In considering the massive project, council members found themselves wrestling with two competing priorities: the need for an adequate public safety building and the need to prudently manage the city's finances at a time when revenues are taking a big hit. While Vice Mayor Pat Burt and council member Greg Tanaka both proposed delaying the decision, the rest of the council voted to approve both a series of contracts — most notably, a $92.3 million contract with Swinerton Builders — and the sale of bonds to finance the project.
With the approval, construction management contractor Nova Partners, design services contractor Ross Drulis Cusenbery Architecture and Swinerton Builders are scheduled to launch construction in the coming months and complete the public safety building in summer 2023.
The decision followed hours of debate, with just about every council member acknowledging the city's dismal budget picture. Last year, plummeting revenues pushed the council to cut nearly $40 million from the city's budget. But the council majority concluded Monday that the project is critically needed and should advance.
Leaders of all three of Palo Alto's public safety departments made the case Monday for the new public safety building, as did prior police chiefs Pat Dwyer and Dennis Burns and former mayors Vic Ojakian and Judy Kleinberg, who had both served on the council in the mid-2000s. All emphasized the poor condition of the current police headquarters, which they argued is undersized, obsolete and seismically unsafe.
Police Chief Bob Jonsen called the current police headquarters at City Hall, built in 1971, "subpar, inadequate and frankly out of alignment with the city we serve," an assessment that echoed findings from numerous citizen commissions and independent assessors dating back decades. A citizen task force in 2006 recommended "in the strongest possible terms that the city proceed expeditiously to build a new Public Safety Building."
Subsequent assessments reached a similar conclusion. Citing the cramped and seismically unsafe conditions in the current police headquarters, which is located in a City Hall wing, a specially appointed committee evaluating the city's infrastructure needs called the existing headquarters "unsafe and vulnerable" in its 2011 report.
The sense of urgency hasn't always spilled over to the broader public. Various surveys commissioned by the city over the years have shown that while a majority has favored moving ahead with a new police headquarters, the support generally has not reached the two-thirds threshold necessary for approving a public bond.
As a result, rather than going to the voters for a bond, the council included the project on its 2014 list of projects and asked voters to approve a hotel tax increase, with the understanding that proceeds would fund the items on the list.
The list included a bike bridge over U.S. Highway 101, two rebuilt fire stations, new garages in downtown and the California Avenue business district and the public safety building.
With its $118 million price tag, which has roughly doubled since 2014, the police building would be a three-story, 56,000-square-foot facility with a two-level garage. Staff emphasized Monday that the bids it received in January are about 5% below the most recent estimates from city engineers.
The design and review processes alone are projected to cost about $10.2 million, of which $8.5 million has already been spent on design contracts and salary expenses.
In arguing that it's time to move ahead with the project, Council member Alison Cormack cited the assessment of Burns, the city's former police chief, who had called the project "dangerously deferred."
"It's an enormous amount of money, and yet we find ourselves at a point in the saga where it's time to bring it to a conclusion," Cormack said.
Burt, meanwhile, suggested deferring the decision by a few weeks, until after the council received further information about the city's long-term financial outlook and its broader capital plan. He also recommended scaling back the project by possibly removing one of the building's two proposed underground levels and shifting some of the vehicles that were pegged to occupy those spots to the new garage on the adjoining lot.
"Things have clearly changed since 2018," Burt said, referring to the council's approval of the building's design. "The world has changed and our budget has drastically changed. The notion that we can necessarily have all things that were possible two years ago is not realistic in my mind."
Council member Lydia Kou initially supported delaying the decision but strongly objected to Burt's proposal to use a portion of the newly constructed California Avenue garage for public safety needs.
Council member Greer Stone was also ambivalent about the project, bemoaning the lack of a seismic analysis demonstrating the need for the new structure. And even though he initially supported Burt's bid to delay the approval of the construction contract, he joined the majority after his colleagues agreed to direct staff to reduce expenditures relating to furniture, fixtures and equipment and to eliminate a proposal for construction cameras, which carried a $25,000 price tag.
Mayor Tom DuBois was more enthusiastic about moving ahead with the project.
"I think we have the need, I think we have the financing and I think the time is right. ... We should be proud that we're doing what we can to ensure safety of Palo Alto residents and be able to respond to those that need help when they need it."
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