Is A,B,C really as easy as 1, 2, 3?
When it comes to labeling the three levels of the City Hall underground parking garage, Palo Alto officials aren't so sure. And in lieu of certainty, the City Council balked on Monday night at spending about $100,000 to make the shift from letters to numbers, as city staff had recommended.
By overriding city staff's recommendation to rename the three parking garage levels, the council slashed about a third of the cost from the proposed $327,000 "wayfinding program" at City Hall, which is one of the final components of a somewhat controversial $4.3-million effort to refresh the monolithic building on Hamilton Avenue. The council agreed, however, to fund the rest of the proposed sign program, including a new podium sign near the entrance to the Palo Alto Police Department and a monument sign at the corner of Hamilton Avenue and Bryant Street.
The council's scrutiny of the sign program also signaled a marked departure from its past considerations of the City Hall renovation. The project's largest components which include two new meeting rooms near the lobby, a refurbished Council Chambers and a new Civic Technology Center to house the Information Technology department were approved last year on the council's consent calendar, without a word of discussion or debate. The quick approval of the project became a political flashpoint during last year's City Council campaign, with critics questioning the council's commitment to transparency and fiscal prudence.
The sign program that was proposed by staff and approved by the Architectural Review Board included 331 signs, 231 of them in the garage. The main goal was to make it easier for a first-time visitor to find his or her way around City Hall and its parking garage. The sign program included new directories inside the building and in the garage, where the three levels would be renamed to P1, P2 and P3. According to city staff, this would entail updating more than 200 columns within the garage with new name designation and enhanced graphics.
Unlike the rest of the renovation project, the sign program spurred plenty of discussion and significant revisions from the council. Last month, the council voted to remove the item from its consent calendar and hold a full hearing. And on Monday night, Councilmen Tom DuBois and Eric Filseth, both of whom were elected last fall, made a pitch for downsizing the sign program and saving some money.
DuBois noted that the council has heard "quite a lot from the public" about the City Hall remodel and argued that sometimes good quality simply means "good enough."
"The proposed signage is beautiful. The question is, 'Do we need all of it?'" DuBois said. "If we saved $125,000, we can spend it on a lot of other projects that the community wants from us."
"Do we want to make City Hall prettier? Of course. But it's a third of a million dollar for signs," he said. "I think the real question is, 'Is City Hall where Palo Alto residents want us to splurge?'"
DuBois proposed a series of modifications to the sign program, including an elimination of the podium signs in front of the police department's entrance on Forest Avenue and near City Hall. The motion to remove the police sign failed by a 3-5 vote, with DuBois, Filseth and Vice Mayor Greg Schmid supporting the proposal and Councilman Greg Scharff absent. After DuBois and Filseth agreed that it would be appropriate to attach the new City Hall sign to the building (rather than include it on a separate podium), the design change passed 6-2, with Mayor Karen Holman and Councilwoman Liz Kniss dissenting.
There was little appetite on the council, however, for renaming the garage levels, as proposed by staff. City Manager James Keene said the existing system confuses some visitors, who aren't sure whether the A level (which is the uppermost garage level) is the ground floor or not. It's one of the reasons people often find it difficult to navigate their way out of the garage, he said.
"The panic sets in when they realize they're actually stuck in City Hall, rather than getting to the restaurants," Keene quipped.
He noted that the 1970 building went up during a period of civil disobedience and that the goal was to "keep the public out of the building." The goal of the remodel, he said, is to make City Hall more welcoming.
"I think sometimes those last touches can make all the difference in a project being complete and fully working," Keene said.
Despite numerous quibbles over details, the council generally agreed that new signs would be a welcome addition to City Hall. Councilwoman Liz Kniss concurred that the present system is confusing and that the existing signs are "pretty terrible."
"It's puzzling and it's hard for people to figure out," she said.
Councilman Marc Berman was the only member who supported changing the garage levels from letters to numbers. He cited the differences between the Palo Alto City Hall and the one in Mountain View, which he called "open and inviting."
"What we're trying to do is put lipstick on a pig and our City Hall is the pig," Berman said. "And we're trying to make it a little bit less intimidating and a little less confusing."
The motion to not rename the three parking garage levels and saving about $100,000, then carried by a 7-1 vote, with Berman dissenting and Scharff absent.