It's easy to see why Palo Alto wants to replace Fire Station 4.
Quaint and charming, with a statue of a Dalmatian gracing its entrance, the station near Mitchell Park is, above all, small. A fire engine and ambulance have to perform a three-point turn to back into the bay, which is barely high enough to accommodate the bulky Fire Department apparatuses.
There are other problems as well. A study that the city commissioned in 2005 concluded that the 1953 station at East Meadow Drive and Middlefield Road fails to meet the California building code, as well as the state's Essential Services Act, Americans with Disabilities Act, the National Fire Protection Association and the Occupational Safety and Health Act. It was, in short, deemed deficient.
That assessment was reaffirmed by the city's Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission, a citizen group that performed a comprehensive survey of Palo Alto's infrastructure assets and needs. It identified the replacement of the Mitchell Park station as the city's third highest priority, just behind a new public safety building and the replacement of Fire Station 3, a 1948 station near Rinconada Park that faced many of the same issues that that surround the Mitchell Park facility today.
Now, having completed the Rinconada station replacement in March 2020, and having broken ground on the new police building in earlier this year, Palo Alto is setting its sights on the Mitchell Park station. On June 21, as the City Council was adopting its budget, members agreed that the project is of critical importance, even as they acknowledged the grim budget picture and the fact that there is currently no plan for financing the construction.
That, however, may soon change. U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla has included a $6 million appropriation for the replacement of Fire Station 4 in an earmark request that he had submitted to the Senate Appropriations Committee for the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Subcommittee. If approved by the House and the Senate, the earmark would greatly boost a project that has been picking up added urgency in recent months.
During the council's discussion of the fiscal year 2022 budget, which allocated $849,999 for design work on the new Station 4, Vice Mayor Pat Burt was among those who supported exploring an option for debt service to fund construction of the station. His recommendation came after City Manager Ed Shikada proposed delaying the project in the face of the city's economic uncertainties. The 2022 approved capital budget estimates that the Mitchell Park station would be completed in 2026, a delay from the initial goal of 2024. While the budget calls the station "operationally and technologically deficient," it notes that start of construction is being delayed "due to budget uncertainty and timing of the design contract award."
Burt suggested at the June 21 meeting that the city try to take advantage of low interest rates and try to fund the project through debt financing. He also supported spending more money in the coming fiscal year on projects that would increase protection against wildfires.
"I want to make sure we're proceeding with everything we can to reduce the acute fire risk this year or a potential megafire, and that we're not being pennywise and dollar foolish on those protections," Burt said at the meeting.
The council also agreed to use $1.5 million from the Stanford University Medical Center development agreement, which includes funding for "infrastructure and affordable housing," to help fund the Mitchell Park project. Even that allocation, however, leaves the city with a funding shortage for a project that has an estimated price tag of $10.1 million.
In its letter requesting the earmark, the city noted that the new facility would allow the station to remain operational after a major disaster, such as a significant earthquake. The letter emphasized the central role that public safety personnel had played over the past year.
"As we have seen through this pandemic, the medical and public safety services in our communities are critical," the letter states. "Not only did our fire personnel show up every day to tend to our community needs, they also volunteered to help with many other medical and fire dangers in the same time period such as nearby wildfires. These women and men deserve a better, more modern, and equitable space which also might help encourage more women in the fire service."
The replacement of the Mitchell Park Fire Station is one of three projects that is slated to receive a major boost from federal lawmakers, pending final approval. Rep. Anna Eshoo has also included a $3 million request for rehabilitation of the historic Roth Building, which would be transformed into the Palo Alto Museum, and $2 million for creation of a public safety program in which mental health professionals rather than law enforcement officers respond to certain emergency calls.
The proposed program is modeled after the Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (Cahoots) program in Eugene, Oregon, in which two-person teams consisting of a medic and a crisis worker respond to calls involving homelessness, mental illness and addiction. The federal funding would help pay for a mobile response unit that would serve Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos.