This story was originally published Jan. 22 in the Daily Post.
BY ALLISON LEVITSKY
Daily Post Staff Writer
The Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District has quietly made plans to spend between $49.7 million and $55.7 million on new offices in Los Altos, and decided in an open meeting to wait until the deal closed to widely publicize the purchase and renovation.
The special district, which voters formed in 1972 to buy and preserve park land in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, has taken possession of a $31 million building at 5050 El Camino Real, steps from its current office at 330 Distel Circle, off of El Camino in Los Altos.
Now the board is planning a renovation of the more than 40,000-square-foot building that will cost between $18.7 million and $27.4 million.
Board member Yoriko Kishimoto, who represents parts of Palo Alto, Stanford and Los Altos, said the district had outgrown the 12,120-square-foot Distel Circle building that it bought more than 20 years ago.
Today, the district has 120 regular employees and 12 seasonal workers. Some of them were hired after 2014, when voters approved Measure AA, a $300 million bond measure benefiting the district.
Kishimoto said it got to the point where the district was renting out office space in neighboring buildings to make room for the additional employees.
“I think we are very lucky that the building next to us became available. It would have been much more time-consuming and a less satisfactory outcome if we had to do a renovation three stories up,” Kishimoto said. “Given the context of the real estate market on the Peninsula, I can definitely say it’s a fiscally prudent investment that provides us a long-term home.”
Kishimoto, a former mayor of Palo Alto, said she learned from the city’s decades of planning for a new police building, which still hasn’t been built.
“In some ways, you have to bite the bullet and make the right long-term decision,” Kishimoto said. “I’ve looked at all the numbers, I’ve looked at all the comparables and I’m comfortable with the decision we made to purchase the building.”
Public promised ‘great value’
Board member Larry Hassett, who represents Menlo Park, Redwood City, Portola Valley, Woodside and Atherton, said the 38-year-old building was a bargain because it needed updates.
“We’re basically having to gut it and create more of an open work area, but we’re also having to create a larger boardroom and other things like that,” Hassett said. “I think the public will get great value for their money.”
The new building is large enough that the district can rent out space to other organizations, which could result in more revenue and flexibility if the district continues to grow, Kishimoto said.
The district’s budget for the fiscal year ending in June 2019 accounts for $32.3 million for the new office, including $31.6 million for the building purchase and $600,000 for architectural and design work.
The rest of the cost of the renovation will come out of the general fund in next year’s budget, Kishimoto said. None will be paid for by Measure AA.
Some of the cost will be covered by the proceeds of the sale of the current office, which was appraised at $10.4 million in October.
District leaders initially thought they could pay between $6 and $10 million for the renovations, but architects at Berkeley-based Noll and Tam, who are doing the design, said in September that that wouldn’t be enough.
The architects then came up with three sets of improvements: the “baseline” level for between $15.2 and $18.7 million, the “enhanced” level for $18.7 to $27.4 million and the “aspirational” level for between $26.3 and $34.2 million.
The “baseline” would bring the building up to code and include basic finishes. That would include bringing the building into compliance with a new elevator, new building mechanical systems, new restrooms for each floor, new lighting, new disability-accessible parking, new interior stairs and electric vehicle charging stations.
Other “baseline” building upgrades would include a new lobby with an exposed structure, a new electrical system, a new roof membrane, minor structural changes and the demolition of existing walls and ceilings.
The “enhanced” alternative, which the board selected in October, would include all of the baseline improvements, plus re-grading the street to entrance, add a new lobby within the plaza, add a new indoor atrium with connecting stairs, improve the building facade, add higher-level finishes to public areas, including the boardroom, full glass walls in department offices, new outdoor elevated meeting spaces, a white noise system and operable windows at new space additions.
The “aspirational” alternative would include all the components of the “enhanced” option, plus solar panels that would bring the building’s energy consumption to “net zero,” additional electric vehicle charging stations, skylights, a roof deck and stair extensions.
Public’s role in process will come later
At a board meeting on Oct. 24, the board decided to publicize the purchase and renovation after the district closed on the new building.
Board President Pete Siemens, who represents Cupertino, Los Gatos, Saratoga and Monte Sereno, said the district should address any public concerns about the cost of the building and remodel, possibly by contacting the press before the start of the renovation.
To date, no one at the district has contacted the Post about the new building. The district is currently planning to start publicizing the purchase and renovation next month, according to a report in tomorrow’s meeting agenda packet.
The budget for the building purchase and the cost of the renovation has been publicized in meeting agendas online and discussed at public meetings that anyone can attend. But the district doesn’t post recordings of its meetings online, and no members of the public commented on the item at the Oct. 24 meeting.
Newly elected board member Karen Holman, who was sworn in this month to represent parts of Palo Alto, East Palo Alto, Stanford and Menlo Park, said it wasn’t surprising that the district wouldn’t want to widely publicize its plan to buy the building.
Holman, a former mayor of Palo Alto, said that when the city is preparing to buy property, top officials keep it hush-hush so as not to clue in competing bidders.
“I’m a fiscal conservative so I will be looking at this in good detail,” Holman said. “Yoriko’s an MBA, so she’s not going to be lavish in her expenditures.”
The board is meeting at 5 p.m. Wednesday (Jan. 23) to hear an update on the schematic design of the new office. Noll and Tam is scheduled to come back to the board in March with an updated cost estimate with an itemized list.