Avenidas, the downtown Palo Alto senior-services center, has announced plans for a major expansion of its historic building at 450 Bryant St., once home to Palo Alto's police and fire departments.
The plan is to add a three-story structure right behind it, toward Ramona Street.
But parking in the highly sensitized "Downtown North" neighborhood is a big issue, namely because the large residential area between the commercial downtown and San Francisquito Creek is flooded each weekday with parked cars from businesses, mainly employees unable to find other free parking nearby.
The expansion/remodeling plan is being spearheaded by Lisa Hendrickson, the respected former president and CEO of Avenidas who stepped down in May 2014 to lead a fundraising effort to modernize and expand the center. During Hendrickson's 15-year leadership tenure, itself a bit historic, Avenidas created the Rose Kleiner Center for senior health in Mountain View and the Avenidas Village program to enable seniors to remain in their own homes as long as possible.
Her replacement was named last August: Amy Andonian, who more than a decade earlier switched her undergraduate focus at Stanford University from pre-med to geriatrics and public health after attending an inspiring class on aging.
The expansion/remodeling plan, well outlined in the Palo Alto Weekly recently (Major renovation planned for Avenidas senior center) would cost about $18 million and would include major remodeling inside the existing building, according to Hendrickson. It would add about 11,000 square feet to the existing building, which dates from the 1920s with a major remodel in the 1970s.
Avenidas has committed to raising $12 million and is asking the city to come up with another $5 million, leaving about $1 million to finance.
The City Council is expected to consider the matter after its summer break, in late August or early September.
But if fundraising isn't a big enough challenge, consider parking.
"From the get-go, we knew parking would be a serious issue," Hendrickson said. But the large parking structure right across the street has only a limited number of spaces available for seniors heading for the Avenidas building.
Hendrickson said they've studied the parking issue hard and even investigated the cost of putting mechanical parking lifts on the roof of the garage -- still a possibility at least for staff and non-senior visitors. The estimated cost of a new parking space, based on in-lieu fees the city charges, is $68,000. But adding lifts would cost only between $45,000 and $50,000 per space, she said.
Adding parking is tangled in the political governance of the parking structures, owned by the city but funded by the Downtown Palo Alto Parking Assessment District, chiefly landowners.
One positive aspect of the parking dilemma is an early endorsement, with some strings, by Neilson Buchanan, the primary leader in recent years of the effort to raise awareness and protest overflow parking. Buchanan lives just three blocks north of the Avenidas building.
"I hope that rational planning for parking-space supply and demand will evolve quickly for Avenidas," he said in a July 18 email to council members. "There is no reason for confusion to cloud this badly needed renovation and expansion." He urged "early involvement and guidance" by the council.
Buchanan noted that officials have a deadline of January 2016 to determine how many nonresident vehicles will be allowed to park in residential neighborhoods as a permanent policy. He said he anticipates that about half the available curbside spaces (about 700 in Downtown North) will be allocated for nonresident vehicles.
Avenidas employees and visitors, he said, should be "fully eligible" to park in any city parking structure and should not be allowed to buy curbside-parking permits in the neighborhood.
Another positive for the project is that a survey shows that about 40 percent of the seniors who regularly come to Avenidas for services, lunch, social contact or education programs already do so by means other than a car. Expansion of shuttles or other means -- including bicycle racks -- might help expand that percentage.
Under the plan, the exterior of the building maintains its historic facade, while the proposed new addition behind it would have a modern look.
The existing building dates from 1927, and until the 1950s and 1960s it housed both the police and fire departments. It even had a brass pole that firemen could slide down to get to the trucks from their dormitory upstairs.
Even after the firefighters moved out, the police department remained until the new Civic Center was completed in 1968.
The city was then faced with what to do with the vacant building.
One proposal was to create a high-end Mexican restaurant, Casa de Luz del Oro (House of the Golden Lights, for the building's ornate light fixtures on its front).
But another factor entered the picture, due to the growing number of seniors residing in Palo Alto (now about a third of the city's residents). The city in the 1960s created a half-time senior-services coordinator position, originally housed in the Downtown Library building. The first coordinator was the late Diana Steeples, who stayed involved.
A group of citizens, led by Palo Alto Medical Clinic physician Sid Mitchell and former lumber company owner Bud Hubbard, spearheaded the creation of the Senior Coordinating Council of the Midpeninsula, Inc. -- later dubbed Avenidas.
As a reporter for the Palo Alto Times, I covered the early days of the program, initially a group discussing senior needs, and served on the "SCC" board during the 1980s after I left the paper.
The group put in a request for the old building, and the City Council as a condition set an "impossible" goal of raising $1 million to fix up and remodel (and get rid of the brass pole). They succeeded.
But $1 million then went a lot farther than it does today.
Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and/or email@example.com. He also writes periodic blogs at PaloAltoOnline.com.