BY ALLISON LEVITSKY
Daily Post Staff Writer
In the wake of a Daily Post report that the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District is quietly planning to spend $50 million on larger offices in Los Altos, board members made suggestions last night on how to explain the expense to taxpayers.
Board member Curt Riffle, who represents Mountain View and Los Altos, asked that the district leadership update the board on its plans to widely publicize the purchase of the $31 million building at 5050 El Camino Real and the building’s renovation for between $18.7 million and $25.7 million.
“Since we’re off to a roaring start with the public already,” Riffle said. Riffle compared the $50 million expense with the $16.6 million that the district spent in 2017 to clean up Mt. Umunhum and open it to hikers.
“Mt. Umunhum was expensive. This is even more expensive than Mt. Umunhum,” Riffle said.
The money to renovate the 40,000-square-foot building will come out of the general fund, not from Measure AA, the $300 million bond that voters passed in 2014.
Announcement delayed until after closing
The district has been making plans for the purchase in meetings that are open to the public, but decided in October to hold off on announcing the plan to tenants, neighbors or taxpayers until next month, after the sale went through.
Information about the sale and renovation have been posted in meeting agendas on the district’s website for months, but the district doesn’t live-stream its meetings or post recordings of them online.
Assistant General Manager Susanna Chan said last night the district’s purchase agreement for the property required confidentiality until the deal was done.
“We plan to reach out to several groups of people, including general public, our partner agencies, our neighbors, as well as the tenants currently in the building,” Chan said.
District had been saving for new building
Administrative Services Director Stefan Jaskulak said the district has saved $44 million for the building. The district will also get some money from the sale of its current building at 330 Distel Circle, off of El Camino in Los Altos.
The current 12,120-square-foot office on Distel Circle was purchased by the district more than 20 years ago and has been appraised at $10.4 million.
Board member Zoe Kersteen-Tucker, who represents Redwood City, San Carlos and Woodside, said that the fact that the district has been saving for the building for years should “really be part of the narrative moving forward.”
Before the board decided to buy the new building, it considered adding two stories on top of its current office and digging two or three floors of underground parking below it.
The district’s senior real property agent, Allen Ishibashi, said expanding the current office would have cost between $35 million and $40 million, more expensive than the new building.
Better for the environment
Board Vice President Karen Holman, who represents Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Stanford and Menlo Park, said it’s better for the environment that the district is renovating the new building rather than tearing it down.
Holman said the larger building would be able to fit the district’s employees, a roster that has swelled to 120 regular workers and 12 seasonal employees in recent years. Some were hired after Measure AA was passed.
Since Measure AA, 47,000 acres of land have been made more accessible to the public, a project that the district accomplished thanks to the new employees, Holman said.
“Whatever we’re going to do needs to be defensible. Not defensive, but defensible,” Holman said.
Holman also suggested that the district seek out sponsorships to help pay for the new building, perhaps by selling naming rights for the boardroom, for example.
Some of the new employees work in neighboring offices that the district rents out, General Manager Ana Maria Ruiz said. The new building is large enough to house the whole district and collect rent from other organizations who rent space in it.
By building the new space, the district saves on paying rent, which increased by 15% last year, Ruiz said.
“Sometimes you might get some flack, but the board’s job is to really do its homework and look at the comparables (sales prices of similar properties in the area),” said Yoriko Kishimoto, who represents Palo Alto, Stanford and Los Altos. “We have to make the right decision for the next 20 or 50 years.”