Planning Board puts the brakes on emergency operations center

Planning Board puts the brakes on emergency operations center

Michele Ellson

The Planning Board put the brakes on the city’s plans for a new emergency operations center, with members saying the building’s designers need to make some changes before moving forward.

The board voted 5-1 to approve a site plan detailing the placement of the emergency operations center and a new fire station to be built on a half-acre site at the corner of Grand Street and Buena Vista Avenue, and to hold off on okaying the design of the operations center until changes are made. Board member John Knox White voted against approving the site plan; member Mike Henneberry was absent.

“To me it’s a civic building and it needs some due diligence,” board member Kristoffer Köster said.

Board members questioned whether the two-story, 3,640-square-foot building as proposed would mesh with the largely residential neighborhood where the city plans to build it. They questioned the size and scale of the building and said it needed less driveway and more landscaping around it.

“From the rendering there, this thing is going to look like a giant, walled fortress in the middle of a historic residential neighborhood,” Knox White said.

Architect F. Christopher Ford said the design shifted to two floors in an attempt to be less imposing on the neighborhood. An earlier plan called for a 2,500-square-foot emergency operations center and a 9,500-square-foot fire station on the site, which was once Alameda Belt Line property and has been used to store trucks since the 1980s.

In addition to the emergency operations center and fire station, the hourglass-shaped lot is expected to hold a 50-foot communications tower, a 500-gallon above ground fuel storage tank and a generator to power the center if needed.

Knox White also questioned the cost and location of the proposed center, noting a recent news article he received detailing upgrades to one in Palo Alto that cost $100,000 and also, the fact that the fire brass who would lead it if an emergency strikes are more than a mile way, in Fire Station 1 on Park Street. Ford said the building is expected to cost $2.5 million.

“I guess there is a part of me that wonders if this is the right building in the right place,” Knox White said.

Board member Lorre Zuppan questioned the size of the windows that will cover much of the front of the building, drawings show, and also whether the 11 parking spaces it will house will be enough to manage all the cars that will be parked there during a disaster or training session. Köster asked whether the architects who designed it could offer neighbors facing the back of the building something nicer to look at.

Ford and Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi said they could “skinny” the driveway onto Grand Street, where fire trucks would exit, and add more landscaping to their plans.

D’Orazi, who said he’d like to see the center get up and running quickly, said it could see use “more than once a month” for staff and community preparedness training in addition to serving as a gathering spot for first responders and other city staff during an emergency.

One neighbor of the planned emergency center, Nadia Borisova, said she and others are concerned about the impacts it could impose on them. Borisova said she’s concerned about more traffic and noise and a potential loss of habitat for hawks that may nest and rest in trees that are going to be cleared from the site for construction.

“I just wanted to bring it out there that there is a big concern among residents that this is a really large facility that will be installed near a residential area. And it will be causing substantial disturbance to our life,” she said.

City leaders unsuccessfully sought a sales tax increase in 2012 that would have funded a new emergency operations center and Fire Station 3, which they said at the time would cost $4.5 million. During a series of community meetings to discuss plans for the emergency center and fire station that were held later that year, Ford put the cost of both buildings at $6.8 million.

In September, council members okayed a plan to refinance bonds issued to renovate City Hall, which generated $3 million the city plans to use to pay for the emergency operations center. They hired former state Senate leader Don Perata in December to lobby on the city’s behalf, sending him to Sacramento with a list of tasks that includes getting state funding for a new Fire Station 3.

The city’s current emergency operations center is in the basement of the police department. Former Police Chief Mike Noonan said the space is too small and lacks the infrastructure needed for all the people who would need to use it during an emergency and questioned whether it would be accessible after a major earthquake, though no one has questioned whether the department’s headquarters are seismically sound.

The 92-year-old Fire Station 3 – which is about a block from the proposed site of the new station – was long ago determined to be unsafe in an earthquake and firefighters have rented a home next door for over a decade as a result, at a cost of $3,500 a month. The station handled an average of about three calls a day in 2011, a study of the possible impacts of developing a station and emergency center on the Grand Street site says.

The Planning Board’s design review will be the only formal approval process for the development, City Planner Andrew Thomas – who called the emergency operations center “a really important project for the city of Alameda” – confirmed Monday. Anyone who disagrees with the board’s decision will have 10 days to appeal it to the City Council, which would then have the final say.

City staffers determined the project doesn’t need a formal environmental review because they believe it meets the state’s definition for infill development, for which less review is required. A less intensive environmental study conducted for the project determined its noise, traffic and other impacts would be limited.

City Manager John Russo has said he’d like construction on the emergency center to begin in the spring and for the building to be completed by the end of the year. Construction of the fire station – whose plans have not yet gone to the Planning Board for review – could begin in 2015.


Submitted by Michele Ellson on Tue, Jan 28, 2014

Hi, quick note to whoever just posted the comment under "Anonymous": I'd love to OK your comment but we don't run anything without some sort of a name on it. If you could repost with a name, much obliged.

Submitted by Brian (not verified) on Tue, Jan 28, 2014

Wow, it could see use "more than once a month." What an amazingly effective use of a few million bucks. The fire station, I get. The wisdom of this EOC, I am skeptical.

Submitted by tom (not verified) on Wed, Jan 29, 2014

Wonder if any thought was ever given to using the Belt Line Property that links Clement with Grand Avenue? This plot is behind the Red Rooster night club and opposite Penzoil property. Either as the site for more parking or for the EOC and Firestation?

Submitted by Flow (not verified) on Wed, Jan 29, 2014

It would make better sense to build the EOC over a new garage in the existing police station parking lot

Submitted by Bernice Wong (not verified) on Wed, Jan 29, 2014

As a resident of this neighborhood, I was initially apprehensive about the construction of the new EOC and Fire Station for several reasons. I did not receive an invitation to the initial planning meetings, although my house is a block and a half away from the site. I watched the Planning Board meeting and I share the concerns with my fellow neighbors about the construction noise and the noise from the fire trucks once it it built. I don't have concerns about neighborhood parking because Grand Street is pretty open for vehicles, despite the oft abandoned car from the mechanic on the corner of Grand and Buena Vista.

I wholeheartedly support the construction of the new EOC and fire station on this site because it is better than having an old truck storage lot on the property. This lot is an eyesore to the new Grand Marina property owners and the surrounding properties. The site currently provides cover for people living in a Winnebago and decaying trees. The site formely provided a location for an illegal recycling operation for copper thieves.

The EOC is a welcome addition to the upper Grand Street neighborhood. There are new tenants moving in soon and the City has shown its willingness to work with the residents on the issues surrounding noise, lights from the fire trucks, potential bird strikes on the windows, parking, and landscaping. I have encouraged my fellow neighbors to get behind this effort and support the new EOC and fire station. Let's all hope they can break ground in the Spring of 2014.

I would have loved to provide comments at the Planning Board meeting, but I was away on business.

Submitted by Steve Gerstle on Thu, Jan 30, 2014

How often in the past 20 years would have a facility like this been used for a real emergency?

What exactly would take place at the emergency center during an emergency?

"D’Orazi, who said he’d like to see the center get up and running quickly, said it could see use “more than once a month” for staff and community preparedness training in addition to serving as a gathering spot for first responders and other city staff during an emergency."

Does this mean that we will need to make our way to the emergency center is an emergency as that is where the first responders will be, or will they be coming to us? What percentage of first responders will be in the emergency center compared with those responding?

Submitted by John Wong (not verified) on Fri, Jan 31, 2014

The problems with emergencies is that you never know when you'll have one. Once a major tragedy occurs, people have a tendency to focus on the the services that were NOT in place prior to to catastrophic event. We have an opportunity to build a center which will improve communication, coordination, and training of our local emergency responders, as well as our state and federal counterparts. This is priceless. The members of the Planning Board blocking the construction of the EOC are reckless.

I survived hurricanes Rita and Katrina. I lost a house, my dog, and a car; but my family and I survived. If the Gulf Coast region had better strategic planning, funding, training, technology, and communication, the devastation we experienced would have been mitigated. I pray that I never have to go through another act of nature (or God's will) like hurricaines Rita and Katrina, but I would sleep better at night as an Alameda homeowner with the knowledge that our emergency responders were afforded a centralized location to coordinate their activities.

Submitted by John Wong (not verified) on Fri, Jan 31, 2014

I own and reside in a property two blocks away from the new EOC site. I have lived here for over ten years. I support the construction of the new EOC and fire station because the decision to leave that site vacant and delapidated is no longer an option. I welcome Alameda residents to visit the current site of the new EOC on the 1800 block of Grand Street and see for yourself. Please drive or walk by it (don't just Google map it) and you'll understand what I am about to say. This site has been a public nuisance for many years and needs to be developed. There have been complaints about this vacant lot and the building across the street for code enforcement violations. I should mention that the property across the street from this site is now under new management.

Those opposing the development of the new EOC want to maintain the delapidated and neglected condition of the vacant lot as a place to conduct illegal activity. There is no other logical explanation. Other than the woman living in the trailer in the rear of the lot, and a few dirty abandoned vehicles, there is no better use for this lot than to build the EOC and fire station.

Again, please take a moment and visit this site and ask yourself if you would want your kids to be exposed to a neglected dirty old lot each time they ride their bike down the street. The time has come for the City to develop this property. At this point, my neighbors and I just want to look at something other than dirty old U-Haul trucks. Please move forward with the EOC.

Even a Planning Board member quipped at the hearing on January 27th about the lack of development of that empty space. It is no joking matter. People live in this neighborhood. We bought houses. We are raising families. We vote. We pay taxes. We have invested in the City of Alameda. Do not overlook our neighborhood by allowing this eyesore to continue to fester on Grand Street for one more day.