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Feature story: Menlo Park fire district's growing pains

 

This is an expanded version of a story previously published online.

By Sandy Brundage, Almanac Staff Writer

This may be the only fire that Menlo Park Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman wishes had not been extinguished so quickly: A firefighter once knocked a light off the wall while leaving Station 6, causing a small fire. The chief wondered whether it would've been better if the station at 700 Oak Grove Ave. in downtown Menlo Park had burned down, since that could have allowed renovations sooner.

Nevertheless, the district, which serves Atherton, Menlo Park, East Palo Alto and unincorporated areas of San Mateo County, is now going full steam ahead with building a new station at the site after winning unanimous approval from both the City Council and the Planning Commission.

The plan is to build a 7,857-square-foot, two-story firehouse of red brick and tan stucco. A companion 1,003- square-foot, single-story structure will be built to display trucks from the 1930s and 1950s, along with a hose wagon from 1900. Finally, a 342-square-foot carriage house, which has a gable roof and bell tower, will be relocated to the site from the district's Middlefield Road headquarters.

The architectural design of the new station is by CJW Architecture, Portola Valley. Carter J. Warr is the principal architect and Bill Gutgsell, the senior associate architect.

The current building at 700 Oak Grove Ave. and the house on the next-door lot at 1231 Hoover St. will be demolished. At least two heritage trees and six non-heritage trees will be cut down. The district plans to plant 26 new trees.

The layout for the new station will allow fire vehicles to enter the apparatus bay front first from Hoover Avenue; right now the vehicles must back in from Oak Grove Ave. The new bay will be able to accommodate both the current 28.5-foot fire engine and the 44.9-foot fire truck planned for future use. The station will also incorporate living quarters on the second floor for on-duty fire personnel, according to the site plan.

The neighboring lots -- at 700 Oak Grove Ave. and 1231 Hoover St. -- will be combined to create enough space for the new station. The lot merger provoked controversy during the recent campaign season. Those fighting Measure M, an initiative to change the specific plan, argued that the initiative, if passed, would then require a special election to approve rebuilding Station 6, since one lot sits within the specific plan's boundaries while the other doesn't. Initiative proponents argued that wasn't true. Measure M, however, didn't pass, putting an end to that particular debate.

Changes to the project were made during the design phase to address concerns raised by neighbors about privacy and blocked light. Residents indicated they were happy with the final outcome, which earned the district praise from the council during a Jan. 13 meeting.

The fire district expects to finish building a new station in East Palo Alto this year. Construction of the new Station 6 in Menlo Park is expected to take place over two years, with the facility remaining open for operations throughout.

District's future

The project approval comes at a time when the fire district, like the city of Menlo Park, is figuring out how to adjust to a boom in development and the accompanying growing pains.

"My office looks out over the Willow and Middlefield Road intersection," Chief Schapelhouman said. "Every workday afternoon and evening when I hear the emergency call tones go off and our responding personnel run into a wall of traffic at this intersection, I'm reminded of their challenges in the very real world of emergency response where seconds and minutes matter and can often make the difference between a positive or negative outcome and sometimes life or death."

Case in point: The district's response to a house fire at 2217 Pulgas Ave. in East Palo Alto on Jan. 12. As smoke poured out the front door, the six firefighters who were able to reach the scene within seven minutes found themselves without additional crew for approximately 10 minutes as other units incoming from Menlo Park ran into gridlock.

"Engine 5 went over the Marsh Road overpass, down Bayfront to University to the call and almost beat the Station 1 crews, who are closer but used Willow Road," Chief Schapelhouman said. "Engine 6, also further away, heard the Station 1 crews were locked up on Willow and went through another jurisdiction, Palo Alto, which is not what I prefer they do, but they exercised good initiative and it worked to beat the Station 1 crews as well."

The chief said his point is that Willow Road's design makes it hard for drivers to get out of the way of emergency vehicles. The district uses systems to control stop lights and prioritize emergency traffic through intersections, "but when traffic is grid-locked it doesn't help. We often go slowly against traffic to be able to move at all."

Marsh Road and University Avenue through Palo Alto are wider and have more room for vehicles to yield, he said, but still suffer heavy congestion.

"We realize all this traffic is a sign of a robust economy (and) that's great news for everyone," Chief Schapelhouman said. "We also realize that Marsh, Willow and University are feeders to the Dumbarton Bridge and our east side residents are harder to serve and underserved at certain times of the day, depending upon traffic and the volume of calls for service."

He said he's considering making a video documentary to show people what the response looks like from the seat of a fire engine.

Fixing the problem makes for a lengthy "to do" list: The fire district has hired a contractor, Citygate Associates, for approximately $40,000 to study how to adjust deployment and propose solutions that could run the gamut from staffing changes to roadway modifications to new aid agreements with other jurisdictions. The study should take about four months to complete.

Next, a meeting with Palo Alto to consider expanding automatic aid, so that the closest units to a call get dispatched regardless of jurisdiction. "The (current) agreement only covers halfway into East Palo Alto and I would like it to include the entire city," Chief Schapelhouman said. He's also hoping to get official permission to use University Avenue at certain times of the day to respond to incidents such as a structure fire.

The district is working on developing a "big picture" overview of development within the region that will include visual mapping of projects, proposals and roadway changes. "Most projects (or) proposals come in one at a time, but we want to see what they start to look like when we put them all together from the responders perspective. I've also discussed this with the fire chiefs of Redwood City and Palo Alto," the chief said. That information will be included in the City Gate study.

And then there's the question of how to pay for improvements. The district intends to ask the jurisdictions it covers to update impact fees to ensure that new development contributes a fair share. Menlo Park is a key participant, particularly given the slate of new buildings coming to the M2 zone sandwiched between the San Francisco Bay, University Avenue, Marsh Road and U.S. 101.

Station 77, which services the M2 zone from 1467 Chilco St. in Menlo Park, was built in 1998 to accommodate a single crew and one fire engine, and sits on land leased from the city, according to Chief Schapelhouman. Built at a time when buildings could reach no higher than three stories, the station isn't ready for the bigger structures on the way, such as Menlo Gateway's seven-story hotel.

The challenge for the fire district is to find the millions of dollars needed to expand services. "We don't have impact fees yet and (would) potentially be investing more funds into something we don't own," the chief said, noting that the district offered to buy the property, but the city wasn't willing to sell.

"Our priority has been to replace the four existing 1950s era facilities that are over 60 years old. We currently have two stations in play, but two more to go. We started a focused modernization plan in 2007 and it has taken us almost a decade to save the money, go through the approval processes and build a station."

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