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Publication Date: Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Poor value in remodel for child care Poor value in remodel for child care (October 29, 2003)

Menlo Park may be saving money by turning the old police station into a child care center for $2.7 million rather than proceeding with a previously approved $6 million plan to build a new center, but the city is hardly getting a bargain.

By remodeling the police station, as the council decided to do on a 3-2 vote last week, the city gets only 5,900 square feet and a load of problems in the basement, including asbestos and lead from years of police target practice on a firing range. None of the costs to clean up and possibly refurbish the basement of the 1960s-era building are included in the $2.7 million estimate. Although the fire code prohibits using the basement for six or more children, city officials say the cleaned-up basement could have other uses, such as a teen drop-in center or storage space.

In addition, 5,900 square feet of child-care space can serve only 103 children. To accommodate the remaining 60 children currently enrolled at the Civic Center, the 3,100-square-foot portable building now being used would have to be moved to a parking lot near the former police station. The city rents this building for $48,000 a year, but this cost is not included in the $2.7 million estimate.

The real test of the remodel project comes when its bare-bones building is compared with what the city would get in a new, 13,700-square-foot child care center that is designed for the purpose. It would be located on the police station site, and its projected cost includes demolishing and cleaning up the old building.

Another factor not taken into account is the $750,000 in design fees already paid for the new child care center. A remodel project would mean these costs could not be recovered.

A new single-story building would include space for the city's maintenance and custodial staff, who now occupy the old police station building. The remodeling scenario does not provide for this use, so unless the basement is remodeled and cleaned up, the city would have to find other quarters for these staff members.

Although it is difficult to compare a bare-bones remodel of the old police station with a completely new building designed specifically for child care, here are the high points:

--Police station remodel
** COST: $2.7 million.
** ADDITIONAL COST: City currently pays $48,000 a year for a 3,100-square-foot portable building and would incur additional expense to move it.
** MEASURE T FUNDS: Probably eligible for some funds, but the amount has not yet been determined.
** SIZE: 5,900 square feet, plus a 3,100-square-foot portable classroom, for total of 9,000.
** CAPACITY: 103 students, plus about 60 in a portable classroom.
** AMENITIES: Small lobby, four large rooms, kitchenettes and restrooms.
** OTHER SPACE: No space for other city staff, unless additional funds are spent to remodel and remove asbestos and lead from basement.
** TIMELINE: Completion in 33 months.

--New child care center
** COST: $6.15 million, of which $750,000 is spent, leaving balance of $5.4 million.
** MEASURE T FUNDS: Eligible for $1.6 million.
** SIZE: 13,700 square feet
** CAPACITY: 180 students
** AMENITIES: Game room, arts and crafts room, built-in cabinets, study/computer room, multi-purpose room and others.
** OTHER SPACE: Includes space for city's building maintenance and custodial staff.
** TIMELINE: Completion in 18.5 months.

The above comparison shows that there would be apparent initial savings with the remodel project, but there are many costs not included in the $2.7 million estimate, which could be woefully low. In addition, we question whether parents will want to send their children to a center with a basement loaded with asbestos and lead. That is reason enough to include the cost of cleanup and refurbishment of the basement in any child care center project.

If saving money is truly the council's first interest, the city should abandon the idea of doing either project, and simply modify the Burgess Recreation Center to ease any concerns about that facility's use for child care.

Ken Ranella, superintendent of the Menlo Park City School District, said that a district survey of child care options both at the schools and the Civic Center showed that just 9 percent of school families expressed interest in having after-school child care provided only at the Civic Center. (Child care is a popular and available option at Las Lomitas district schools in west Menlo Park and Atherton.) Given the low interest and high expenditures for accommodating only 160 or so children, long an argument against building a new child care center, why spend $2.7 million to remodel a 1960s-era building that is hardly appropriate for the purpose?

With almost 9,000 square feet available at the Recreation Center, including a portable classroom, children have easy access to the city's gymnasium, swimming pool, and playing fields. If the city is looking for its best value in tough economic times, it should approve a minimal remodel of the Recreation Center and let it go at that.


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