Midpen open space district to spend $50 million on new offices

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.

This story was originally published Jan. 22 in the Daily Post.

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.

The lobby of the building the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District plans to build. Illustration by Noll and Tam architects.

“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.

Three choices

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.


  1. Is it a coincidence … we approve Measure AA, which gives them 300 million dollars … and they spend 50 million to give themselves nicer offices … I realize they say the money is in different pots, but this is obscene given the trust we put in them when we approved Measure AA. If you’ve got 50 million laying around, buy some open space.

  2. This is nothing new it’s been a hush-hush item for a long time saying these funds are not coming out of measure AA is technically correct but somewhat misleading some of the items being paid by the bond funds currently would have had to come out of the general funds had the public not approve the bond so therefore indirectly allowing for the purchase of such an overpriced facility you can come up with all justifications you like but in the end it’s a very bad public look Midpen hs always been bad at presenting itself to the public I personally never could have supported it under any reason

  3. This is a really bad and irresponsible decision. Someone needs to be held accountable and recalled for this or needs to resign.

    • Midpen board directors never get “ousted”. They often resign, but “conveniently” not before a deadline to file to run against them. So what happens is their existing directors “appoint” a new hand-picked member to their “club” and the viscous cycle of non-transparency continues.
      Decisions like to spend $50M of taxpayer money on a new office they can’t even fill up with their own staff is just another example of how Midpen abuses their power as a special district with literally no oversight.

  4. MROSD is so horrible!
    I voted no for measure AA back then. This is the reason why.
    Rampant spending like money grows on trees. Seriously? 50 million dollars for an office? And more than half of their land they own isn’t open to the public. Shame on them!

  5. This is a bad idea. We pay our taxes to this district to buy and maintain our open spaces, not buy offices. Before approving this, they should have held a town meeting to find out what the community thinks. This stinks!

  6. As a tenant in this building I find it egregious that the previous owner Pearlman Himy, the new owner Mid Penn and the property manager Orchard Property Management have made no effort written or otherwise to inform the current tenants about any of this. So I get to learn about this via Palo Alto Daily Post. What a dirtbag, disgusting and cold hearted group of people.

  7. So let me see if i’ve got this right. The way the board sees the public process is this—you buy the property first and then hold a public hearing to get the community’s comments on it? isn’t that putting the cart before the horse?

  8. This shocked me. This family has supported this organization for many years. Now we see what values this leadership really holds. What is the excuse for this extravagant plan? We are retired now, but still support open spaces. They have kept us young and mentally healthy. We continue to support this group and have often mention it to our children and grandchildren as a place that is doing good work. Time to rethink this, and I feel gravely disappointed. RECALL?

  9. We live in La Honda where they have purchased a lot of land and do not support our tax base, as they do not pay property taxes on their lands. Our school,fire and sheriffs department are less funded because of their land acquisitions. Especially our small schools in La Honda and Pescadero…but yet, they can spend $50 million on a building in Los Altos? Disgusting obscene waste of our tax payers money!

  10. I’d like to thank the Daily Post for revealing this. I notice that no other newspaper in the area has reported on this proposal except for the Post. I appreciate the Post’s investigative reporting. I hope that the community, after reading this story, can impress upon the Midpeninsula board the need to roll back this project, if possible. The $50 million is better spent on acquiring park land.

  11. 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?

  12. Fortune 500 companies don’t even spend that kind of money on office space. I used to talk this agency up a lot. They’ve lost my support. Forever.

  13. Fortune 500 companies don’t even spend that kind of money on office space. I used to talk this agency up a lot. They’ve lost my support. Forever.

  14. The administration of this district has outgrown their office space. They are spread across multiple smaller leased areas in different buildings. They have put this decision as regular agenda item in regular postings. They didn’t hide anything. They followed process. Do you think commercial/office property values are going to decrease in the next 10-20 years? Do you think construction costs are going to go down over that time? Of course not. As they acquire more open space and more responsibility to manage it, they’ll need the staff to handle that. Anyone running any kind of business or organization knows this. I think it was with great forethought that they got this now, before commercial property values go up even more. They now have a space they can use for decades to come, without lease increases. They have essentially fixed the cost of their administration for the next what, 30 years or more. I’m not clear why this is a bad decision, or why people think they’ve been “hiding” it, or doing something inappropriate. I also find it unsettling that people are commenting here by comparing a timeline for purchasing land in the mountains to purchasing office space. Neighbors chose the mountains for a reason, usually involving privacy and peace, will live next to new traffic and increased visitors. MROSD has to clear what they do and the roads etc, with these neighbors. That’s completely different from purchasing office space in a commercial area where no one’s home is affected by the purchase. It’s a very different kind of transaction. How much is housing worth in today’s market? We all know prices are rising. Imagine that price point times 50 for the square footage they need for offices. I think people have sticker shock about the market and are confusing that with MROSD paying a lower price now instead of a higher price in the future.

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