Palo Alto officials won't have to venture far this summer for signs that construction season is now in full bloom.
With the long-delayed construction of the Mitchell Park Library entering its final stretch and the controversial makeover of California Avenue in full swing, the city is embarking on an ambitious, $4.5 million renovation of City Hall, which includes a new glass-walled meeting room, renovated lobby, refurbished conference room, new carpets and upholstering in the Council Chambers and a personnel shuffle that will shift staff from at least four different departments to new locations.
Much like the ongoing revamp of California Avenue, the City Hall renovation started as a modest concept before expanding in ambition and cost. Two years ago, the chief goal was to refurbish the perpetually cramped Council Conference Room, which is located next to the Council Chambers and regularly hosts meetings of council committees and city commissions. The acoustically challenged room with low ceilings, stacked chairs and the dim fluorescent ambiance of a 1970s classroom has been bearing the brunt of council ridicule for years for its spartan accommodations. With the renovation project, the room will be refurbished, enlarged, stripped it of its role as a public-meeting space and turned into a staff-training room, Public Works Director Mike Sartor said.
In addition, the city has been looking at expanding and refurbishing the Human Resources Conference Room, a narrow space next to the Council Chambers. The smaller room is routinely used by the council for closed-session deliberations.
With the Council Conference Room relinquishing its status as the default meeting space outside the Council Chambers, the city is now looking to build a larger and more modern public-meeting room in a corner of the City Hall lobby, a location currently occupied by a portion of the city's People Strategy and Operations Department (commonly known as Human Resources).
The new meeting room will have glass walls, space for 55 chairs and sliding doors so seating can extend into the lobby if needed, Sartor said. It will also be equipped with modern media equipment, including multiple LCD screens, high-definition cameras and wall-mounted speakers, according to a recent report from the Public Works Department.
Sartor said the scope of the project began to change in 2012, after staff held a series of design charettes to consider the best way to transform the first floor of City Hall. That's when the ideas for new meeting spaces and shuffling departments began to take shape.
City Manager James Keene said the focus of the project is to make the ground floor of City Hall "welcoming to the public and also work for the public's business." The Hamilton Avenue building, which was designed by architect Edward Durell Stone in 1967, was built in what Keene called "probably the absolutely worst time in American history for a college town." The atmosphere of civil unrest and turmoil, he said, may have contributed to the fact that the city ended up with an "almost windowless building with glass that can't be broken" and a ground floor that immediately leads a visitor into an empty "dead space." It perhaps doesn't help, he quipped, that the first city employees visitors encounter are in Revenue Collections.
"Nobody was going to build a City Hall, in the era of taking over City Hall and school administrations and everything else, that was going to be welcoming to the public," Keene said.
The renovation project aims to change that, he said.
"The public really comes here to participate in the civic life of the city," he said. "We need to have space that works."
Once the project is complete, visitors to City Hall will be greeted with a giant digital touchscreen that could be divided into numerous smaller screens and will feature art projects, information about city events, videos, photos of local neighborhoods and live broadcasts of public meetings.
The city is also planning to unveil an extensive wayfinding and building-signage program in City Hall a component that is set to be evaluated by the Architectural Review Board on July 17. The city also plans to replace the carpets and the bench upholstery inside the Council Chambers, the large meeting room where the council holds all of its regular meetings. The work will be concluded in the next month while the council is away on its July recess.
For many city workers, the project will bring more than just aesthetic enhancements. The renovation plans include what Sartor called a "domino effect" of shifting departmental locations. The first-floor offices of People Strategy and Operations, for example, will be consolidated with the rest of the department on the second floor to make room for the expanded meeting areas. Utility Department employees who deal with customer service and currently are on the second floor will be moved down to the lobby, where they will share space with the Revenue Collections staff of the Administrative Services Department. This will allow residents who have questions about their utility bills to get answers and make payments in the same location, Sartor said.
The city is also looking to liven up the lobby area by installing a digital media art display on a large wall near the meeting room. The city is now in the final stages of selecting an artist for the display, according to Matt Raschke, the city's project manager for the remodeling effort.
Despite the broad scope and significant expenditures, the project has not faced much scrutiny from the council. On June 16, the council approved more than $4 million in expenditures for the City Hall renovation, which includes a $2.7 million contract with the firm D.L. Falk Construction, Inc., and an addition of $141,565 to its contract with WMB Architects, which brings that total contract to a not-to-exceed amount of $426,256. The council also authorized a budget amendment that allocates another $1.6 million for the project. Some of the costs will be funded by impact fees from developments and by transfers from various utility funds and from the Technology Fund.
The city contracts were signed last week and much of the work on the first floor will take place in the next three months. The next three phases will then commence on the mezzanine level and on the second floor, with each phase expected to take about 45 days, according to a Public Works report.