Donning hard hats and reflective vests, Palo Alto leaders gathered in a dirt-packed lot near California Avenue on Wednesday morning to mark the beginning of the city's largest and most long-awaited infrastructure project: the construction of the new public safety building.
For a city that has been in social distancing mode since March 2020, the ceremony represented in some ways a return to normal as council members and staff mingled inside the gated construction site before proceeding to flip dirt with ceremonial shovels. For former Mayor Vic Ojakian, who in 2006 served on a blue ribbon task force that first recommended replacing the Police Department's undersized and seismically vulnerable headquarters at City Hall with a larger and safer structure, the event felt long overdue.
Ojakian, who attended the ceremony, recalled in an interview the commission's review 15 years ago, which included visiting 10 different police buildings in the area. The survey underscored the many deficiencies of Palo Alto's police headquarters, including its lack of sufficient space for evidence storage, code-compliant holding cells and sally ports (secured entryways for people in custody).
"When you put it up against other buildings, you can't even make a comparison," Ojakian said.
In the 15 years since the report, the council has repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to moving ahead with a new public safety building, though its plans were repeatedly derailed by high costs and a lack of a suitable site for the new public safety building. The effort gained momentum in 2014 after a specially appointed Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Committee listed the new facility as a top priority and the City Council included it in its infrastructure plan.
In February, after some debate about whether the project should be deferred yet again in light of the city's ongoing budget challenges, the council voted to approve a $92.3 million contract with Swinerton Builders to construct the facility, which will house the Police Department and Fire Department headquarters as well as the city's Office of Emergency Services.
Swinerton also completed last year the construction of the city's new parking garage, which is located on an adjacent site at 350 Sherman Ave.
Mayor Tom DuBois, who attended the Wednesday ceremony along with Vice Mayor Pat Burt and council members Alison Cormack and Greer Stone, called the public safety building a "huge project" for the city.
"This has been in the works for a very long time," DuBois said. "It's very hard sometimes to get large projects like this off the ground, so it's quite an accomplishment. I think we should all be proud of finally getting this project going."
The project is scheduled to be completed in summer of 2023.
Watch the full groundbreaking ceremony: