Midpen open space board worried about public’s reaction to $50 million office plan

An artist’s illustration of the offices the tax-supported Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District plans to open at 5050 El Camino Real. Rendering by Noll and Tam architects.

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.”

6 Comments

  1. Real Estate negotiations can be conducted under the Brown Act can be conducted in meetings closed to the public. However the final decision to purchase cannot and was held under a public meeting which could have been publicized and requested extensive public input prior to the decision. Another example of poor public relations by the district. Interestingly they cite the expenses of Mt Umunhum. That is a facility that will be visited and and enjoyed by many members of the public, to compare the effective cost is poorly chosen.

  2. Exactly how long was Midpen “saving” for this $50 MILLION office building? It’s been almost three years now since the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors *unanimously* voted to declare the Mt. Umunhum Radar Tower a historic structure and Midpen still hasn’t done a single repair in the way of preservation for it. The tower needs preservation work and has been sitting neglected for 31 years since Midpen bought it and the past 10 of those years with bare concrete exposed to the elements. Then they make up excuses to fence it off so the public cannot go near it. Summit visitors continue to be disgusted with Midpen selfishly dragging their feet on preserving the tower and even the Santa Clara County Historical Heritage Commission recently scalded them by indicating “it’s embarrassing at how slow you work with the tower preservation”. Midpen repeatedly claims to have no funding for this preservation work. Exactly how long will Midpen continue to scoff at the County of Santa Clara and the clear landslide majority of its own taxpaying constituency (and the rest of the Bay Area) by neglecting the historic-designated radar tower? It took them 31 years and nearly $30M to open up Mt. Umunhum to the public (which included taxpayer funds for suing land owners with eminent domain to take their land and rights across their property). Yet it took them less than one (1) year to quietly approve spending $50M on purchasing and completely renovating an old office building that they themselves don’t even have enough staff to fully occupy.
    Midpen Director Curt Riffle is “on the record” on the evening of their October 17, 2012 board meeting saying “We don’t do buildings. We run away from buildings”. How long will the run away from the will of the people (and their taxpayers) and the County Board of Supervisors and run instead towards their own self-serving lavish high-tech overpriced office space?

  3. The Last Week Tonight episode on Special Districts should be updated to now include this slow-moving trainwreck of an agency: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3saU5racsGE

    MROSD might have already entered the 2B2F (Too Big To Fail) phase of its existence. Maybe a ballot measure to split them up and/or move some of their land to corresponding county land agencies (Santa Clara OSP, parks departments, etc.) is in order?

    How many more pension-eating rangers does this agency need? How much more capital equipment do they need? Why are rangers driving around huge trucks by themselves, just so they can stand akimbo on remote fire roads to catch a mountain biker speeding, with a jackrabbit the only living animal within a mile?

    I sense a movement coming to thwart this agency. There sure is a lot of closed land that they should be opening up, but they always cite the fact that recreation is not the first item in their charter. But opening fancy new buildings is?

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