Shaped like a ship forever moored in the Baylands, the EcoCenter is a building like no other in Palo Alto.
Known in its previous life as the Sea Scout building, the center was successfully rehabilitated and enhanced by the nonprofit Environmental Volunteers before re-opening to the public in 2012. Today, it attracts about 5,000 nature lovers annually, many of them students looking to experience the wildlife wonders of the marshy nature preserve.
For the City Council, the EcoCenter also epitomizes a successful public-private partnership. Under an agreement that the city reached with Environmental Volunteers in 2007, the group raised $3.8 million to restore the damaged, sinking, flood-prone building that the city was on the verge of demolishing in the late 1980s. Today, the nonprofit uses the restored EcoCenter as its headquarters and to stage exhibits about science and nature.
On Tuesday night, the council recognized the group's accomplishments with words of praise and a commitment of money. By a 8-0 vote, with Liz Kniss absent, the council agreed to pay Environmental Volunteers $300,000 for serviced rendered, as was agreed on in 2007. In agreeing to pay the nonprofit, Councilman Greg Scharff called the new EcoCenter a "fabulous building," Councilman Tom DuBois said it looks "great" and Mayor Pat Burt called it a "real community gem."
"The building was both literally and figuratively taken out of the mud by the process and restored to real grandeur and a facility that ... the community will treasure for decades and decades to come," Burt said.
Councilwoman Karen Holman recalled that before the group intervened, the building was "falling into the Bay."
"It was flooding," Holman said. "It was in really bad shape."
But while council members lauded the project, they were far less enthused about the proposed method for compensating the Environmental Volunteers for services rendered. Under the 2007 agreement, the money would be raised through sale of "transferable development rights," a financing mechanism that allows developers that buy these rights to add density to new projects elsewhere in the city.
In today's climate of parking frustration, traffic rage and growth anxiety, the practice of selling density bonuses to developers is far less popular than it was in 2007. Most council members agreed Tuesday that it's time to re-evaluate the program and see if it should be scrapped or reformed.
Three council members took it a step further and argued that the city should avoid this mechanism altogether and just pay the group $300,000 out of the city's General Fund. Councilmen DuBois, Eric Filseth and Greg Schmid, all affiliated with the council's slow-growth "residentialist" wing, took a hard-line stance against the practice of selling density bonuses. DuBois said doing so would set a bad precedent at a time when there is widespread concern about downtown density. Filseth argued that paying with cash is the simpler and more transparent route.
"I think the group has done a tremendous job," Filseth said. "This is exactly the kind of thing that makes sense for the city and I think we ought to invest in it.
"In general, our job is if something is worth paying for, we should pay for it. We shouldn't muck around with TDRs (transferable development rights), we should just pay for it in cash. It's simpler. We have it. It's the right kind of project."
Other council members also had some misgivings about the transferable rights, though most agreed that they should honor the commitment of their predecessors in 2007 and proceed with the sale of 2,500 square feet of development.
Given the hot real estate market, staff projects the sale of these rights to raise about $562,000. In 2009, when the city tried to auction off these rights for $90 per square foot, there were no takers, the city's Chief Financial Officer Lalo Perez said. Today, the city is expecting to do much better. Last year, the city successfully sold 9,600 square feet of development rights at $300 per square foot.
Burt said that while it would be appropriate for the council to reconsider the policy, it would constitute bad governance to abandon it in this case, given the prior council's decision.
"I just think it's not good governance to use what may be opposition to a policy and an ordinance as a basis to change a prior council's action and look for ways to do backdoor changes to ordinances rather than front-door changes," Burt said.
The council ultimately voted 5-3, with Liz Kniss absent and DuBois, Filseth and Schmid dissenting, to reject a proposal from Filseth to use the General Fund for the payment. After that vote, all eight members voted to pay back the nonprofit from proceeds raised through the sale of development rights.
The council also acceded to several other requests from the nonprofit group. Namely, it absolved the group from its prior agreement to build a bathroom near the EcoCenter (a task that will now fall to the city) and agreed to refund the fees the group had spent for various permits relating to the project.
Allan Berkowitz, executive director of Environmental Volunteers, said the group had spent more than $40,000 in fees.
"It feels unfair for us to have paid fees to the city to restore the city's property," Berkowitz said.
He also told the council that while the group has an obligation to partially fund the construction of the new bathroom, they would prefer to have the city manage the project.
"Our core competence is education," Berkowitz said. "We believe city staff can better manage the development process and they can do so more efficiently and at a lesser cost."
The council agreed and directed staff to return at a later date for a discussion about funding sources for the new bathroom. The facility is expected to cost about $300,000.