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New police building receives council's support

Construction could begin in 2020

A long-debated new public safety building in Palo Alto received unanimous approval from the City Council on Monday night.

The council was asked to vote on the application for architectural review for the new public-safety building and its related facilities at 250 Sherman Ave., which will be located across from the Palo Alto courthouse on a parcel of land currently used as a parking lot. The Architectural Review Board recommended approving the project on Sept. 20.

Birch Street, Park Boulevard, Sherman Avenue and Jacaranda Lane are the boundaries for the 50-foot-high, three-story structure. The public safety building would have 45,000 to 48,000 square feet of floor area and two basement levels. The first basement level would have usable floor area for uses other than as parking. Parking for the building would include 143 basement spaces and five street-level spots.

The Palo Alto Police Department, 911 Emergency Dispatch Center, Emergency Operations Center, Office of Emergency Services and Fire Department administration will occupy the building. The services will be transferred from the current downtown location at Palo Alto's City Hall.

But before constructing the public-safety building, the city would complete building a 636-space parking garage at 350 Sherman Ave. Construction would begin in June 2019 and last through August 2020. The public safety building would then be built from October 2020 through 2022, according to a presentation by staff on Monday night.

Architectural Review Board Vice Chair Peter Baltay lauded the new building's design, which has evolved to add a thin, rustic-brick facade on the first floor, which the council members supported. But there was some debate regarding a proposed 135-foot-tall communications tower that would rise above the building -- a considerable exception to the 50-foot zoning limit -- and whether a multipurpose room should have windows.

The multipurpose room would be used for police training sessions; regional meetings of law enforcement and emergency services agencies; media briefings; and for city-sponsored community events and volunteer training. But some have pressed for a wider use as a community space for other events, a proposal that the police department opposed. More than 300 trainings and other uses would already be taking place there, and the department is concerned that it would not have the staffing to monitor other community uses. The room would have computers and other necessary electronic equipment that would need to be kept secure, Assistant Police Chief Patty Lum said. Adding glass to the outside of the room, while creating an open feel for the community, might also compromise security for the staff during sessions, she said. The building is "hardened" for any potential terrorist attack.

Councilwoman Karen Holman also questioned why screening would not be appropriate for the multipurpose room if more windows were added. Lum said that adding glass would increase the project's cost.

Councilman Adrian Fine said he favored keeping the multipurpose room for internal police operations only.

"I don't think we should imagine this as a community meeting space. This is a public safety building," he said.

Likewise, Councilman Greg Scharff said he saw no reason to return the issue to an Architectural Review Board subcommittee for additional review. Staff also noted that many of the training sessions and other events will already be open to the public, so the room is likely to hold functions outside of police activities. The council decided to support keeping the multipurpose room exterior as is. A plaza in front of the building will have tables and chairs and will be accessible as a public space, staff noted.

The aesthetics of the communications tower was another issue for the council. Holman suggested the tower could be shrouded in some way to make it less visible. Staff said that screening would add to the bulk of the building, which they tried to minimize. Any screening would also need to consider future alterations to the tower as communications equipment changes over time. The board subcommittee will be reviewing the tower separately.

Councilman Tom DuBois noted concerns over the site plan written in a letter to project manager Matt Raschke from Mary Q. Chu, the owner of 2435-2439 Birch St., which is adjacent to the public safety building. She was worried about staff vehicle flow along Jacaranda Lane neighboring her property where garbage bins are located for Cafe Pro Bono, one of her tenants. All of the garbage bins for the buildings on California Avenue between Birch Street and Park Avenue are located on Jacaranda Lane. The space is not large enough to accommodate two-way traffic and the garbage bins, Chu noted.

DuBois asked for the staff to consider the impacts on the local businesses, both for delivery trucks and garbage disposal. Staff said they might have to relocate a space for the garbage bins.

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