Palo Alto's long and winding voyage to replace its cramped police headquarters took a new turn Wednesday night when city officials unveiled a proposal by a commercial developer to help build a new facility as part of a bid to construct an office building on Page Mill Road.
Jay Paul Company, a San Francisco-based developer that focuses on commercial real estate, has made a pitch to help Palo Alto build a new public-safety building -- a project that city officials have been pursuing for longer than a decade without success. Palo Alto's existing police headquarters at City Hall has been found to be too small, seismically shaky, and functionally obsolete by a wide array of city officials, consultants and citizen groups. Most recently, the 17-member Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission reviewed the 24,000-square-foot headquarters and found it to be "unsafe and vulnerable."
But solutions have been tough to come by. In recent years, the city has pondered a wide array of options for the police department, from expanding its operation to the little-used mezzanine at City Hall to buying two properties on Park Boulevard. Neither possibility became a reality. The mezzanine, a dimly lit, 10,000-square-foot labyrinth filled with phone wires and utility lines, would have to be completely renovated and would still leave the police headquarters much smaller than city officials would like. They're hoping for at least 44,000 square feet.
The proposal to buy the two Park properties fizzled three years ago, when the council agreed to scrap its options to purchase the land.
Now, city officials are looking to private entities for help. Jay Paul, the developer behind the office complex at 395 Page Mill Road, has approached the city about building another major office building at the commercial site near Park, City Manager James Keene told the council Wednesday during a special retreat. The company bought the property, which was once occupied by Agilent, in 2006. It now houses AOL's Silicon Valley's headquarters.
As part of its bid to get the city's approval for the project, Jay Paul has offered to partner with the city on the new public-safety building, which has an estimated price tag of $45 million. Under the proposal, the developer would contribute land on Park and chip in about $18 million for the project, with the city paying another $18 million (the land is valued at about $9 million, according to a staff report). Jay Paul's contributions for the new police building would be considered a "public benefit" as part a "planned community" application. A planned-community zone is one in which a developer is allowed to exceed zoning regulations in exchange for negotiated public benefits.
Keene said the Jay Paul proposal would add one or more office buildings to the property at 395 Page Mill Road. The AOL building is located near the northeast corner of the lot. The new offices could be built on the northwest or southeast portions of the site, areas that are currently vacant.
The proposal would also include an underground garage next to the Page Mill Road site, near the intersection of Park Boulevard and Olive Avenue. The city's new police building would stand on top of this garage under this concept.
Keene characterized Jay Paul's proposal as a tentative concept at this point but one worth exploring.
"There is an invitation to consider something and to begin to draw a firmer conclusion as we start to know more about it," Keene told the council.
The new police-and-fire building would be somewhat different from the roughly 56,000-square-foot facility recommended by the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission. The new plan calls for a smaller headquarters that would combine the administrative functions of the city's Police and Fire departments and house the new Office of Emergency Services.
Acting Public Safety Director Dennis Burns on Wednesday presented four alternatives, ranging in size from 31,738 square feet to 44,848 square feet. The smaller facilities would entail shifting functions like parking enforcement and evidence storage to off-site locations.
Burns, who heads both the police and fire departments, said one of the goals for the public-safety building is to reduce duplication of efforts in the two departments. The new building would have a shared lobby for the departments, fewer locker rooms and fewer conference rooms than would be needed if the two administrations were in separate locations.
"The intent is to design and develop a true public-safety building that capitalizes on the efficiencies and synergies of having the police and fire administrations, 911 dispatch, the Office of Emergency Services and our EOC (Emergency Operations Center) under one roof," Burns said.
The council agreed the city should continue to aggressively pursue a new public-safety building. Council members Karen Holman and Pat Burt both referred to the project as one of the city's highest priorities. But Burt also said he was concerned about focusing exclusively on the Jay Paul concept, particularly in the absence of a formal proposal.
"I'm worried we're reacting to one proposal without any ability to understand whether there are other alternatives that might be as good or better," Burt said.
But even though the proposal is still in its embryonic phase, council members agreed it's well worth considering further. The council plans to get more information about it at a special "pre-screening" session, tentatively scheduled for Sept. 4.
Councilman Larry Klein dismissed any suggestion that the city could be foregoing better private proposals by zooming in on Jay Paul's.
"There's not that many people in town who own properties that are even potential sites for this," Klein said.