With more Palo Altans entering their golden years, the city's main senior-service provider is looking to turn back time by rejuvenating its historic facility to serve its growing customer base.
On Monday night, the nonprofit Avenidas took a giant step toward this goal when the City Council voted to approve $5 million in public funds for the effort. The funds will be used for the rehabilitation and seismic upgrade of the city-owned building at 450 Bryant St., a historic facility that once served as the city's police station but now serves the city's booming population of seniors.
More than 50 supporters of the project, including Avenidas staff, board members and regular visitors, stood up to clap after the council voted 8-0, with Pat Burt absent, to approve the city's $5-million contribution to Avenidas, an organization that was born out of a public-private partnership nearly four decades ago and continues to serve as the city's primary provider of classes, case management and other support services for seniors.
Lisa Hendrickson, who is heading the Avenidas capital campaign, told the council that while the center's programs continue to win plaudits from users in Palo Alto and other cities, people don't come to see the building, which was built in 1927 and has not had a major rehabilitation during its nearly 90 years of existence. Most visitors, she said, are "fairly startled when they walk through our doors."
"We have the opportunity to again work as partners and invest in the Bryant Street center to ensure it meets the needs and expectation of current residents and the next generation of seniors," Hendrickson said. "Let's work together to bring our vibrant center into the 21st century."
The center's client base is expected to continue its recent trend of steady growth. Residents 55 and older now make up about a third of the city's population and are projected to make up half of the city by 2030.
Given the trend, and the city's long history of supporting Avenidas, the council enthusiastically supported contributing $5 million toward the $18-million effort. The rest of the balance is expected to be raised through private donations, including a $4-million match grant that the nonprofit is pursuing.
Bruce Heister, board chair at Avenidas, said the center has been considering an expansion for the past decade but struggled to jump-start the project during the economic downturn. The aging systems, he said, have been expensive to maintain, repairs are frequent, and more people are commenting that "the building is depressing. That it's tired looking."
Thus, the nonprofit has concluded that the renovation and expansion "is imperative to assure that Avenidas remain vibrant in this community," Heister said.
It's also become clear, he said, that "the community wants the city to help with the cost of renovating the cost of its 90-year-old building."
"The project budget has grown beyond the capacity of Avenidas to fundraise," Heister said.
The council agreed that investing in the expansion would be a wise move. Unlike other cities, Palo Alto doesn't operate its own senior center, which makes Avenidas a particularly important partner in addressing a critical community need.
"Here we have an instance in which we have a city-owned asset that was built 90 years ago and hasn't had the necessary improvements needed over last 90 years," Councilman Marc Berman said during the discussion. "We are an aging community ... And we need to do everything we can to make sure we have the resources we need to provide the services that our residents want and need as they get older and age in place."
Councilman Greg Scharff agreed and said he can't think of a better use of city funds than supporting Avenidas.
"Investing in our infrastructure is one of the best things we can do in our community," Scharff said. "We spend so much money on other things and here is a tangible response that we all see that will benefit so many members of the community."
But while the council agreed that the investment should be made, members split on the best way to fund these improvements. The staff recommendation called for selling "transfer of development rights" to raise some of the money for the rehabilitation, a mechanism that grants developers density bonuses as an incentive to pursue seismic and historic rehabilitations.
The council last year supported a similar course of actions when it discussed the proposed expansion of the Palo Alto History Museum.
Yet this proposal proved controversial, with four council members expressing concerns about relying on this source. Councilman Eric Filseth said that while selling these rights may feel like "free money," this notion is misleading. He proposed budgeting $5 million for Avenidas without relying on the sale of development rights.
"It's another form of selling zoning and I think the community said we don't want to do that anymore," Filseth said. "If we want to spend $5 million, we ought to spend $5 million."
The subject ended up dividing the council 4-4, with Tom DuBois, Liz Kniss and Vice Mayor Greg Schmid all siding with Filseth. All four favored supporting Avenidas. None, however, wanted to rely on density concessions to make this funding possible.
Instead, they supported having staff return at a later date with funding options for the $5-million expenditure, which will be made over the next two fiscal years.
Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who made the motion to contribute to Avenidas, said she saw no reason to delve into the controversial topic of selling development rights. She said she was confident that the city will "find a way to fund this $5 million, without question."
The other four council members said there's nothing wrong with relying on the sale of development rights to fund this project, noting that the process is entirely legal and consistent with prior actions.
Scharff led the charge, arguing that if the council doesn't specify the funding source, it will make staff's work more difficult and effectively "undercut" the entire effort to support Avenidas.
Mayor Karen Holman also defended the policy of selling development rights, calling the action "the only incentive we have to support seismic renovation and historical restoration."
Councilman Cory Wolbach concurred and noted that the council hasn't made any policy decisions about abolishing the use of this mechanism.
Without a fifth supporter, Scharff's motion to include development concessions as a funding mechanism died by a 4-4 vote. This means, it will now be up to staff to come up with options for funding the project.
The long debate over development rights did little to diminish the enthusiasm of the more than 50 seniors who attended the meeting and who gave the council a standing ovation after the unanimous vote was cast to contribute $5 million toward the Avenidas expansion.
Many wore Avenidas buttons and held signs that read "CROWDED AND CRAMPED" and "BURSTING AT THE SEAMS." Ginger Johnson praised Avenidas' programs and noted that Palo Alto does a great job taking care of residents in the "first half of life" through heavy investment in schools and libraries.
"It is imperative that we take care of those of us in the second half of life by making Avenidas a state-of-the-art facility," Johnson said.