For two decades, Mountain View has endeavored to build a new headquarters for the city's police and fire departments, grappling with high construction costs and no clear way to finance it.
The familiar problem is back again, only this time the price tag has grown. City Council members agreed Tuesday to pursue a $134 million plan to bulldoze the existing Villa Street building and replace it with a larger two-story facility. Several council members raised concerns that the city has yet to figure out how to pay for the high cost of construction, which has more than doubled since 2014.
City officials say they have a plan to pay for about $40 million of the costs, leaving the bulk of the project unfunded. Possible sources include a housing bond, a sales tax or a hike in the city's hotel tax.
Mountain View's current public safety building combines both the police station and the fire department's administrative services, along with emergency dispatch and the city's emergency operations center. The structure itself has some unusual design choices that have proved to be a headache over the years, with inflexible concrete block walls and a complex roof that have made it difficult and expensive to change with the times.
Rather than try to renovate or expand a flawed building, the city is looking to bulldoze it and replace it with a new two-story building on the same property. Essential police and emergency functions would need to continue during construction, some of which may be shifted to the city-owned parking lot across the street.
The proposed building would over 60,000 square feet of space -- a more than 33% increase over today -- and close to 100 extra parking spaces in a two-story garage. City officials are also weighing the possibility of adding an 11,700-square-foot shooting range, giving officers a chance to train in the city rather than contracting with other law enforcement agencies.
When a similar building was proposed in 2014, city officials said it would cost $65 million. The revised price tag of $134 million reflects a huge increase in construction costs over the last seven years, along with some changes in the project's scope, according to city staff.
Councilwoman Sally Lieber, who voted against the plan, said she was concerned about the high costs and skeptical that all the space would be necessary. While some police and fire department functions are highly technical and must be done in person, she said plenty of roles can also be carried out from home as well. She said she would rather cut back on the project's size than dump the cost on taxpayers.
"I know this proposal is intending that 100% of people must gather together ... but maybe it's something that we just can't afford in the future," Lieber said. "We can't afford it in terms of space."
In order to pay for the high costs, city finance officials are looking to use most of the money from the Ameswell development at 750 Moffett Blvd., a city-owned property with offices that is expected to generate $4 million in annual revenue once it's fully operational. The plan is to earmark $3.3 million of that money each year, accounting for about $40 million of the costs to build the new police and fire building.
How to pay for the remaining $94 million is still a mystery. While the city has floated the idea of leaning on a hotel tax, revenue from the transient occupancy tax has plummeted during the pandemic and has yet to rebound.
In order to pull together an extra $4 million annually to pay for a bond and finance construction of the building, the city could chose to levy a property tax measure that would roughly come out to $11 per $100,000 of assessed value, according to city staff. Alternatively, the city could seek a $194 parcel tax.
Though still just a conceptual design, some council members sharply disagreed with the layout of the proposed building. In order to preserve essential police and fire functions during construction, the new building is expected to be placed on the southern end of the site currently occupied by a surface parking lot. That leaves significant space between the building and Evelyn Street, creating a sort of dead zone, said Councilwoman Alison Hicks.
If oriented better, Hicks said that land could be used for any number of community resources, including affordable housing or space for a local nonprofit like Community Services Agency. Councilwoman Pat Showalter also pushed for new design options, calling it a poor use of 2.2 acres of precious downtown space that's owned by the city.
"I am supportive of a new building but I'm not supportive of the layouts as described here. I just don't think they make sense," Showalter said.
City officials cautioned that the designs can and will change based on what the council wants, and that the main decision at the Oct. 12 meeting was to decide whether to construct the new building at the same location. Other options included renovation -- which would be cheaper but have significant drawbacks -- and complete relocation of the building to a city-owned parking lot.
Councilwoman Margaret Abe-Koga said the city has spent a lengthy amount of time and multiple studies vetting all the options, and that it's important to actually move forward and get the project over the finish line this time. She pointed out that the project has doubled in costs since 2014, and that asking for more options and expensive add-ons like underground parking would just worsen the delays.
"We have looked at this several times, trust me on that, and I think staff has come to what is the best conclusion at this point in time," Abe-Koga said.
Full schematic designs of the project, along with options for how to pay for it, will come back to the council by fall 2022.