Palo Alto's Animal Services Center, a fixture on East Bayshore Road for the past four decades, could be shut down or relocated to make way for an auto dealership under a new proposal that the city is exploring.
The future of the animal shelter, which the City Council discussed Monday night, is in limbo because of a decision by Mountain View last November to discontinue use of the regional facility. The center is part of the larger Municipal Services Center and has been providing services to Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos and Los Altos Hills since 1993, with each partner sharing in the facility's costs.
Mountain View's departure will have profound implications for the busy facility and puts Palo Alto in a bind. Palo Alto stands to lose about $450,000 in annual contributions when Mountain View leaves this November (as part of the agreement, partnering cities have to give a one-year notice before departing). If Palo Alto were to absorb this loss of revenue, it would have to make severe service cuts or find other funding sources. If it asks the other partner cities to cover Mountain View's portion, it could prompt them to ditch the partnership as well.
Palo Alto's animal-services operation has an annual budget of $1.8 million. It brings in about $1.1 million in annual revenues. Mountain View's departure will effectively raise Palo Alto's share of the facility's cost from $700,000 to about $1.1 million annually.
With Palo Alto facing rising costs in employee pensions and health care, staff is recommending outsourcing animal services to another agency, Assistant City Manager Pam Antil told the council. The city is preparing to send out requests for proposals to other animal-service providers. Antil said called the staff recommendation a "difficult decision" but one that makes sense given the current financial climate.
"It doesn't mean that it's not emotional or that we don't care about the services," Antil said.
Outsourcing animal services would bring down the city's net costs from $1.1 million to about $500,000 annually, according to staff estimates.
The auto dealership proposal adds another layer of complexity. Local dealerships, most notably Anderson Honda, have expressed interest over the years in moving their operations to the freeway-visible site. The Municipal Services Center offers the most promising possibility, one that the city has been exploring since 2006.
Deputy City Manager Steve Emslie said the animal-shelter land, located on the southern edge of the Municipal Services Center, offers the most promising option for accommodating an auto dealership. The bulk of the complex is dominated by Utilities and Public Works departments and by the city's vehicle fleet, operations that share space and equipment. The animal shelter, by contrast, "can be severed without affecting any other use," Emslie said.
Palo Alto has long been pondering ways to make improvements to the Municipal Services Center, a critical hub of city services. The process has taken on fresh urgency because of a recent report from Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission, a 17-member citizen panel that evaluated the city's infrastructure needs and issued a set of recommendations for bringing the city's streets, sidewalks, parks and facilities in good shape.
The panel noted that the Municipal Services Center is seismically vulnerable. And because it's on the east side of U.S. Highway 101, it is also isolated from much of Palo Alto. The panel recommended evaluating other options for the site, including a possible land swap with dealerships.
Several members of the council asserted the importance of keeping auto dealerships in Palo Alto, calling them critical revenue sources. Councilman Sid Espinosa said he has "real concerns about how aggressive we've been and how aggressive we need to be" to keep businesses in the city.
"Here is a significant revenue source that we need to do everything we can to keep if not attract more of," Espinosa said.
Not everyone, however, is keen on welcoming one or more dealerships to a site so close to the Baylands. Councilman Greg Schmid said he was skeptical about the proposal, particularly if the relocated dealership includes a digital billboard.
"Putting a digital billboard on our view of the bay is a funny thing if you have a longer term vision to what our relationship is to the world around us," Schmid said.
Emily Renzel, a former City Council member and a devout conservationist, also slammed the idea of bringing a dealership to the animal-shelter site.
"The reason they want the freeway frontage is for free advertising," Renzel said, referring to the auto dealers. "We don't have to use our public land to give free advertising."
The council also expressed mixed feelings about the prospect of shuttering the animal shelter. Members did not decide on the matter Monday night, other than voting unanimously to refer the question to its Policy and Services Committee. In addition to outsourcing services, the city is also weighing the options of relocating the facility to another site, most notably to city-owned land near the Los Altos Treatment Plant at the end of San Antonio Road.
Mountain View decided to make a move to the Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority largely out of concern about the condition of the Palo Alto facility, said Sandra Stadtler, Palo Alto's superintendent of animal services. Though the local shelter gets heavy usage, it is cramped and shows some signs of its age. The Silicon Valley Animal Control Authority facility in Sunnyvale was built in 2006 and offers modern amenities such as cage-free kennels.
Stadtler said Mountain View had also asked Palo Alto to offer it services that currently are offered only to Palo Alto residents, including treatment for stray dogs and administrative hearings for dangerous animals. She described the Palo Alto shelter as a "destination spot" for people.
"We've been able to enjoy having a shelter for so long that many of the people who are coming to the center with kids were brought there as kids," Stadtler said.
Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd was among those who said the animal shelter would be sorely missed if the city were to decide to close it.
"It's been a welcome part of the Palo Alto community to have animal services, so my preference would be to keep it," Shepherd said.