Facing plummeting revenues and continued uncertainty about the pandemic's trajectory, the Palo Alto City Council is preparing to reshuffle its list of infrastructure priorities and potentially delay its most ambitious project, a new police headquarters.
But even amid the recent staff layoffs and budget cuts, council members are preparing to move ahead with two ambitious, expensive and long-discussed projects that they believe will aid the city in its recovery from COVID-19: the extension of the city's fiber network to every household and a permanent reconfiguration of the city's most prominent thoroughfare, University Avenue.
Both of these efforts are included in the wide-ranging economic recovery plan that City Manager Ed Shikada presented on Monday night to a largely receptive council. The plan also includes upgrading heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems at City Hall and other public facilities to improve indoor air quality; assisting local businesses by permitting parklets and temporary street closures; and developing a series of activities and events to promote community well-being.
In discussing Palo Alto's recovery plan, council members signaled a desire to see the city's priorities reshuffled in recognition of the new normal. While the council didn't formally add or delete any priorities, the discussion suggested that the public safety building, a centerpiece of the council's 2014 infrastructure priority list, could be deferred to next week, when the council is scheduled to consider a construction contract for the long-planned project.
The council's proposal to reevaluate its infrastructure priorities comes at a time when the city has seen a significant drop in revenues and a corresponding reduction in city services. Last June, the council adopted a budget that reduced general fund expenditures from $230.8 million in fiscal year 2020 to $197 million in 2021, a 15% decrease that included deep cuts to arts programs, libraries and public safety departments. The city's workforce was reduced from 1,035 full-time-equivalent positions to 958.
The city has continued to move ahead, however, with its plan for a new public safety building that would go up at 250 Sherman Ave., next to the recently completed garage in the California Avenue business district. On Feb. 1, the council is scheduled to consider a $92.3 million construction contract with Swinerton Buildings, a $3 million contract with Nova Partners for construction management and a $1.7 million contract with Ross Drulis Cusenbery Architecture for design services.
The police building is a central component on an infrastructure priority list that also includes two rebuilt fire stations (one of which, at Rinconada Park, was completed last March), a bike bridge at Adobe Creek (currently in construction) and the California Avenue district garage, which opened last fall.
But while Shikada is recommending moving ahead with the police building contracts, several council members suggested Monday that it's time to reconsider the city's priorities. Vice Mayor Pat Burt, who advocated for delaying construction of the public safety building by six months or a year during his council campaign last year, made a similar case Monday. When the council adopted its budget last year, its decisions were "driven by an urgency" and "a rapidly changing set of conditions," Burt said.
"We have an all-time record capital improvement plan that is largely unchanged from what we had going into the pandemic," Burt said. "We've had a crisis in our operations — what we're able to do, what we need to serve, how we would provide those functions — and yet the capital plan is at an all-time record. … Some of those projects do not meet the standard in my mind of having any sort of urgency."
At the same time, Burt and other council members voiced support for new priorities for the city to pursue. One is an exploration of permanent changes to University Avenue. This would include the installation of bollards that make it easy for the city to open and close the street to traffic.
The bollards would be just the latest in a series of transformations that University Avenue has seen over the course of the pandemic. Last summer, the city closed University Avenue to traffic to support outdoor dining, a move that won plaudits from visitors and from restaurants along University but that also drew criticism from retail establishments on the main road and from restaurants on other downtown streets. The city reopened University Avenue to traffic last month, as new health restrictions that prohibited outdoor dining took effect.
"There are almost violent disagreements as to what should happen to University Avenue," Shikada told the council Monday. "Quite frankly, in the near term, in the absence of a long-term plan, we're going to have to choose who are the winners and losers on the street among the businesses that are fronting University.
Another project that is reemerging as a council priority is Fiber to the Home, an effort to expand the city's underground fiber network to every residence. The city has considered numerous proposals for a fiber extension since the 1990s, though every effort had ultimately fizzled.
Now, with COVID-19 reinforcing the importance of reliable high-speed internet, council members and city staff are looking to revive and accelerate the fiber effort.
Utilities Director Dean Batchelor said Monday that staff is commissioning "full-fledged engineering design" of a system that would bring fiber to every home in Palo Alto. The city is also exploring a cost-sharing bundling package for residents that would include fiber service, electrification and "undergrounding" of electric infrastructure.
"We think that might be a good way of looking at getting into neighborhoods a little bit quicker, as well as dealing with our undergrounding areas," Batchelor said.
Council member Alison Cormack said she strongly supports the effort to expand the fiber ring. The council continues to get "really detailed, pleading emails" from people in households where children are doing school work remotely while adults are trying to work. Cormack suggested that the council view the fiber expansion as the "foundation that we're laying for the next 50-plus years." She also favored the approach of blending the installation of fiber with other utility services.
"Not a great time from a financial standpoint, but if we can integrate all these things we would like to do in utilities as a program … I think that's worth doing," Cormack said.
Council member Greg Tanaka also said he would support expanding high-speed internet.
"A lot of people are working from home and it's become a more permanent thing," Tanaka said. "That to me is a really high priority, especially to the residents in our city, because it's such a frequent issue for so many people."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.