Focus shifts to city-owned sites for new police building

After failing to buy a site for new police HQ, Palo Alto takes closer look at three municipally owned ones

Palo Alto has few great options for pursuing its most urgent and frustrating infrastructure priority -- a new police headquarters -- but three possibilities have recently emerged as the least bad of the bunch.

All three sites for the new building would require tradeoffs and entail debates about priorities. Yet they have one big edge over prior contenders: Each parcel is already owned by the city.

The new emphasis on city-owned land is a departure from past conversations, when it was generally assumed that the city would have to buy property to accommodate the new police headquarters. Though the city has been talking about the need to upgrade its small and seismically shaky police headquarters since 1997, all efforts to further this cause have so far ended in frustration. In 2007, the leading candidate was a property at 2747 and 2785 Park Blvd. The city bought a purchase option from the property owner, Essex Park Boulevard, LLC, but then terminated the agreement in June 2009 because of the economic downturn.

More recently, the developer Jay Paul Company offered to build a new police headquarters as a "public benefit" in exchange for the city's permission to build a massive office development at 395 Page Mill Road. That plan fizzled in December 2013, when Jay Paul withdrew its application, citing an unfavorable political climate.

Jay Paul had also purchased in January 2013 two Park Boulevard properties that the city had previously considered. After paying $11.4 million for the sites, the developer now plans to build a three-story office building there.

A new home for public safety has been one of the city's most pressing infrastructure needs for more than a decade. Several citizen committees, one devoted specifically to the public-safety facility and another that surveyed all of the city's infrastructure needs, emphatically concluded that the current facility is inadequate and that a new one is needed. At 25,000 square feet, the police headquarters at City Hall is about half the size the department says it needs; and a 2011 assessment by a citizens committee described the 1970 facility as "unsafe and vulnerable."

Last year, the City Council designated a new public-safety building as a top priority in the city's new infrastructure plan and identified $57 million that would be spent on it. Whereas five years ago, the city had a site but no money secured, today the reverse is true.

Over the past year, city staff considered more than 20 different sites, including ones located by the foothills at Deer Creek Road, at Palo Alto Square on El Camino Real and the animal shelter location on East Bayshore Road. These and many others were ultimately eliminated because they were either too small, too expensive, filled with too many uncertainties or simply not for sale. Three, however, made it to the final round and are set to be discussed by the City Council at a special meeting on May 6.

One option would place the police headquarters by the Baylands, at the former Los Altos Treatment Plant site at 1237 San Antonio Road. Another would place the headquarters at 3120 West Bayshore Road, the current location of a PG&E substation that would have to be relocated. Like the Los Altos Treatment Plant site, it is close to the Baylands but distant from the city's main commercial district -- a drawback but not necessarily a deal-breaker at a time when each police cruiser effectively acts like an office.

A third site, at 250 Sherman Ave., has a more central location: a 1.5-acre city-owned parking lot, known as Lot C-6, in the California Avenue business district. It's smaller than the other sites, however, and the city's evaluation notes that "program compromises may be necessary to fit PSB (the public-safety building) on this site."

Then there's the challenge of taking over a parking lot in an area where there's already a dearth of parking and that is currently going through a building boom. To address this problem, city staff is proposing an ambitious solution: building a new parking garage an adjacent lot, which is also owned by the city.

While the City Council has already committed to constructing a new downtown garage, which is a central part of its infrastructure plan, a new parking structure in the California Avenue area hasn't been firmed up. But there could be an incentive: Because building a police headquarters on Sherman would save the city the roughly $10 million it was planning to spend on acquiring a site, staff is now floating the possibility of using this money to speed up the timeline for a California Avenue garage.

A new report from the Public Works Department notes that the new garage "might also include ground-floor retail that could be designated as below-market-rate for preservation of locally owned shops."

The public-safety building, meanwhile, would have about 44,848-square feet of space, much more than the current facility but less than the 50,000-square-foot building considered previously. In addition to serving the needs of the Police Department, the building would have space for the Emergency Operations Center, the Office of Emergency Services and the administration of the Fire Department.

"The new PSB is expected to provide for the city's public safety needs over the next 50 years, as well as address and resolve compliance issues with seismic, accessibility, code and regulatory requirements," the Public Works report states.

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2 people like this
Posted by Gus L.
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 29, 2015 at 8:35 pm

A good Option would be the soccer fields on El Camino and Page Mill.
Doesn't the city lease that from Stanford for $1.00 a year?
Perfect spot for a Cop Shop..

5 people like this
Posted by Commonsense
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 30, 2015 at 10:50 am

Who came up withe "need" of 50,000 SF? Why isn't the existing site on the list of potential sites? They could certainly fit a larger building on the existing site next to city hall.

1 person likes this
Posted by Judith
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Apr 30, 2015 at 11:12 am

The size of the building was determined by the various departments that would occupy it. The current site at city hall had seismic complications as well as being too small to accommodate the departments within the height limit. Also, getting out of that site into downtown traffic isn't always the fastest exit in an emergency.

I really wish the Weekly would print the list of requirements for a public safety building. Hardly anyone realizes that, for example, the seismic codes for that type of building are far stricter than for city hall, which is why it's OK for the other departments to stay in the (seismically retrofitted) building. The state laws governing evidence storage cant be met in the current space. Interview rooms don't meet state code either.

Please, can somebody from the city answer people's perfectly legitimate questions? It's clear there is a lot of misunderstanding out there.

4 people like this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 30, 2015 at 12:41 pm

The footprint of the existing police station at Bryant and Forest is about 20,000. They could easily build a three story, 60,000 sf building there under the 50' height limit. In fact, many newer buildings downtown are four stories and still under the 50' limit. Perhaps they are saving this building for all the additional staff Keene is adding to the payroll :)

Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 30, 2015 at 1:31 pm

What?? No libraries on this list?

Like this comment
Posted by Wondering
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 30, 2015 at 2:58 pm

Is it possible to build in or around Mitchell Park? There's already a fire station there. With the new library/community rooms in place, just wondering if that has been considered?

Also, what about the old Cubberley area? Have these been considered?

Like this comment
Posted by OtherOptions
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 30, 2015 at 3:01 pm

To rebuild on the existing site would require some temporary space to be used during construction. As poor as the existing facilities are, there are no others to be used temporarily.
Now what about some kind of 'swap'? A suitable location, already occupied, which *could* relocate to temporary space and allow construction of a new public safety building. Is there one of those somewhere?

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Posted by Marcie
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 30, 2015 at 3:23 pm

What is wrong with renting space until a new building is ready on the present site? I agree with looking into space at Cubberley and how about the old Ventura
School site?

2 people like this
Posted by Stewart
a resident of Community Center
on Apr 30, 2015 at 8:56 pm

commonsense and other options point out what appears to be a completely obvious, though deliberately ignored option: temporarily relocate PAPD to another location for a year or two, and tear down and rebuild a new significantly better and larger police station exactly where it is now. If the existing PAPD building is as unsafe as has been reported, it should be torn down when PAPD relocates anyways, and rebuilding on what is presumably city owned property, should help expedite the building of a new PAPD headquarters. Why does this not seem to be an option?

2 people like this
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 30, 2015 at 9:56 pm

Excellent idea - use Cubberly as a temporary site until the existing site can be rebuilt/re-opened.

2 people like this
Posted by Charles White
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 1, 2015 at 3:21 am

Why do we need to double the space of the police station? Are we planning to double "law enforcement" in our town? Let's cut back on the number of cops and non sworn personnel. More cops means more enforcement of unimportant laws, like people pushing shopping carts or using milk crates inappropriately. Read the Daily Post's police blotter to see the silly things people are busted for. The real question is: do we need to double our police force when crime rates are going down?

Like this comment
Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 1, 2015 at 1:22 pm

Use the current site
annex the DT library plus its parking lot if more space is needed (close that block of Forest)
Temporarily locate satellite offices at fire stations

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