limited dollars.

But the city does have a possible ace up its sleeve, which it has been trying to play since 2006.

The Bayshore Freeway frontage now occupied by the aging municipal services center just south of the Oregon Expressway is a potentially highly valuable location for auto dealerships or other development that would benefit from such a prominent and accessible location.

One idea that has been tossed around is the city swapping its service center site for property elsewhere that could accommodate at least a portion of a new center as well as the animal services center, thus opening the current site to a new auto mall.

The recently released report from the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission, which assessed all of the city's infrastructure needs for the next 25 years, recommended replacing the services center at an estimated cost of $93 million, by far the most expensive project on the Commission's list.

This project and others, which the City Council will study during what Mayor Yiaway Yeh has called the "year of infrastructure investment and renewal," could result in decisions to replace the police headquarters and two fire stations (Rinconada and Mitchell parks) for $79 million, and the animal services center for $6.9 million. Financing could be by either a general obligation bond issue requiring two-thirds voter approval or more expensive certificates of participation, which do not require voter approval. And because the city-owned utilities department occupies much of the service center, utility bonds are also an option, one that does not require voter approval.

For all its anonymity among most Palo Alto residents, the aging and unsafe municipal service center should create the most worry at City Hall.

Built in the early 1960s of "tilt-up" concrete walls, numerous consultants to the city say the buildings would be a problem during an earthquake. "These are the worst buildings you can possibly have in case of an earthquake, Paul Dornell, operations manager of the center, told the Weekly in a recent interview.

Another concern is the center's location, on the east side of Highway 101, which could strand up to approximately 300 workers if the freeway was shut down by an earthquake.

"If a freeway overpass collapses, cutting off many of the city's first responders, the center's emergency plan calls for public-works crews to basically create a new road on the fly to get across 101....Just bulldoze right across the highway," Dornell said.

The importance of the service center is not known to most residents. It is where all city vehicles, including fire trucks, police cars and utility vehicles are maintained and repaired, and where all utility operations are based.

But if the City Council decides to pull the plug on the current service center, it first must find a replacement site. One of the best options could be to consummate a trade with the auto dealers who own the seven-acre site of the current Honda and Audi dealerships on Embarcadero Road. The properties offer enough space for at least a portion of a new maintenance center, although the location means a center built there would remain east of 101 and face the same risk of isolation as the current site.

Nevertheless, if the city can strike a trade, the Embarcadero Road sites could be designed to accommodate a good part of the maintenance function, while another space could house the rest. A second site possibility is 6.5 acres known as the Los Altos Sewage Treatment Plant, just north of San Antonio Road east of 101.

The most compelling reasons for the city to relocate the center as soon as possible are to make sure employees are safe and able to respond during a major disaster, and to potentially leverage the land to bring new tax revenues to the city.

Given the council's ongoing infrastructure discussions, we are not likely to see any major building project reach the ballot before 2013. In the meantime, with the auto industry showing signs of rebound it's a good time for the city to step up discussions with local dealers and landowners about a plan to both help them and address some of the city's most pressing infrastructure needs.

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Posted by Karen White
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 10, 2012 at 10:14 am

The current MSC site would be awesome for car sales; freeway exposure is the name of the game. But I think that if revenue is the objective, we should KEEP the current dealerships located along Embarcadero where they are to ensure there's a good critical mass of dealerships within one area -- with dealers at MSC and ALSO on Embarcadero. Likewise, the Los Altos Treatment Plant site should be used for additional car-dealership uses, either sales offices or service bays.

For the MSC, if sites east of 101 are considered reasonable (not sure, given sea rise, etc.), it might be useful to also consider the area in back of the golf course and next to the airport where all the course maintenance vehicles are kept. (It doesn't have Embarcadero frontage, so would seem less attractive for auto sales.) There's quite a nice chunk of land back there, though I'm not sure of the acreage. Possibly the course and the MSC could occupy a single plot of land and include the redesign within the context of the golf course reconfiguration.

Like this comment
Posted by Karen White
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 10, 2012 at 10:17 am

Sorry; I meant in that last sentence to say that the course maintenance vehicles and MSC could possibly occupy a single plot of land.

Like this comment
Posted by Tyler Hanley
digital editor of Palo Alto Online
on Feb 10, 2012 at 10:42 am

Tyler Hanley is a registered user.

The following comments were moved from a duplicate thread:

Posted by Timothy Gray, a resident of the Charleston Meadows neighborhood, 1 hour ago:

"I hope the City has the wisdom, and the residents have the will, to insist that we exhaust seeking opportunities for regional cooperation before we build.

Sharing resouces just might reduce the facilities required in Palo Alto, or perhaps result in greater services at a lower cost.
The "Not invented here" outlook must change. My neighbors in Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, and EPA all share the same need for high-quality services. Let's be open-minded before we start building monuments."

Timothy Gray


Posted by James Raidy, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood, 47 minutes ago:

"I agree! Looking at a joint municipal services site with our neighbors is a smart idea. Pooling resources of surrounding cities could provide a financial savings while potentially increasing our available resources. Great idea Timothy!"

Like this comment
Posted by The-Truth-Is-Better-Than-Fiction
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 10, 2012 at 11:06 am

> The most compelling reasons for the city to relocate the center
> as soon as possible are to make sure employees are safe and
> able to respond during a major disaster, and to potentially
> leverage the land to bring new tax revenues to the city.

In 1989 (or thereabouts), a P/W worker went nuts and at least one person was killed (maybe two). Another P/W worker threatened to kill some of his co-workers around 1994. During the years that this site has been operational, no one has been hurt, or killed, during earthquakes. If there is a worker “safety” issue, it is that the unionized P/W workers tend to violence, rather than more civilized solutions.

The Weekly is clearly poorly informed in its editorial position, taking what the City is saying as gospel, and not examining any of the facts provided by the City in a critical light.

Like this comment
Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 10, 2012 at 2:25 pm

I would be willing to bet that most Palo Altans do not want to look out towards the bay from 101 and see car dealerships.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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