A very long night for some of us, but an interesting one. We started with a closed session regarding the downtown. Again, sorry I can’t say much.
We then went to an extended joint study session with the Board of Library Trustees to discuss the future of the library and the civic center. In brief, here are the issues. The Sunnyvale library is seriously inadequate to serve residents’ needs, and we would need to double the existing library space (through a bigger main, one or more branches, or both) just to match the service levels that the other cities in the county currently support. Some of our library’s service levels are even beneath the statewide average. The civic center is likewise in need of repair or replacement. The “rabbit hutches” (next to the library) are obsolete and increasingly unsafe, to the point where it’s been recommended that we just bulldoze them. City Hall is inadequate to support our staffing needs. For instance, we have a very small legal staff, yet they’re situated in different portions of the building. HR and Community Services are located in the rabbit hutches instead of with the rest of staff. Communications and the City Clerk are off in buildings that were originally intended to be temporary but have effectively become permanent.
And, of course, we don’t have the money in our capital reserves to address even a fraction of this.
Staff came to us with three concepts, mostly focused on the library. Here are the highlights.
Concept 1: the city recently closed the Lakewood Pool, due to low usage and very high per-user costs. The city recently decided to sell the Raynor Activity Center, due mostly to the very costly alternative of rehabilitating the buildings for some other use. Staff proposes taking the proceeds from the RAC sale and using them to replace the Lakewood Pool with a 15k square feet branch library. The cost is estimated to be $11.6 million plus $350-450k/year in annual operating expenses. Should the sale of the RAC generate less than this, the project would be scaled back. Staff is currently getting the RAC appraised for sale.
Concept 2: Staff proposes replacing the main library with a new 80k square feet main library located at the Recreation Center near the intersection of Remington and Michaelangelo. Two possible configurations, either one or two stories plus possible parking, range in cost from $66-74 million, possibly less if an additional multi-level parking structure is not required. There is no funding available for this, so this would require going to the voters to approve a bond.
Concept 3: Staff proposes replacing all of the civic center buildings in one fell swoop with brand new multi-story buildings through a public/private partnership with a developer (and multiple big-name developers have expressed strong interest in this idea). The city would sell or lease property to the developer along El Camino for office buildings, property along Pastoria and Mathilda for residential, and the city would get a new main library, civic center, and public safety building in the center of the property. The Charles Street Gardens would be untouched, or possibly need minor modifications. Total construction cost to the city = $0.
None of this is fleshed out yet, and all of it is conceptual. Staff presented the proposals for public input and for Council and BoLT direction, so as to develop more specific plans and alternatives, solicit more specific feedback from residents, and prepare a more detailed proposal for eventual Council decision. After much public input, Council provided two specific directions to staff. First, Council voted 5-2 to direct staff to provide more detailed information for developing the Lakewood Village branch library, to be funded from the proceeds of the RAC sale (I agreed). Second, Council voted 5-2 to direct staff to provide more detailed information for entering into a public/private partnership to replace the Civic Center, including a new 80k square feet main library to be located at the Recreation Center (essentially a mix of proposals 2 and 3, and I agreed again).
I have some mixed reactions to our direction. For starters, I’ve never been a big fan of branch libraries. They’re expensive to operate, compared to simply enlarging a central library. And building a branch library will detract from the effort to replace the main library. And one (or even two) branch libraries isn’t enough to even bring our library service levels up to the county average, so replacing the main is the bigger bang for the buck and a larger part of the solution. However, there is a pretty unique set of circumstances right now that strongly favor pursuing a branch library. Renting is prohibitively expensive, so we need a location that we can get for free or very little, which we didn’t have in the past. The Lakewood site would be a joint-use agreement with the Sunnyvale Elementary School District, and we’d get the land for free, in effect. The other problem is the capital cost to build it – something that we will be able to solve shortly with the sale of the RAC. Finally, and quite serious to me, we have an obligation to the Lakewood Village residents to replace the now-closed pool with some recreational amenity that’s as good or better. And this would be much better. So I support this proposal. It’s a great idea that staff has developed, and the end result will be a huge asset to northern residents.
I’ve also got some reservations about the main library proposal. I preferred straight-up Proposal 3, simply redoing the Civic Center in place and leaving the main library at the Civic Center. The argument was made that moving the library to the Rec Center consolidates recreation services, and that a library there makes more sense than putting it next to City Hall. I think the folks in Mountain View and Cupertino would disagree with that claim, since they both have City Hall and Library facilities co-located. However, the proposal has some interesting advantages. It potentially spreads out the Civic Center buildings a bit, rather than trying to put too much in one area. That probably better protects the Charles Street Gardens from needing changes. I’m also torn between the value of keeping the library at the civic center (in a location familiar to residents) and the value of having them at the Rec Center (in close proximity to services for seniors). But both sites have big advantages. So when push came to shove, I was happy to support the motion that was made.
Next comes fleshing out the ideas and coming back with more specific possible Council action at some point in the future.
That’s it for the study session. On to the actual Council Meeting.
We started off with a couple of announcements, one for the Centennial, one for the ongoing Board and Commission recruitment. The deadline for this round of interviews was extended to this Friday, and we still have vacancies on some commissions. So if you’re interested in becoming involved, I encourage you to get your application in. Next up was a presentation from Raania Mohsen of the Cities Association of Santa Clara County. This is a great organization that represents every city in the county equally. The CASCC focuses on issues of regional interest – education (where districts span cities), economic development, policies where a city’s choices impact or are impacted by its neighbors (single-use bag bans, medical marijuana, waste and resource management), and so on. And each city gets one equal vote. I’m Sunnyvale’s representative, as well as serving on the Executive (steering) Committee and the Legislative Advocacy Committee.
On to business. The list of bills was pulled yet again, and the balance of the consent calendar was passed on a 7-0 vote. We then went to public comments. A number of speakers spoke against last week’s vote to further study applying criminal background checks to BMR applicants. Then we got to the general business items.
Item 2 was the appointment of a Personnel Board member. This was handled separately because of some uniqueness with the Personnel Board. This body is one where certain seats are employee-nominated and others are traditionally nominated, and the vacant seat is an employee-nominated seat. If the employees fail to nominate a candidate within six months, then Council is free to appoint someone not nominated by the employees. And six months is up. We had three candidates, and we appointed Michael Knaebel on a 6-0-1 vote (I agreed).
Item 3 involved approving the engineer’s annual report on the downtown parking district, and with no discussion or public input, we approved it on a 7-0 vote.
Item 4 is where things got interesting – recommended changes to the BMR program. There’s no way I can list all of the proposed changes, but they involve either legal wording or developer requirements or alternatives. Some of this was legal stuff that was either a result of recent court actions (here and elsewhere) or just cleanup. Some of it involved creating options for developers that may allow the city to approve some interesting alternatives in unusual circumstances. There was a fair bit of discussion both by Council and members of the public to better understand the nature of the proposed changes. Then came the vote. The initial motion was to approve staff’s recommendation, which I approved with a friendly amendment. The big concern I had was that the changes would give flexibility without giving developers the opportunity to play games. One of the reasons I approved of staff’s recommendation was that any developer alternative requires staff and Planning Commission approval. So I amended the proposal to require Council approval of such amendments, which was accepted. A colleague then amended this again, to ensure that interior finishes of BMR are no worse than the interior finishes of non-BMR units. And then we passed this on a 7-0 vote.
Item 5 was the big item in the room – approval of the acquisition of tasers for use by our Public Safety Officers. This was rather serious, because it’s an issue of public safety and officer safety. There are any number of cases where deadly force isn’t justified, but both officers and suspects are subject to potential injury due to the suspect’s. In those cases, tasers can be the safest way to diffuse the situation. But there have also been recorded instances of deaths – not caused by tasers but potentially related to taser use. In Santa Clara county, we are one of only three law enforcement agencies that doesn’t provide tasers. So we had some discussion, where we delved way too far into operational issues, and then we approved the acquisition of tasers on a 6-1 vote (I approved). Staff is supposed to provide us with a report on the use of tasers after one year of use.
We then returned to 1C, the list of bills, which we approved on a 6-1 vote (I approved).
That was it for the meeting. I stirred up a bit of noise on a process issue. It’s pretty wonkish, but I’ll try to explain. As an overview, Council’s purview is policy, and not operations – we are supposed to tell staff what to do, but not how to do it. Now, developers occasionally submit “General Plan Amendment” requests, when they want to change zoning to accommodate some proposal. When this happens, staff works with the developer, potentially saying “yeah, this makes sense”, “this is ridiculous, you should drop this”, or maybe “this isn’t a good idea, but you might be able to do something close to this”. And the developer may pursue it, may modify it, or may drop it altogether. A request was made at our last meeting for Council to get copies of all GPAs when they’re sent to the city. This is silly, because the City Manager blogs about all such requests when they come in, so we already know about them if we actually do our homework. Staff responded that they don’t do that now, but they could, if Council wanted to change the procedures. And the motion wasn’t seconded, so I assumed the issue was dead. But then the same request was made by email later, and staff simply changed the process in response. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work. Individual councilmembers aren’t permitted to give orders to staff, and I said as much.
Worse, the new process has already happened once, and it ended badly. A colleague sent out an email blast with a “raw” GPA request, before staff even had the opportunity to review the request. So some residents thought we were going to significantly densify their neighborhood, when staff’s immediate reaction (later) was actually “this is too much”. And a couple of councilmembers read the request and inserted themselves into staff’s efforts (out of a sense of disclosure, I was one of them). This caused staff to treat this applicant differently. This is really bad process in any number of ways. The developer didn’t get a fair shake. The public was given incomplete and easily misconstrued information (and of course a couple of residents misconstrued it). And council stuck their noses into an operational issue. So the residents weren’t served well, the applicant wasn’t served well, and staff’s work was interfered with, none of which is a good thing. So I raised the point to try and restore the process to the way that actually functions properly. I’m not really sure what the end result of my request will be, so we’ll see.
That’s it for two weeks. We’re off next week for National Night Out. On the 14th, we return with a closed session involving the ongoing SEA negotiations, possible ordinance changes to deal with resident hoarding cases, a grand jury response to a finding regarding pensions, and possible changes to our art dedication requirements. The art one should be interesting. We require new developments to provide a significant amount of artwork as part of their project. But the end result is that we get a few private properties with a lot of art, rather than spreading it out over the city. So the study issue should explore allowing an in-lieu fee option, which would allow a developer to pay cash and not deal as much with the art acquisition, leaving it to the city to possibly fund art elsewhere in Sunnyvale, potentially a win-win. We’ll see what comes out of this study issue.