Palo Alto officials defend City Hall remodel

Council members make a case for why the project was approved in June

Five months after Palo Alto officials approved a $4.3 million renovation of City Hall, council members made a public case for why the project was necessary.

Striking a somewhat defensive tone, several members of the City Council lamented the fact that the ambitious project became a political flashpoint during the recent election, with some members of the community criticizing the expanded scope and increasing price tag of the project.

The renovation, which includes a large new public room adjacent to the City Hall lobby and the refurbishment of two existing conference rooms on the ground floor, was approved on June 16 on the council's consent calendar, with no debate or discussion.

The project faced public scrutiny later in the summer after the Weekly wrote about its expanding scope and after some council members expressed surprise about how the project has morphed over the years from a simple renovation of a conference room to a complete overhaul of the ground floor. The Monday night discussion was prompted by requests by Councilwoman Karen Holman and Councilmen Greg Schmid and Pat Burt for a public explanation for why the project was necessary.

City Manager James Keene told the council Monday that the renovation "is a great project and is long overdue." He also said the 45-year-old building urgently needed the upgrade and that the project approved by the council has "thoroughly vetted over the years."

"It's very easy to question why you should invest in City Hall, but design does matter," Keene wrote. "This first floor is dead space. It is unwelcoming and ineffective. Unwelcoming for the public and for the staff who supports the council and the public."

He also said that the council currently "doesn't have a good place to meet," aside from its spacious and formal Council Chambers. The existing conference room, where local commissions and council committees often meet, is notoriously cramped and has an outdated air conditioning system that blasts cold air at participants.

The council discussion has been delayed for months because of packed agendas and by the time the council took up the item late Monday night, the Council Chambers was mostly empty and some members questioned whether the discussion is even worth having. Councilman Greg Scharff noted that the council didn't get a single email about the City Hall renovation from the public before this week's meeting (even though councilman-elect Tom DuBois wrote to the council, requesting that the item be placed higher on the agenda).

Councilman Larry Klein provided a brief history of the various City Hall renovations that the council had approved over the years and argued that the city had followed all the proper procedures in pursuing the project. He called the Monday discussion of the project "an exercise of bad procedure."

"Let's get real. Any time that the Palo Alto Weekly runs a story, we're supposed to bow and immediately take it up? I don't think we should do it as a policy, particularly when we did it in accordance with procedures," Klein said.

Mayor Nancy Shepherd, who did not prevail in her bid for a second term, also characterized the City Hall renovation as a non-issue.

"I'm sorry the Palo Alto Weekly had to do an article on it," Shepherd said.

Shepherd also lamented the way the City Hall project became a "political volleyball during campaign" because of the large amount of money being spent. Councilman Greg Scharff agreed and said it's a "shame" that this "good project really got caught up in the campaign."

But Burt and Schmid both argued that while the project has many merits, it's important to inform the public about it. Schmid said Keene's presentation about the project is "effective for the public to hear."

"You're talking to a group that spends maybe too much time in City Hall," Schmid said. "Together on consent we can say that this building needs it. It's sometimes good to do it in public so people can say, 'There are four other things you can do with $4 million.'"

Burt agreed and said it's a "responsible exercise for this to be done publicly." In a "community space" like City Hall, he said, the council owes the public "greater accountability."

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11 people like this
Posted by Carol Gilbert
a resident of University South
on Nov 18, 2014 at 10:45 am

Having met many times in conference rooms at city hall, I agree that there needed to be some updating, but not $4million dollar's worth. Also, note, putting in a glass wall does not make processes that go on there transparent.

7 people like this
Posted by The Shadow knows.....
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 18, 2014 at 1:02 pm

This is a project of image and style, not substance - which perfectly reflects City Manger James Keene's vision and priorities.

There are a substantial number of high priority infrastructure repair projects at City Hall for that 50+ year old building that are not funded and should have a higher priority than this one.

For example, the front plaza area/deck is the roof of the parking garage and has serious deficiencies that are a structural flaw. The waterproofing membrane has deteriorated and allows water to leak into the reinforcing steel and the garage below. It is listed as an unfunded need in the infrastructure study, and is a multi million dollar project.

Why is the interior "remodel" a higher priority than a serious structural deficiency?

Methinks the emperor desires anew suit of clothes............

5 people like this
Posted by 37 year resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 18, 2014 at 1:30 pm

If this is managed the same way the new library was managed then it will cost more than the estimate we are now getting. This is typical of government spending without respect for taxpayer citizens. It's not their money so why should they care? And they don't.

5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2014 at 1:39 pm

There are many higher priorities around town than this expensive upgrade. The police building and Baylands Boardwalk/Interpretive Center for two.

If work needs to be done, then get the essentials done, but not this huge project.

2 people like this
Posted by Retired Staffer
a resident of another community
on Nov 18, 2014 at 1:40 pm

When I worked in City Hall (6 years ago) my window leaked in the rain. Fix? They taped a plastic garbage bag to the bottom of the window in order to collect the water. At that time IT was rewiring the computer network. They had to call in a retiree to find the wires. The Facilities Department does yeoman work keeping the place together. The entire building needs to be rebuilt. It will be very expensive.

Like this comment
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2014 at 3:13 pm

Tin ears all around.

3 people like this
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 18, 2014 at 3:49 pm

> Having met many times in conference rooms at city hall, I agree that
> there needed to be some updating

How many conference rooms are there on the ground floor of City Hall? Two, maybe?

How much "upgrading" can $4.5M buy?

This project should have been an election issue--and people like Greg "the building is the benefit"/"I'm a residentialist now", as well as Karen Holman, should have been asked point-blank: "what is the need" and "where is the money going"? It's hard to believe that either of these two would have had much of an answer.

Also have to wonder how much of this $4.5M is being managed the same way the Mitchell Park Library has been managed--and is unnecessary rework, or just clearly bloated spending on the part of the City Manager.

And where is the City Auditor? Why is it that she can not be tasked with reviewing these projects and giving the public some sense of whether there is good management behind these projects--or just more "business-as-usual" at 250 Hamilton?

3 people like this
Posted by Rose
a resident of Mayfield
on Nov 18, 2014 at 4:10 pm

The Weekly didn't make it an issue -- the price tag makes it an issue. I guess the Council members don't park in the garage because they couldn't possibly propose spending $4 million on upgrading the conference room(s) but allow the garage to be utterly FILTHY. If you want to make a good impression on residents and visitors -- clean up the black greasy garage floors and paint the stairwells and doors. It's disgusting and has been so for ages. Someone mentioned above that the waterproofing under the plaza is shot -- that repair seems a legitimate use of funds, unless we need to bite the bullet and build a whole new city hall. It's time for Kniss, Klein and others to get real. Perhaps it's time to rebuild City Hall, along with the Council.

Like this comment
Posted by gale johnson
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 18, 2014 at 5:16 pm

Me again...remembering what Cory said at the first coffee event I attended. He said he thought there were more important needs and places where that money could be better spent. That didn't happen and Cory didn't have a vote. But next year he will. He'll have his time to speak up on issues like this. And now the council members are stealing a page out of Cory's playbook...maybe in the future we should get the citizens more involved and get their opinions before we move ahead on matters like this. Duh! And you don't think he's ready for the Council job? Just wait and watch. I think you're in for a big surprise. But, I don't always agree with Cory on issues and he knows and accepts that. I think that's good. Open minds, expressing their views, is healthy, and hopefully will get everything out on the table, and then it gets down to 'Now it's time to vote'.

1 person likes this
Posted by Chance
a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 18, 2014 at 6:52 pm

For that amount of money, might as well have built a new building entirely. I suppose that every department handed in a wish list and all requests were honored.

3 people like this
Posted by Pumpkin
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 19, 2014 at 2:34 am

Good luck to Council members who whine about a free press! Everytime one our our local papers does a hit piece - especially on any fraud, waste and abuse or mere incompetence by our elected officials - I thank my lucky stars my town has some newspaper editors and journalists with courage to take on City Hall. Few of us can get to any City Hall meetings but we can stay updated and vote as informed citizens with the help of our local free press.

8 people like this
Posted by fedup
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 19, 2014 at 10:45 am

When are the citizens of Palo Alto going to come to their senses and let James Keene go so he can ruin another town rather than ours? And while we're at it, let's also tell Jaime Rodriguez to look for another job, in a town better able to cope with his desire to implement every possible road configuration he can pull out of his college textbooks. Neither of these men is a good fit for Palo Alto.

2 people like this
Posted by green Gables
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 19, 2014 at 11:15 am

I AGREE with "fed up."

1 person likes this
Posted by Barbara
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 19, 2014 at 11:43 am

Ridiculous waste of taxpayer $$. . .why didn't the City spend money for repairs to the building, as needed?? Why wait until the structure was in such a mess?? $4+ million isn't going to go very far -- think Mitchell Park Center -- E-gads!

1 person likes this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 19, 2014 at 12:53 pm

If Nancy Shepard et al. thought this was such a great use of our money, they should have defended it before the election. They could have justified that this project was so much higher in priority than other items on the list infrastructure repairs needed, or they give us data that shows how many more residents would enjoy the benefit of a glass conference room over the repair the baylands boardwalk.

But they couldn't justify this expenditure, especially if they had to debate it; the voters could decide if they made any sense. As it was, Shepard kept quiet about it because she knew it couldn't be justified, and she didn't want to lose by an even wider margin of votes.

And I've seen the Weekly provide space on the editoral page for a dissenting view to their editoral for other topics... so they shouldn't try to blame the press.

2 people like this
Posted by jm
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 19, 2014 at 1:25 pm

For more years than I can remember Palo Alto has known that not if but when we have a big earthquake our police headquarters will suffer sufficient damage to make it almost certainly unusable. No police headquarters to coordinate search and rescue and all the other myriad things we will need coordinated. Palo Alto council has no problems approving millions and millions in consultants, increase in top level managers at city hall earning $150 thousand or more a year, (with 30 or 40 years to come of (often) padded pensions, health benefits etc. a year), nice things like nearing $7 million to landscape three blocks of Cal Ave, goodness knows how much the new library will end up costing, bridges and city hall refurbishments, libraries, $150 thousand to study, (and goodness knows how much staff time which costs) for the 2-year Arialaga plan to build was it a 19 story office tower? On and on, name your pet council spending/overspending peeve. Priority setting doesn't seem to be a qualification for serving as city manager or council. Safety is arguably the number one priority a city should provide. (I have no affiliation with the police, firefighters, city hall, etc.)

2 people like this
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 19, 2014 at 2:20 pm

> or more years than I can remember Palo Alto has known that not if but when we
> have a big earthquake our police headquarters will suffer sufficient damage to
> make it almost certainly unusable

And what model can you cite that makes this claim absolute truth?

The likelihood of the PA police station becoming unusable during an earthquake is very, very, low. Moreover, the City invested over $500,000 in a mobile command center that has the ability to handle not only PA 911 calls, but those of a couple of our neighbors. There is room in this emergency center for police management to work, at least for a couple of weeks.

The City has also joined with other local City governments to merge their emergency command capabilities, so that if presumably if one of the centers is rendered out-of-service, then that function can shift to a neighboring City.

The police vehicles are not gassed at City Hall, although currently some of them are parked there overnight. Certainly this parking arrangement could change--and the vehicles could gas at any service station in town, or in a nearby town.

The jail is little used in the PA police station, and with mutual aid agreements in place with all local police departments, and the main jail in San Jose used by the PA police for booking, there really isn't anything going on at the PA police department than could not be shifted to a couple of trailers, parked over in the Corporation Yard.

Before we listen to the henny-pennies of this community about how we are all in danger without a new police station--ask yourself why the obvious emergency backup plans are not readily available for public review?

4 people like this
Posted by Big spender before Jan. 1
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 19, 2014 at 3:11 pm

The City Manager gave a very lo-o-ng explanation of why he was doing this. The explanation was full of meaningless government-ese and it is doubtful that many people could follow it. If it made sense it would not have required so much verbal puffery.

And did you see the art work being proposed!? Computer generated cliches, big, dominating pictures of circles, a huge standard display of the variety of faces like those produced by any photo-savvy amateur(many bank advertisements use the same idea).

Disgraceful waste of our money. Maybe that is the point, spend alot before the new council takes its seats.

6 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Citizen
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 19, 2014 at 6:02 pm

I agree with fedup.
Jaime Rodriguez, Chief Transportation Officer, loves painting hideous lime green rectangles and other confusing markings on streets, all over town. Also, has anyone noticed all the new, useless signs popping up at intersections? Rodriguez owns a company called Traffic Patterns, LLC, located in San Jose. The company designs street markings, like the ones being painted on our streets. He also owns a company called Cell Signs, that manufactures street signs. Very suspicious.

10 people like this
Posted by Screwy Priorities
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 19, 2014 at 6:20 pm

The current council members really have their priorities wrong. The side of the building that houses the police dept is in seriously bad shape, bordering on being unsafe. That should be properly addressed before this cosmetic facelift!

There is simply no defense for an indefensible expense that obviously has no basis in merit.

James Keene should be shown the door, and the sooner the better, before he outrageously and unconscionably wastes more money.

Like this comment
Posted by jm
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 19, 2014 at 9:14 pm

I'm so glad that the police department got a retrofit and I am completely out of date. Remember this being linked to a possible bond issue for voters, something about the ceiling collapsing because built long before current earthquake standards.

4 people like this
Posted by Transparency
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 19, 2014 at 9:17 pm

Maybe we should give Mr. Rodriquez an all-glass fish-bowl office with some color-coded lights that show when he's actually doing city business vs double dipping.

2 people like this
Posted by member
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 19, 2014 at 11:08 pm

such arrogance. Why didn't we vote these irresponsible folks out? It is like Congress irresponsible without a concern for the citizens.

3 people like this
Posted by Robert Smith
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 20, 2014 at 12:20 pm

This was passed through the consent calendar with no public discussion or even awareness of what was contemplated. I doubt that the members of council even knew what was happening.

Sadly, I have concluded that the only solution is to deprive the city of funds. The less money that they have, the more they will be forced to think through what they spend.

I voted for the library bond issue. If I had it to do over, I would not have voted for it. The city should have had to consider the libraries alongside city hall, California Avenue renovations, and salary increases for the staff.

2 people like this
Posted by citizen
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 20, 2014 at 5:14 pm

This Council really does not seem to understand the difference between an expenditure that benefits the public and an expenditure that benefits them.

An expenditure that benefits the public would have increased public access to City Hall. For example, renovating a space on the South side of town so that every other meeting could be held on the other side of town would have been one possible way to be more inclusive. Especially since it's now so difficult to cross town and the other side is so congested from all the development City Hall approved.

Another expenditure that would benefit the public would have been technology that would allow residents to participate better from home, and to provide input and exchange of information from home. We wouldn't need so many meetings if these people would just do their jobs, but be that as it may, no ordinary person can attend all these meetings, and we get told we clubbed with the idea that we have no right to protest anything they've done wrong if we don't "participate". Make it more possible for more people to participate within the context of their lives.

I would have been glad to support that a thousand times over renovating City Hall. It really looks fine to me. The Baylands Interpretive Center, on the other hand, does not. I also might have been more inclined to support renovations of City Hall if the Council had any inclination to support quality of life on my side of town. They could have purchased the Maybell site, sold off the houses after 6 months and gotten the orchard for FREE. Residents offered to raise the money for and build a community space. It would have been a far better use of City funds for our kids -- who, for lack of any other civic assets on this end of town, seem to hang out at the drugstore now. It's unrealistic to tell them to take their bikes across town to where the majority of the other City assets, including City Hall are.

The City should acquire the Fry's site with the Stanford money. For those funds, they could put in another City pool like Rinconada on this side of town, with a park and maker space, one kids could reach easily by bike path.

People didn't get upset about the expenditure because of the Weekly, they got upset because every time anyone brings up any other more important priority, there's never any money. Expensive cosmetics are a lower priority than the needs of children and the community.

2 people like this
Posted by Hypocrisy
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 20, 2014 at 11:59 pm

"Councilman Greg Scharff noted that the council didn't get a single email about the City Hall renovation from the public before this week's meeting."

What hypocrisy, because even when directly talking to the Council in session one does not get an answer - beyond snide belittling - so what good does a letter to the whole council do? They are too busy stacking committees with their favorites against the new majority to be bothered by constituents concerns.

Only when 15 NIMBYs on El Camino side walk widening appear before the council and give 15 times the same spiel, council woman Kniss jumps excitedly up and down saying, see, the business community does not like it. And there are only 2 people in favor, she said!

2 people like this
Posted by Big spender before Jan. 1
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Nov 21, 2014 at 11:59 am

Instead of that really ugly carpet in the council chambers that replaced a very attractive carpet, the room needs a better microphone system.
And the Conference room next to the chambers has a ridiculously antiquated sound system. Optionally some nicer furniture there too.
But that would be enough!
Giving Million$$$ to whoever chose that carpet is criminal.

2 people like this
Posted by Over-Budget by $174K More
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 26, 2014 at 6:38 pm

And buried in the City Council agenda was another $174,000 for art work for the 1st floor.

With just the 1st floor now at around $4,774,000, let's hope they don't decide to tackle a few more floors.

Anyone want to bet on the final cost?

2 people like this
Posted by Dumbunnies
a resident of Monroe Park
on Nov 26, 2014 at 8:12 pm

You cannot defend the indefensible. Period.

Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 27, 2014 at 2:41 am

It sure is easy spending other peoples money.

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

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