With its revenues on the rise, Palo Alto is looking to advance an ambitious infrastructure plan that would rehabilitate the Roth Building, make long-awaited upgrades to Cubberley Community Center and finally complete streetscape improvements at the Charleston-Arastradero corridor.
The city's five-year capital program, which stretches from 2023 to 2027, would fund 73 projects that total about $198.8 million. This includes $60.1 million for repairs to streets and sidewalks, $40.6 million for transportation projects, $53.7 million for buildings and facilities and $37.9 million for parks and open spaces.
Much of this spending — about $82 million — would take place in fiscal year 2023, which begins on July 1 under City Manager Ed Shikada's proposed budget.
The spending plan represents an increase of about $46 million since last year ($152.9 million). This includes $11 million for rehabilitating the Roth Building at 300 Homer Ave., which would be taken over by the nonprofit group Palo Alto Museum under a plan that the council has been discussing for well over a decade. The council is now in negotiations with Palo Alto Museum over the lease terms.
So what else should residents expect? Those living near Boulware Park can look forward to some welcome changes. The park in the Ventura neighborhood was expanded in 2019 after the council purchased an adjacent property from AT&T, and will see a suite of improvements as the city moves to connect the existing park with the additional property in the coming months. The improvement plan calls for new playground equipment at the existing Boulware Park as well as additional amenities such as basketball courts, a picnic area and a dog park.
Those who like to bike in south Palo Alto can look forward to completion — at long last — to the Charleston/Arastradero corridor, a 2.3-mile segment that stretches through 11 schools and eight neighborhoods. The project includes traffic-calming measures such as curb extensions and median "refuge" islands, as well a traffic signal modification. The completion of the project will represent a major milestone for the city, which has been discussing and modifying the corridor for about 20 years and which was the only bike project that was designated as a priority in the council's 2014 infrastructure plan.
And those who have been clamoring for years for the city to do something about Cubberley Community Center, a dilapidated but well-used community hub in south Palo Alto, will finally see significant investment in repairs, even as long-term plans for Cubberley remain in flux.
As the council's Finance Committee reviewed the budget on Tuesday, Chair Tom DuBois marveled at the high number of projects in the capital and wondered if the city can actually achieve its ambitious goals. Public Works Director Brad Eggleston acknowledged that the list is ambitious.
"We're definitely very busy and in sprinting mode on these projects," Eggleston said at the Tuesday discussion of the capital plan. "A lot going on."
Palo Alto plans to spend more than $4.2 million on Cubberley in the coming year, which is roughly as much as over the last four years combined (in the current year, the city's spending on the aged community center totaled $537,547). Most of this spending (about $3 million) will be devoted to roof replacement, though the budget also includes $855,000 for building repairs and $485,000 for installation of a restroom at Cubberley Community Center Fields, a facility that includes soccer and softball fields, tennis courts and a running track. The Cubberley field, according to the budget, is the city's largest recreation field that currently doesn't have a restroom.
At the same time, the city appears to be in no rush to kick off a broader redevelopment of Cubberley, a 35-acre complex at which the city owns 8 acres and the Palo Alto Unified School District owns the remaining 27 acres. After years of fruitless negotiations with the school board about jointly redeveloping the community center, the council agreed to instead devote the city's energy and resources exclusively to its own 8 acres. The goal remains to construct a new facility that would align with a master plan that the city and the school district conducted in 2019, which included broad community involvement and called for a wellness center, classroom space and a performance art center, along with other amenities.
The capital budget includes $316,000 for a feasibility study to determine the cost and facility needs of the redevelopment project, though that money isn't budgeted until fiscal year 2026 and construction would be at least five years away.
Deborah Simon, who chairs the group Friends of Cubberley, told the Finance Committee that she and her group are glad that the city is at last preparing to make an investment in the aged community center.
"As you all know, Cubberley is a well-used and loved community center that has been in serious need of repairs and redevelopment for many years," Simon told the committee. "We've been waiting for years for progress, since the first master plan was developed, and then COVID changed all of our plans."
The vast majority of the projects in the capital budget have been in Palo Alto's planning phases well before the economic downturn of the last two years. In some cases, staff deferred projects because of slumping revenues.
Even with the downturn, however, the city was able to complete several long-awaited infrastructure projects, including a bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101 at Adobe Creek, which opened to the public last November; a six-level parking garage near California Avenue, which opened in November 2020; and the rebuilt Fire Station 3 at Rinconada Park, which opened in March 2020. Palo Alto also began work on its biggest infrastructure project, a new public safety building near California Avenue, which is scheduled to be completed in fall 2023.
While these high-profile projects progressed, Palo Alto has been cutting back in other areas. Eggleston said that the city has cut it street and sidewalk maintenance by more than $6 million over the past two years. Now, officials are looking to play catch-up.
"This budget restores that to our previous levels but does not address the fact that we are somewhat behind in these areas," Eggleston said. "I think we are getting more complaints from the community about areas that we're currently not able to address."
Assistant Public Works Director Holly Boyd said that the new budget represents a shift in strategy from the prior two years.
"In the last couple of years, the budget strategy has been about reducing funding to adjust to the lower revenues due to the pandemic," Boyd said. "However, this year's budget strategy is about reprioritizing and replenishing funding."
In addition to the capital-improvement projects, the council is preparing to sign off on a list of Enterprise Fund projects that pertain to utilities and public works. These add up to $525 million in spending over the five-year plan, with $251 million budgeted in 2023.
Unlike the rest of the capital program, which relies on hotel-tax revenues and transfers from the general fund, the utility projects are supported by utility rates and, in some cases, grants and contributions from regional partners.
By far, the most significant of these is the planned renovation of the Regional Water Quality Control Plant, which alone is projected to cost $186.6 million in 2023 and $282.5 million over the course of the five-year plan. About 64% of the cost would be picked up by Palo Alto's partners in the facility: Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Stanford University and the East Palo Alto Sanitary District.
This year, the city will begin to upgrade the plant with advanced water purification and secondary treatment upgrades, according to the budget.
"Many of the Plant's major systems are reaching the end of their useful life and new technology for systems such as advanced water purification, and secondary treatment upgrades are available and need to be integrated into the Plant while older systems are phased out," the budget states.