The new building slated to go up in the Palo Alto Baylands will be a concrete structure, 50 feet in height, and designed to accommodate trucks filled with sewage.
And local environmentalists couldn't be happier.
In the new two-story building, sewage will be dried out and hauled out. That, in itself, may not sound exciting but for the city it is a critical step to a long-awaited moment: the retirement of its two sludge-burning incinerators. Eventually, the city plans to replace the polluting incinerators with cleaner and more cost-effective technology, such as an anaerobic digester that would turn local organic waste into energy by using microorganisms. But before that happens, the city is looking to shut down the incinerators and truck de-watered sludge to other sewage-treatment plants.
That's where the new facility comes in. It will occupy a site just southeast of the incinerator building in the Regional Water Quality Control Plant and will have a parapet reaching a height of 50 feet above grade. According to a report from the Public Works Department, it will be a cast-in-place concrete structure with painted structural steel and removable skylights. Landscaping will be integrated into the site to "interrupt views of the new building from off-site locations."
The new building will be located on a site within the Regional Water Quality Control Plant, near the current incinerators building. The ultimate goal is to install close to this site a facility that in addition to processing sewage sludge would also treat other organic waste, including food scraps and possibly yard trimmings.
While an anaerobic-digestion facility of the sort favored by proponents of Measure E (a 2011 measure in which voters "undedicated" a 10-acre site at Byxbee Park to accommodate a future waste-to-energy plant) remains the front-runner, Assistant Public Works Director Phil Bobel said Monday that staff will also evaluate other technologies, including gasification, which uses high temperatures but not combustion.
The project has already secured the approvals of both the city's Architectural Review Board and its Planning and Transportation Commission. On Monday night, it won a swift and unanimous endorsement from the City Council. In his presentation, Bobel stressed that despite its height, the building wouldn't stand out too much because of its close proximity to the 65-foot hill that once functioned as the city's landfill.
Once the new building is up, the city be able to shed its status as one of only two cities in California that still burn their sludge with incinerators (Central Contra Costa Sanitary District is the only other).
"We won't be knocking them down, but we'll be discontinuing their services forever as soon as we get the new dewatering facility up and running," Bobel said of the incinerators.
While the council isn't prone to quickly approving 50-foot-tall buildings, members made an exception Monday night. Councilman Greg Schmid was the only member who expressed some concerns about the building's compatibility with the Baylands Master Plan. He supported the project after his colleagues and staff agreed to take another look at the landscaping to make sure it's consistent with the city's overall vision for the Baylands.
The project comes with an estimated price tag of about $25 million, which will be shared by Palo Alto and its partners (Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Stanford and the East Palo Alto Sanitary District). Palo Alto's share will be about 35 percent, according to staff, and officials hope to acquire a loan from the state's revolving fund for water-quality improvement projects, according to the staff report.
Public Works expects to construct the dewatering facility in about two years.
Councilman Tom DuBois called the new facility "a good project" and Councilwoman Liz Kniss noted that the city is now at a turning point when it comes to sewage treatment. The time is now, she said, to get a new system in place.
"This is one of those plans that's been well-thought out, well-thought through and is a long time coming," Kniss said.