After serving the neighborhoods around Rinconada Park for more than 50 years, Fire Station 3 is preparing for a brief migration, followed by a rebirth.
Under a plan that the City Council approved Monday night, the cramped and obsolete fire station will soon be shut down, demolished and rebuilt to modern standards at its location on Embarcadero Road. During the roughly 18 months of construction, a temporary station would be built on Geng Road, a property near the Baylands that until recently was occupied by the city's trash hauler, GreenWaste of Palo Alto.
The council voted 8-1, with Councilman Cory Wolbach dissenting, to accept the recommendation from the Palo Alto Fire Department and to choose the Geng Road site over several others that are closer to Rinconada but, for various reasons, present their own obstacles. The most promising alternative, a city-owned parcel at 1142-1146 Middlefield Road, was scratched after significant neighborhood opposition, with area residents pointing to the traffic and noise impacts of the new building and the trees that would have to be removed. Other options, including the tennis courts at Rinconada Park and the Rinconada Library parking lot, were similarly scrapped, in anticipation of public opposition.
There is one obvious drawback to placing the temporary station on the other side of U.S. Highway 101: an expected delay in response time, particularly during busy commute hours. To account for the delays, the fire department plans to station an engine from Rinconada at the Alma Street fire station during the day and then relocate it to Geng Road after 7 p.m.
This, according to the fire department analysis, would improve response time in downtown and on the Stanford University campus. At the same time, the move would roughly increase by about 60 seconds the time it would take to respond to the Station 3 area.
Even with the delay, the move will allow the city to meet its goal of responding to a call within eight minutes 90 percent of the time, Fire Chief Eric Nickel told the council Monday.
“The two hardest things to do is get a fire station into a neighborhood and get a fire station out of a neighborhood,” said Nickel, who is now trying to do both.
Nickel said that ideally he would have liked to remain in the immediate area but given the constraints, the department had few choices.
While Wolbach said he was concerned that the city didn't spend enough time considering the other options, most notably the tennis courts, other council members agreed that the Geng Road location is a solid compromise in the interim.
“This seems to be the best answer,” Councilwoman Liz Kniss said of the temporary station, which will cost the city about $140,000 to construct.
Councilman Marc Berman, who in his pre-council days served on the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Committee, agreed with Kniss. His committee had recommended replacing the two fire stations (along with the animal shelter and the police headquarters) in a 2011 report that surveyed the city's infrastructure needs and considered ways to fund them (after the report, the council raised the city's hotel-tax rate and devoted the increased revenue to infrastructure).
The infrastructure report lists the two fire stations -- Station 3 at Rinconada and Station 4 at Mitchell Park -- among those city facilities that “have been allowed to fall below current standards of safety, capacity and functionality.”
Work on the Mitchell Park station is expected to begin in 2018, after the new Rinconada station is up.
In addition to being vulnerable to earthquakes, these two fire stations “have insufficient space to safely house the larger engines needed to accommodate developments in firefighting, rescue operations, and emergency medical response,” according to the infrastructure report. Both stations, the report noted, surveyed by a consultant in 2005 and deemed to have “extensive structural, code, and operational deficiencies.”
“Modern engines now fill the apparatus bays, leaving very little room for personnel to maneuver to the sides and rear,” the report states. “Living quarters for fire personnel in these one-story buildings are not adequately separated from hazardous fumes. Storage and shop space is insufficient for supplies and equipment, nor is there adequate space for drying hoses after use.”
Like most of his colleagues, Berman was keen to get on with the project as soon possible rather than spend time on assessing other locations for a new fire station, a process that would probably be controversial and would inevitably take a long time.
“We don't fast track community outreach in Palo Alto,” Berman said. “That never ends well. We can't do that. We do need a fire station as quickly as possible.”
Councilman Greg Scharff also said that it's time to move ahead. Proposing a more proximate location, such as the tennis courts, would inevitably bring heavy opposition, he said.
“If I had a single-family home there and you were taking away my tennis courts and parkland and building a temporary fire station, I think I'd be fairly upset,” Scharff said.
After being reassured by fire officials that the response time wouldn't dip too precipitously, Scharff said he was satisfied with the decision to relocate the Rinconada station to Geng Road.
“I think far too often things come to the council and we don't make a decision; we kick the can down the road and things don't happen,” Scharff said. “And I think it's important we move forward with this fire station expeditiously.”