The Atherton City Council is considering restarting work on its $31.6 million civic center project, which, according to town officials, likely falls into the category of essential construction due to what they say is the poor condition of the police building.
The council paused nearly all construction projects townwide on March 18 in response to the countywide stay-at-home order that was instituted to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The latest order, which was issued this week and lasts until May 3, allows for essential government construction. The town’s project contractor, S.J. Amoroso Construction, will present the town with a proposal next week explaining how it can continue construction while maintaining a safe working environment that would limit the spread of the virus.
“The police department is still in an existing building which is falling apart rapidly,” City Manager George Rodericks said during a Wednesday, April 1, council meeting that took place over teleconference service Zoom. “There are safety concerns and a timelier possibility for completion (of the police station) would help that.”
Mayor Rick DeGolia said the construction of the new police station should fall under essential services, since it will improve the “ability of police to provide services to the town.”
“Our (police) officers are operating out of a completely deficient building,” he said. “We’re not looking at just a week or two (delay) – the order is firm for a month and easily could be more than that. … It would be in the interest of residents to remobilize the (civic center) project focused on the one building.”
DeGolia noted that the town should have clear guidelines for social distancing on the construction site. Otherwise, it's not worth resuming construction if it poses a greater risk of further spreading the virus, he said. During a March 18 council meeting, council members Cary Wiest and Mike Lempres said they observed workers on the site sitting in close quarters during their lunch breaks and not social distancing.
Following the initial stay-at-home order, the town formed a builder's roundtable subcommittee, which has created guidelines for contractors that would help mitigate the spread of the virus if construction projects were to resume. The guidelines include screening questions to ask construction workers before they start working on a site, including if the worker has experienced any cold or flu-like symptoms in the last 24 hours (to include cough or fever or sore throat or respiratory illness or difficulty breathing), according to a report prepared by staff for the April 1 meeting.
“I’m finding this to be a very difficult issue,” Lempres said. “I’m convinced guidelines are good mitigants. I’m concerned with the perception this is hypocritical, placing our own interests (to complete the town's civic center project) before residents' (home construction projects).”
Council member Bill Widmer said it’s “foolish” to consider resuming construction on the civic center. He doesn’t want people exposed to the virus “under any circumstances,” even if it’s at a cost to the town. Widmer said he could “possibly swallow” construction resuming if people were working separately, but he doesn’t think it’s “a one person working independently job.”
“We have to keep the public safe and the infrastructure safe; the question we have to face is, 'is this one- or two- or five-week delay really going to make a big difference?'” he said. “Adding another two weeks to the project isn’t a major issue, per se, possibly given the risk.”
Resuming construction of the new library is clearly off the table, Rodericks said, since the order makes it clear that in-person library services are non-essential.
City Attorney Mona Ebrahimi said the order doesn’t have guidance on what constitutes essential governmental functions.
Bob Erskine, Northern California President of S.J. Amoroso, said his company has strictly followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Occupational Safety and Health Administration safety guidelines on its other construction sites throughout the state and that his supervisors have been communicating precautions to limit the spread of the virus to their workers.
Mike Greenlee, a town building official, said it’s possible to safely continue construction through social distancing. Inspections can be done through live video as well, he noted.
Town officials will also explore if continuing work on their new town hall would be considered essential work.
Vice Mayor Elizabeth Lewis was absent from the meeting.
The City Council will review S.J. Amoroso’s proposed protocols for construction of the civic center at a special meeting on April 8.
Knox Playschool rent relief
The council also approved waiving its $7,369 monthly rent charge to Knox Playschool, which is located in Holbrook-Palmer Park, for at least the month of April. The tuition-based preschool, which serves over 100 children ages 2-5 years old on a part-time basis, shut down on March 13 in response to the virus outbreak.
Preschool and day care centers can remain open throughout the county's stay-at-home order, but only for children of essential workers, such as first responders. State officials have indicated schools will likely be closed for the remainder of the school year.
“I’m basically out of business, so I’m doing the best I can,” said Susan Knox, owner of the preschool, which employs nine teachers. “I really don’t want to have to lay off nine teachers.”
Knox is currently seeking funding through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program designed to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll. The Small Business Administration will forgive loans if all employees are kept on the payroll for eight weeks and the money is used for payroll, rent, mortgage interest or utilities. The program will be available through June 30.
Knox told The Almanac in an email she is working on ways to continue paying for her teachers’ salaries and insurance, but "this is a very fluid situation."
Knox’s teachers created some educational videos for families, but it is difficult to provide preschool remotely, she said.
"Ultimately what we excel at is caring for children, teaching them social skills, and building relationships with the family," she said in her email to The Almanac. "We are trying to maintain those connections." For example, she continued to conduct parent/teacher conferences as originally scheduled, but over phone calls or video conferences instead of in person.
She is offering families refunds for April tuition. If the preschool can’t reopen in May, she will not charge tuition for that month either (the latest stay-at-home order runs through May 3).
“If we take this a month at a time we may know a lot more in a month,” said council member Mike Lempres, who noted the preschool is an asset to the community. “Waive fees for a month and find out what grants are out there and if it covers things like rent, we’ll have a different conversation in May.”
Knox has rented the facility for 22 years and plans to stay in the space for at least the next few years, according to a staff report.
Council member Bill Widmer noted that the town doesn't need to be "overly frugal" and has already refunded fees for weddings and other events in light of the stay-at-home order. He said he doesn’t see why it should consider continuing to charge the preschool for a facility that no one can use at this time.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by the Almanac, Mountain View Voice and Palo Alto Online here.