With the cost of Palo Alto's proposed new public-safety building now hovering above $100 million, City Council members on Monday urged staff to move quickly on constructing the project, which has been in the works for nearly two decades.
The project, which is slated to go up on a city-owned parking lot on Sherman Avenue, is the centerpiece of the council's 2014 infrastructure plan, a nine-project list that also includes new parking garages, fire stations, bike projects and park improvements. The city plans to build the public-safety building immediately after it completes building a six-level garage on an adjoining city-owned lot.
The garage, which would be at 350 Sherman Ave., has already cleared the city's entitlement process and the city is now in the midst of the bidding process for construction, which is set to launch early next year. The police building, meanwhile, is now in the final stages of design. The Architectural Review Board is scheduled to review it on Thursday morning.
For Palo Alto, construction of the new public safety building would cap an effort that has stretched since the late 1990s, when the city first began to discuss plans to replace the existing police headquarters at City Hall. Since then, several studies and citizen panels had deemed the existing police headquarters to be seismically and functionally deficient and obsolete.
After several false starts, the council finally approved in 2016 a plan to proceed with a new police headquarters at 250 Sherman Ave., across the street from the Palo Alto courthouse. If the project goes on as planned, construction on the public-safety building will begin in 2020 and be completed in 2022. In addition to the police headquarters, the building will include Fire Department administration, the Emergency Operations Center (the city's official situation room during disasters), the 911 dispatch center and the Office of Emergency Services.
On Monday, council members found plenty to like in the latest design plans, which show a flat-roofed, three-story building with a façade featuring reflective white porcelain tile over terra cotta board-formed concrete. The building would be surrounded by landscaped plazas, planters and benches, which architect Michael Ross described as a "continuous single-story pedestrian realm."
"We believe the building is going to be a good neighbor and provide for the mission of the Palo Alto Police Department for the long term," Ross said.
The building received generally positive reviews during the council's study session, though several council members took issues with one design element or another. Councilwoman Karen Holman said that while she generally liked the building, she suggested that it features too much hardscape and urged staff and Ross to reconsider the 135-foot communication tower that is slated to stand next to the building -- a structure whose array she likened to "coat hangers" wrapped around a pole.
She also said she was concerned about potential reflection of the porcelain surfaces and the blandness of one of the walls, which she suggested would be suitable for public art.
"I think Palo Alto can set a better example and should set a standard for better design," Holman said.
Councilman Adrian Fine said the building seems "nice enough" but doesn't say enough about "civic identity." Unlike Holman, both Fine and Councilman Cory Wolbach said they have no problem with the communication tower, which is a critical component of the new emergency hub. Form, Wolbach said, should follow function.
The swelling cost is among the biggest challenges facing the city with the new public-safety building. In 2012, when the project was still in its conceptual phase, the cost was estimated at $57 million. Last year, with 50 percent of the design completed, it was revised to $91 million. On Monday night, staff had indicated that their projected cost is now $106 million, which includes a $7 million contingency to buffer the city from future increases.
Public Works staff also said that every month of delays adds about $350,000 to the total bill. Interim Public Works Director Brad Eggleston said the city now has a gap of about $16 million in its infrastructure plan.
City Manager James Keene said staff had explored the idea of cutting costs by reducing the number of basement levels in the proposed public-safety building from two to one. But after weighing the pros and cons, staff rejected the idea. Under the existing plan, the upper basement level would be devoted to patrol functions, while the bottom one would have staff vehicles and storage.
Placing them all in one level would create an overlap between people in custody and city staff. Assistant Police Chief Patty Lum said the single-basement plan would also narrow the driveways from 24 feet, with two-way traffic, to 10-feet and one-way traffic, as well as narrow the parking spaces. In addition, the new alignment would extend the building's underground footprint beneath Birth Street and Park Boulevard sidewalks.
Keene said that while he was "upset with this outcome," he ultimately concurred with staff that the city should make the necessary investment on a two-level basement.
"This is a building for generations. ... At a minimum, it's a 50-year building and it can be considerably more," Keene said.
For some council members and residents, the rising price tag only added to the urgency of getting the project built. Councilman Greg Scharff urged staff to "move forward and get this done."
"Let's not fall behind schedule at $350,000 a month," Scharff said, "I think that's really important."
The only two council members who had broader objections about the project were Greg Tanaka and Lydia Kou. Tanaka had served on the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Committee, which surveyed the city's infrastructure needs and concluded that the existing police headquarters are "unsafe and vulnerable." That notwithstanding, Tanaka on Monday questioned the need to move ahead with the project at this time, given the rising construction costs.
"Is that really the wisest thing to be doing?" Tanaka asked.
Kou, meanwhile, said she wasn't convinced that the Sherman Avenue lot is an ideal location for a public-safety building. The lot, she said, has potential as a good site for housing and retail. She argued that the city should have looked at placing the new building on a city-owned site east of U.S. Highway 101.
"There's a possibility of having a less expensive building over there that's not going to cost us over $106 million," Kou said.
Resident Roger Smith saw the issue differently. The city, he noted, has been studying various sites and funding options for a public-safety building for decades. The decision has been delayed for years, he said, and it's time to move ahead.
"This is Palo Alto process on steroids," Smith said.