News

City chips in $5M toward Avenidas expansion

Palo Alto officials vote to support senior-service nonprofit, despite division over funding source

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.

Comments

10 people like this
Posted by Question
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 20, 2015 at 8:28 am

While I support Avenidas, and frankly would have preferred that money to them over city hall beautification we did for almost the same amount of money, I would cynically note that these are more walkble services for our northern neighbors while we get nothing but high density development in the south that gives us more traffic, noise, and paves over and evicts services, retail and natural environment that had been a big part of our quality of life. The traffic has made downtown almost like another city these days, I don t go for anything. I wonder if the Mtn Vw Avenidas serves south PA? I love that place (but only know it from memorial services).


6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 20, 2015 at 8:40 am

I have nothing against City money (aka taxpayers money) going to Avenidas.

I question what it would have been spent on otherwise. I know that our City is on the one hand flush with money and the other hand is screaming poverty.

I agree with the above poster that things like spending money on City Hall was not a fiscally responsible spending of taxpayers money.

I would also like to see money spent on signage at garages and lots with numbers of empty spaces before I enter a garage. I would like to see pay per hour machines at all lots and garages. I would like to be able to park in downtown for more than 3 hours and pay less than $17.

I would like to see improvements made in other parts of the City. Midtown could do with a Plaza area and improved parking, like 30 minute parking near the ATM machine, etc.

Avenidas is a worthwhile expenditure. City Hall improvements was not.


12 people like this
Posted by No developer concessions
a resident of Midtown
on Oct 20, 2015 at 9:39 am

While I fully support improvements in the senior center/services I say a firm "No" to funding the improvements through the sale of development concessions. It is like a drug that some of our city council can not break their addiction to. Glad at least half the council stood up as the voice of the community and said no to this.


2 people like this
Posted by Sam
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 20, 2015 at 2:08 pm

I support this use of money. I am heartened that the council didn't go with the TDRs. Now I am only concerned with the design of the now additions. It is larger than what is there and the first draft was ghastly - the additions had no relationship whatsoever with the current building - about the worst example I have ever seen. The city must insist that this design is coherent and enhances rather than degrades this historic building.


4 people like this
Posted by Lisa
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Oct 20, 2015 at 2:16 pm

The problem with this gift from the City to Avenidas is that Avenidas is located in North Palo Alto and such a gift does not benefit South Palo Alto Seniors.

It's time the City donated to Avenidas programs and facilities at Cubberley Community Center. At least half this money should have gone to rejuvenate the facilities at Cubberley used by Avenidas. Unfortunately, in Palo Alto most City funds go to North Palo Alto.


7 people like this
Posted by cm
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 20, 2015 at 3:34 pm

Yes - the city should use money to support this segment of our resident population.
No - they should not sell TDRs to raise the money - which allows overdevelopment/upzoning other areas of town and negatively impacting resident quality of life.
No - the city should not approve the massive/ghastly design that has been presented. In fact any design should meet all zoning requirements, just like everyone is suppose to. In fact, a second site in South Palo Alto should be looked into for expansion.
No - the new development doesn't need a gym since there is a gym literally 100 ft away across the street.
No - they should not be exempt from needed parking since most elderly users drive to Avenidas.


3 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 20, 2015 at 4:22 pm

The proposed modern addition to the back of the beautiful Birge Clark Senior Center is hideous. Avenitas would be wise to build the addition that is in keeping with the center's Spanish architecture. Avenitas would get less resistance from the neighborhood.


Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 20, 2015 at 4:22 pm

The proposed modern addition to the back of the beautiful Birge Clark Senior Center is hideous. Avenitas would be wise to build the addition that is in keeping with the center's Spanish architecture. Avenitas would get less resistance from the neighborhood.


Like this comment
Posted by resident and Avenidas and La Comida participant
a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 20, 2015 at 4:50 pm

Looking into the future of Seniors in Palo Alto I do not see the "millenials" being involved in group exercise classes (3 areas of state of the art flooring), knitting circles, dancing to canned music and computer classes among other offerings. I just do not see the future including these activities for the future senior generation. It is a different world and we who should know better in the heartland of Silicon Valley should be ashamed to spend this kind of money so foolishly.


2 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Oct 20, 2015 at 5:30 pm

"Looking into the future of Seniors in Palo Alto I do not see the "millenials" being involved in group exercise classes (3 areas of state of the art flooring), knitting circles, dancing to canned music and computer classes among other offerings. I just do not see the future including these activities for the future senior generation."

No generation sees itself involved in senior cituzenactivitues--until it becomes the senior generation. That is how it should be.


1 person likes this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Oct 21, 2015 at 5:35 am

cm says, "No - they should not be exempt from needed parking since most elderly users drive to Avenidas."

The City should NOT ALLOW "in-lieu" fines and require to build parking enough to cover the increased number of drivers.


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

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