Citing a protracted planning process and the city's refusal to expedite the permits before a possible specific plan-altering ballot initiative could take effect, the fire board directors voted 3-0-1 on June 30 to look elsewhere for a site to construct a new fire station downtown. Board member Charles Bernstein was absent and Virginia Chang Kiraly abstained, saying she wanted the full board present to discuss alternatives.
"After 7 years of working to replace Station 6 we have gotten nowhere while in half that time we will have built a brand new and dramatically better station in East Palo Alto with the full support and assistance of the City of East Palo Alto," director Peter Carpenter said in an email after the vote.
"After a full discussion the Fire Board voted ... to make no further expenditures for the replacement of Station 6 at the Oak Grove site and to consider alternative sites which will allow us to fulfill our obligation to serve the downtown area," Mr. Carpenter said.
The parcels that were slated for a renovated station straddle the boundary of the specific plan, with 700 Oak Grove on the inside and 1231 Hoover St. outside. The fire board discussed three options: Proceed as planned despite the potential complications; eliminate the lot merger and process the project as two developments on two lots; and find a new replacement site entirely outside the specific plan's boundaries.
At issue is whether the initiative proposed by grassroots coalition Save Menlo would require a city-wide vote to change the boundaries of the specific plan to incorporate both parcels, so that a merged lot would be subject to only a single set of zoning regulations.
The initiative includes clauses that would, within the specific plan's boundaries, restrict office space for individual projects to 100,000 square feet; limit total new office space to 240,820 square feet; and cap overall new, nonresidential development to 474,000 square feet.
In addition, voter approval would be required to revise the ordinance, including its definitions, or to allow projects that would exceed the nonresidential development limits.
Initiative co-sponsor Patti Fry and supporters Steve Schmidt and George Fisher spoke during the board meeting.
Saying that the initiative has nothing to do with the district's issues with renovating the station, Ms. Fry commented: "We would encourage you to do what's right. We want to support our fire station."
Mr. Schmidt agreed. There is no reason the district couldn't rebuild the way it wants should the initiative pass, he said, and to move the station elsewhere, partly out of spite, would deprive portions of Menlo Park from the protection offered by having the facility located centrally in downtown.
"It's not in the interests of residents or fire district to be involved in a petty political contest over talking points in November," he commented.
They asked, why not go with the option that doesn't involve merging the parcels? But the district representatives responded that that would lead to a suboptimal station squeezed into a too-small lot.
Taking a different tack, Mr. Fisher stated that he thought Mr. Carpenter should be recused from the discussion on grounds that his anti-initiative stance created a conflict of interest.
District representatives replied that since the director has no financial interests related to Station 6, and that the board isn't voting on the initiative anyway, recusal was unnecessary.
View from the city
According to the city's staff, the district's request in May to expedite the station's remodel so that project approvals would become effective this year was impossible because of state law.
"Ultimately, the timeline on the Fire Station 6 process is primarily being dictated by the (California Environmental Quality Act) requirements," said Senior Planner Thomas Rogers in an email to the Almanac. The specialized work needed, combined with staff shortages, led to the selection of a consultant — GHD — to do an $84,220 CEQA analysis, which the council approved in May.
"The final actions on this project are projected for December, and are driven by the preceding CEQA analysis requirements," Mr. Rogers said, noting that public comment deadlines are not up to the city's discretion.
He added that GHD's schedule had the fire district's approval before it went to the council. "In general, I believe the Planning Division has been responsive to the Fire District throughout this overall process, and has moved things along as the District has addressed the City's requirements."
However, the initiative qualified for the November ballot after the consultant was hired. According to the fire district staff's report for the June 30 board meeting, if the initiative passes and the city decides the new regulations apply to the Station 6 remodel, the district would either have to fight that decision in court or hold a special election at an estimated cost of $95,000 in related expenses.
With the decision to look for an alternate site, the board noted that it was essentially regarding the money spent by the district on the GHD contract as a sunk cost.