Planning Board puts the brakes on emergency operations center
Planning Board puts the brakes on emergency operations center
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.