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Los Altos officials seek voter approval for up to $170 million to upgrade to its civic center

By Kelsey Williams | 1 Mar 2011

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The Plan for the Civic Center includes four phases and is projected to cost $170 million. (Photo courtesy of Los Altos Community Center Website)

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The City of Los Altos is preparing to hire a lobbyist whose job will be to convince residents they should agree to spend at least $81.4 million for a new city hall and other new facilities — even though some have said the project is far too expensive for such a small town.

The $81.4 million is for just the first part of a multi-phase plan that could eventually cost $170 million. In addition to a new city hall, this first phase would include a new police station and community center. Despite attempts to showcase the facilities’ shortcomings during the two-year planning process by holding workshops and hosting tours highlighting peeling paint and leaky roofs, the city is still not convinced that it can convince voters to approve the project.

As a result, the city is negotiating a contract to hire Charles Heath, a partner in a San Francisco pubic relations firm, to create a lobbying campaign for the ballot measure. So in the reverse of the normal order of things, the elected leaders of Los Altos are gearing up to lobby the citizens.

The $81.4 million first phase is Heath’s and the city’s current concern. About About $15 million of that would be paid from city reserves, Assistant City Manager James Walgren said. The remainder, about $66.4 million would be put to voters.

The entire four-phase plan also includes sports fields, a swimming facility, a new library, a performing arts center and a theater and carries a total price tag of approximately $170 million.

Three years ago, Walgren and his team compiled a long list of improvement projects for the Hillview Community Center, which is currently housed in what was originally an elementary school. Included on the list were updates to meet energy and seismic codes, new plumbing and a new roof. “This old 1950’s elementary school is literally falling apart,” Walgren argued. “We literally would have put more money into rehabbing these old buildings than we would if we had started new.”

After resolving to build a new community center, city planners decided to take inventory of all the buildings on the civic campus, including their own offices and the police station. They then resolved to devise a master plan to redevelop not just the community center but also almost every part of the current campus. Many of the buildings are only a few years younger than the community center, with the exception of the current library.

After a new community center, officials’ next priority is more office space for themselves, Walgren said. “All our conference rooms for example have been chopped up into offices. Our storage closets are being used as offices, and we’re not at full staffing levels.”

A 30-member advisory committee met with city planners, architectural consultants Anderson Brule and members of public to gradually put together the final plan.

“We held dozens and dozens of meetings and public workshops,” Walgren said, “then at each stage we took the plan to the council for approval.” Generally, 50-100 people came to each of the public meetings and workshops he added.

The city finished the environmental impact report last year and now is ready to start looking for funding, which for some Los Altos residents is the project’s main problem.

While Walgren said he sees the plan as an investment for Los Altos for the next 50 years, many residents question whether this level of spending is prudent or necessary in a small town of only 28,622 people that does not seem to be growing substantially.

One resident, Fran Lunger said, “They have to determine what the priorities are for the large proportion of the people.” He added that he would be more willing to consider spending for education or schools than for the civic center.

Another resident, Eric Gruenberg said he thinks the swimming pool and the community center would be a good idea, but questions why the other city buildings and particularly the police station need rebuilding.

Many want to know more details but are wary of the high cost. Forty-year resident Peter Nelson, 71, said, “I don’t really know what the plans are, but it seems like $80 million is an unbelievable amount of money.”

Over the next few months the city plans to contract with Heath to amp up support for the project with direct mail and an updated website.

The city had already signed a contract with Heath, at Heath’s old firm Tramutola, but officials will be negotiating a new contract with Heath and TBWB strategies this week. Walgren declined to say what he expects the city to pay Heath until the negotiations are finalized.

But Heath also added, “public meetings only typically involve a miniscule portion of the population, Tools like direct mail and using the Internet allow us to reach a lot more of the population.”

Despite the years already put into plan, Heath insists that nothing is set in stone. In contrast to the city’s hopes to gather support for the current plan by the fall, Heath suggests a more cautious approach, and one that might require his services in Los Altos for a longer period. “Communities are facing a number of competing priorities right now, and we need to approach this carefully and cautiously to make sure it is consistent with people’s priorities,” Heath said.

If there does not seem to be support for the plan by the summer, when the city would need to apply to place the bond measure on the fall ballot, Heath said they would simply continue to evaluate the plan to address community concerns.

City officials, however, said they would be loathe to substantially change the current plan. If support for the plan does not seem feasible by fall, Walgren said the city would likely try again next year before rethinking the concept. At that point, five years after the city first decided that a new community center was an immediate need, they would go back to square one.

If support still could not be gathered at that point, Walgren said, they could go back to plans that fix their immediate need for a new community center and more space for city offices. “But then what your left with,” he said, “from an architect’s perspective is—you still have 50-year-old buildings and you haven’t really done anything, you’ve just stop-gapped your immediate problem.”

Some residents are more receptive to the master plan as a whole. Mother of two, Eryn Johnson, 35, said, “I think there is a need for community resources that are more state-of-the-art and just better for growing families.”

“I think the town needs to upgrade its image,” said Rebecca Hickman, 50. “There are a lot of seniors here as well as a lot of young families, and I think they need more of a community center.”

Walgren also mentioned upgrading the city’s image in comparison to its neighbors that have opted to spend on upgraded facilities. In 1991, Mountain View took on a comparable project when it rebuilt its city hall and performing arts center for about $33.9 million, which with inflation would be roughly $54.3 million—49.9 percent less than phase one of Los Altos’ plan but not including a new police station. “The community deserves to have that level of quality of a facility,” said Walgren, “so we’ll see if we can get people onboard.”

While some residents seem open to the total project, it remains to be seen how much residents will be willing to spend in shaky economic times, as state budget cuts add increasing burdens to local governments. Ultimately, Los Altos may have to settle for only a portion of their leaders’ vision for a completely overhauled civic campus.

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