Rumor Control – Civic Center “Plans”

We’ve been hearing a lot of misinformation circulating the city in recent months, some of it propagated by uninformed individuals, some of it being deliberately spread, unfortunately.  At any given time, there’s always someone making bizarre claims about the city, and you can’t do this job very long before you develop a thick skin to this kind of nonsense.  But sometimes the rumors gain legs, and it becomes important to set the facts straight.  I’m going to spend some time over the next couple of weeks trying to knock a few of these things down.

One of the rumors I keep hearing is that the city has been secretly negotiating with developers to build the Civic Center, and that the city has even developed new plans for the Civic Center, specifically for private high-rise offices on the Civic Center property along El Camino.  There was even a rather bizarre claim of 140′ tall buildings on El Camino.  I’ve now heard a number of variants of this – that we want 6-10 story offices, 6-story apartments, you name it.

For the most part, this is all nonsense.  But I’ll explain where it came from, and how reality is now being (deliberately) distorted.

It’s no secret that our Civic Center is badly out of date and in dire need of a major overhaul.  The library and City Hall were both built many decades ago, back in a time before the City had even purchased its first computer.  As nice and quaint as our library is, ours is the worst library facility in the county, in terms of its ability to deliver library services. Every measurable statistic says so, the most compelling being the per capita size of our collection (the worst and roughly half that of the second worst in the county) and the per capita size of our library facilities (ditto).  And our City Hall is singularly unable to support the administrative needs of a city significantly larger than Sunnyvale was when it was first built.

So we’ve embarked on a very public effort to modernize the Civic Center.  And the first resident outreach meeting to discuss this issue will be this Saturday, April 25th, at 9:00 a.m.  I hope you can attend!

In the process of exploring our options, we have discussed the concept of a “public/private partnership” – a means to leverage the private sector to get the facilities we need, without having to go to the taxpayers and get them to approve what would likely be a very large tax measure of some sort. This isn’t a new concept, and it isn’t even new for the Civic Center – we first started talking about this back in 2000 or 2001.  Back in 2012, the City Council authorized staff to spend some more time exploring this concept as a one of many solutions to our Civic Center issues.  There was no direction saying “go make this happen”.  It was simply direction to do some homework.

So staff went out and started doing some homework.  Not having any specifics of what a public/private partnership might mean for the Civic Center, or what a private entity would want to get out of a partnership, staff had conversations with various developers, usually just when they came into City Hall to work on their projects or conduct other business.  And those conversations were along the lines of “hypothetically, if we did a PPP with you on the Civic Center, what would it mean, what would you want, what would you expect, give us a sense of scope, please?”  And various developers said X or Y or whatever, from which staff hopefully got a sense of whether or not a PPP is a viable approach to the Civic Center modernization.   Staff didn’t develop any specific plans, and they didn’t discuss specific numbers, because it’s way too early for specifics, and we don’t have any anyway.  Plus, that’s just not the way you do something like this.  There are always bidding processes and public hearings whenever you reach the point of wanting to develop specifics.

But it was all intended to answer some very basic questions that we have and staff cannot answer – what are our options for completing what may be the second largest municipal project in Sunnyvale’s history?

However, developers being what they are, one of them immediately went out and created conceptual art about how a PPP civic center might look, complete with drawings and even supposedly a model (which I’ve heard about but never seen myself).  It turns out, developers can pretty much turn out artwork at the drop of a hat, something I didn’t realize until then.  To my knowledge, none of the artwork featured ten-story buildings, or six-story apartments, or a lot of the nonsense that’s being claimed.

But the mere existence of this developer artwork has allowed certain individuals to make a lot of claims that simply aren’t true.  No, the City hasn’t developed plans for 140′ buildings or 6-10 story offices or massive amounts of high-density housing on the Civic Center.  Staff and my colleagues and I have made every attempt to explain reality to residents with concerns, but in a couple of cases, reality is simply being ignored, in pursuit of personal agendas.  That’s highly disappointing, and it doesn’t serve the residents of Sunnyvale well.  It’s also laughable on its face.  I don’t believe there are even six-story buildings anywhere on ECR, much less 140′ tall buildings.

In fact, the conceptual art in question is no longer even viable as a proposal.  The developer who created artwork for a possible new Civic Center assumed the inclusion of property along Mathilda which is already being developed into a new mixed-use project.  That wasn’t the case back when the City talked with him.  We simply could not build what he came up with anyway.

That brings us to today, and our current efforts to modernize the Civic Center.  Our new City Manager has developed a new, thorough, and transparent approach to this project, so as to fully involve the community, with the end result being decisions by the City Council that residents can understand and hopefully support.  Even the “plan for a plan” was made public, discussed in public, and approved by Council in public.  We’re beginning a year of outreach, during which the City will explain the facilities problems that staff sees, understand the problems that residents see, explore our options, develop our list of needs, develop a plan to address those needs, and then (and only then) figure out how to pay for it all.

The first step in that process is to talk with residents about what you want from a Civic Center.  How should the Library best serve you? What do you want to do there?  Does a 21st century library differ from the library that we built for you back in 1960?  What about City Hall?  Public Safety?  What do you expect when you receive administrative services from the City?  How does the current facility fail you, or fail to meet your needs?  Once we understand this, we can begin to scope out what kind of space we will need in a new Civic Center, what its configuration should be, and so on.

The city is also taking online surveys on specific topics such as residents’ opinion of the current library, so keep an eye out for those surveys and let your opinion be know.

So now you know.

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