Click photo to enlarge
This is an artist rendering of one of two buildings developer Jay Paul Co. is looking to build in the California Avenue area in Palo Alto. This view shows an office building on Park Boulevard. The company is offering to construct a new police and fire headquarters at 3045 Park Blvd. in exchange for permission to build more than 200,000 square feet of office space at 395 Page Mill Road. The city's Planning and Transportation Commission review the proposal on Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013. Art courtesy of the city of Palo Alto.

Palo Alto planning commissioners were receptive Wednesday night to a developer's proposal to replace the city's seismically vulnerable police headquarters in exchange for permission to build a huge office complex, but said more work is needed before they can move it forward.

Jay Paul Co. is looking to construct a pair of four-story office buildings totaling 311,000 square feet next to the existing 219,000-square-foot AOL building at 395 Page Mill Road. But that's far more development than is allowed under the current zoning for the site.

The developer could get around the restriction with a type of zoning known as "planned community." It provides exceptions but only in return for public benefits, which the city council must ultimately approve.

To that end, Jay Paul Co. is offering to construct the shell of a new public safety building at 3045 Park Blvd. The city needs a new home for its police and fire departments that can stand up to a major earthquake, but has struggled for years to come up with the necessary funding.

"In general, I like the way this is headed, what you're trying to do in terms of making this a win-win for the city," said Greg Tanaka of the city's Planning and Transportation Commission.

However, commissioners said the public benefit of a new public safety building, while large, appeared minimal when stacked against the profit the developer potentially stands to make off the office buildings.


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"I think that the public benefit, in terms of value, it's not enough," said Commissioner Alex Panelli.

City watchdog Bob Moss, who addressed the commission during a public hearing on the proposal, said Jay Paul Co. would recover the $27 million cost of building the shell of the public safety building in as little as 30 months through rents.

"Then it goes on and on forever," Moss said. "This is not an equal public-private benefit."

Commissioners also expressed concerns about the developer's plans to attach the public safety building to a 732-space parking garage — 541 of those spaces would be for the new office buildings across the street.

Panelli pointed to his work on the city's Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission, which found the current police station's proximity to a parking garage a recipe for domestic terrorism.

"This plan doesn't address that," he said. "In fact, it exacerbates the problem."

Commissioner Arthur Keller said Jay Paul Co. could avoid the problem by locating the public safety building on land it owns at the nearby corner of Park Boulevard and Page Mill Road. That's where the city had previously hoped to build a new home for its police and fire departments.

"If that were done, we'd have a standalone public safety building ... along the lines of what the city originally wanted," Keller said. "That may be something worthwhile coming back."

In addition to considering Keller's idea, Panelli said the developer should return with a more robust package of public benefits that addresses the project's ongoing impacts, including parking and traffic. He suggested a yearly economic assessment as one possible option.

Public benefits aside, commission Chairman Eduardo Martinez urged Jay Paul Co. to scale things back.

"To me, as an architect/urban designer, it just looks like too much building crammed onto this site," Martinez said about the proposed office buildings.

The commission voted 4-0, with Michael Alcheck and Mark Michael absent, to continue its discussion of the proposal for about a month, giving the developer time to rework the benefits package. Provided it passes muster, the project could then be moved to the next stage: environmental and architectural review.

"I'd say to the applicant the fact that we're proposing a continuance is a good thing," said Panelli, "because it means we see a piece of coal that could be a diamond. It's just not there yet."

Outside the meeting, Ray Paul, executive vice president of Jay Paul Co., said the feedback was encouraging.

"This is a very complex project and we heard largely a positive response," Paul said. "I think that there are a lot of issues and they want time to carefully consider it and they should."

Email Jason Green at jgreen@dailynewsgroup.com; follow him at twitter.com/jgreendailynews.