News

Palo Alto finalizes design on new police headquarters

Architectural Review Board set to make decision on city's top infrastructure priority on Thursday

Palo Alto is now putting the final finishing touches on the proposed design for its new public-safety building, which is set to be reviewed by the Architectural Review Board on Sept. 20, 2018. Rendering by RossDrulisCusenbery Architecture.

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.

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Comments

14 people like this
Posted by Samuel L.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 18, 2018 at 4:12 pm

Samuel L. is a registered user.

The Palo Alto Way. City Manager and Council are worried about spending too much money and willing to sacrifice entire floors, yet they want the building to "set a standard for better design" and make a statement about "civic identity". Why can't functional and "nice enough" be enough?

It's not a concert hall, it's a police station.


9 people like this
Posted by Communication Radiation
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 18, 2018 at 5:19 pm

To those councillors who questioned the need for a communications tower: IT'S A PUBLIC SAFETY BUILDING. Forget your stupid height limit and concerns about neighborhood impacts. No one cares. So glad Holman is ending her time on council this year. Kou has no clue what she's talking about. Ever. DuBois seems nice but is a total NIMBY.


11 people like this
Posted by Book 'Em in Palo Alto
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 18, 2018 at 6:22 pm

With the new PA police station so close to the SCC North County Courthouse, the former downstairs jail should be reopened for regular usage. Why transport suspects all the way from San Jose to Palo Alto? Besides, all civil cases are now held in San Jose while the criminal cases are heard in Palo Alto (SCC North County Courthouse).

What's the point of bussing inmates from SJ to PA for court appearances?

The scenic route along 101? A waste of gas, time and tax-payer money.


14 people like this
Posted by Kou's suggestion
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 18, 2018 at 8:23 pm

>[Kou] argued that the city should have looked at placing the new building on a city-owned site east of U.S. Highway 101.
Where is this other city-owned site and is the CC seriously considering locating the new Police Headquarters there?


9 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 18, 2018 at 9:33 pm

If the new Police Station starts with a budget of $106 Million, you can be sure it will cost much more than that. So does Palo Alto really need to spend $100+ Million a new police headquarters?


8 people like this
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2018 at 8:59 am

Posted by Communication Radiation, a resident of Downtown North

>> To those councillors who questioned the need for a communications tower: IT'S A PUBLIC SAFETY BUILDING.

Agreed.

>> Forget your (deleted:stupid) height limit and concerns about neighborhood impacts.

In this case, agreed.

>> No one cares.

Yes, we do. Because, you can be sure that if the public safety building exceeds the limits, then, developer's lawyers will try to use that to argue that somehow it should apply to their new projects. This must be a one-time exception.

>> So glad Holman is ending her time on council this year. Kou has no clue what she's talking about. Ever. DuBois seems nice but is a total NIMBY.

I could not disagree more. Thank you Holman, Kou, DuBois, and Filseth for helping maintain some level of sanity in this city!


14 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Community Center
on Sep 19, 2018 at 11:15 am

Thank you Dubois for your sincere representation of the voters. It's always sad how developers (usually living in other towns) go after the council members who best represent the folks who live here and act in the best interests of our town. Some people will say anything to make a quick buck at your expense.

Yes we need a radio tower as part of this project. The site selection has already been done so revisiting it would effectively kill the project. Let's not short change this project by removing one floor of the garage as the first floor is essentially the operational hub of the police station and where a lot of the work gets done. Residents and local businesses banded together to support the garage since it helps the local businesses while pulling the cars out of the neighborhoods. If you're concerned about the total number of cars then don't let them park in the residential neighborhoods.


6 people like this
Posted by Fiscal Madness
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 19, 2018 at 2:51 pm

> What's the point of bussing inmates from SJ to PA for court appearances?

Job security for SCC jail-bus drivers. They have to make a living too.


3 people like this
Posted by AP
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Sep 19, 2018 at 4:28 pm

another boring eye sore office building. for $100 million, can't they design something that is special? why are only the older buildings in PA pleasant to look at?


10 people like this
Posted by Calling all architects
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2018 at 4:45 pm

The city should not rush into this . We should have a design contest, where we'll known architects propose designs for the building. Of course, the design will have to be in the julia morgan/birge clark style. A big plus will be if the building can be made to look historic. The council can then decide on the winning design. This has worked for us befkre.


5 people like this
Posted by Question
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2018 at 4:58 pm

What happened to that $40 million in Stanford funds? Didn't that earn anything in all this time?


7 people like this
Posted by Bill
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 20, 2018 at 12:46 pm

The title of the article by Gennady and the Palo Alto Weekly sums up the best solution to addressing the outstanding problems with this project. The new building should simply be Palo Alto Police Headquarters. The administrative functions of the fire department don't necessitate the security and controlled access elements that drive the workflow of the police. The ballooning cost of the project and attempting to recreate today's existing configuration downtown has made this project too complex. It needs to be simplified.

Both Holman and DuBois had thoughtful comments on the 135 foot communications tower that point out a wider problem with the site and the current design. Based on Mr Cullen's remarks at the council meeting, the height of the tower is driven by the microwave radio links to our neighboring public safety agencies. These links are currently maintained by dish antennas at approximately 125 feet atop city hall. It's unlikely that the dishes will be smaller than 2 feet in diameter and be able to meet the FCC's Part 101 requirements for microwave links.

Perhaps for security reasons, the status of the city's effort to move to the regional trunked radio system, SVRCS, wasn't discussed as part of the tower design. However, based on the architectural rendering, it appears that the SVRCS elements currently housed in a hut on the roof the city hall would also move to the new police building and the SVRCS antennas would occupy the new tower at a similar elevation that they currently have atop city hall.

So, one outstanding question that needs to be asked and evaluated is the importance of relocating the 911 and communications dispatch center into new public safety building. Palo Alto Police and the OES would still need a radio tower, of course, but the size could be more modest and likely more resilient in a major disaster. Lots of agencies don't have their 911 PSAP and dispatch center near their police headquarters. Maybe Palo Alto should do the same and keep it downtown.

We appreciate the city's effort in getting the best value for this project and trying to address as many of the outstanding shortcomings in our aging public safety infrastructure. But, it might be simpler and easier to separate some of the elements out of the design and focus on solving the most important problems that surround the police department's physical infrastructure.


2 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 20, 2018 at 3:34 pm

We need a new Public Safety building, agreed. I am concerned about earthquake risk (stated as severe in current old location) and reasonable modernity and functionality and security for staff and residents.
I still don’t “get” the horrifically high (projected) cost.
Surely there must be examples in comparable cities. Can’t we learn from these or must everything “be invented here!?”
NO to Council Member Kou’s feeler on placing this building in the Palo Alto Baylands. This is not appropriate; I will strenuously oppose such an idea if pursued.


Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 21, 2018 at 9:20 am

So ... that really means $200 million, twice as much, when it is all said and done, right ... and take twice as long. Remember the Mitchell Park library? Palo Alto City government seems to have the institutional memory of a dementia patient, so II sure hope we are not using the same company to build the new Police station as the Mitchell Park library.


Like this comment
Posted by Anon
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 21, 2018 at 11:18 am

Posted by Bill, a resident of Barron Park

>> Both Holman and DuBois had thoughtful comments on the 135 foot communications tower that point out a wider problem with the site and the current design.

>> Perhaps for security reasons, the status of the city's effort to move to the regional trunked radio system, SVRCS, wasn't discussed as part of the tower design.

>> Lots of agencies don't have their 911 PSAP and dispatch center near their police headquarters. Maybe Palo Alto should do the same and keep it downtown.

Lots do though, including Mountain View and Los Altos. I don't recall Menlo Park offhand, but, if the duty office/operations center is in one location and the tower is somewhere else, then, you need a very robust link between the two, which is also bound to cost a bundle.

>> Maybe Palo Alto should do the same and keep it downtown.

Do you mean on top of City Hall? Bad idea. It needs to be survivable in case of a strong earthquake.


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

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