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.