Split vote from council authorizes city to execute Hillview contract

Megan V. Winslow/Town Crier
More than two years after the Los Altos City Council approved the creation of a Capital Improvement Project for the design and construction of a new Hillview Community Center, the city approved the bid of San Carlos-based Gonsalves & Stronck to kick-start the overhaul of the existing center, above.

It’s official. After a 3-2 vote from the Los Altos City Council at its meeting last week, contracts will be signed and demolition of Hillview Community Center is imminent as the city anticipates the long-awaited rebuild to begin in three to four weeks.

According to City Manager Chris Jordan, the city prequalified six general contractors to work on the project, five of which attended a pre-bid meeting. Only one of those qualified contractors submitted an official bid – San Carlos-based Gonsalves & Stronck Construction Co.

To jump-start the project, Jordan and his staff returned to the council to request authorization to execute a contract with Gonsalves & Stronck for $28.6 million – an amount that covers the total of the base bid as well as two add-ons: solar panels and a pedestrian connection guiding guests from the new center to the main library. The original budget was $25 million, which the council increased to $34 million in 2017. The total projected cost for the overhaul now stands at $38 million.

Administrative Services Director Sharif Etman and the city’s Financial Commission supported Jordan’s request.

“The city is fiscally/financially strong, so if we could afford it at $34 million, we can afford it at $38 million,” said commission chairman Kuljeet Kalkat. “We should be doing it now.”

Etman said the excess funds could come from various sources, all of which he considered reasonable for the city given its financial state. If city officials needed to, they could finance the remaining balance; more likely, Etman added, the money could come from existing reserves or incoming revenue over the next few years. Kalkat also raised the possibility of using park-in-lieu fees from upcoming developments to cover the $4 million difference.

While many local residents and members of the Design Development Working Group – a coalition comprising city staff, the team from Noll & Tam Architects, a construction manager and residents Dennis Young and Kathy Lazarus – echoed Etman’s and Kalkat’s optimism, a handful of speakers at the July 30 council meeting objected to the cost overrun.

“This is my little town, and it’s a rich town, yeah, but I just read the original budget approved was $25 million and now it’s $38 million, so it’ll probably go up to $45 million for a bunch of rooms,” Los Altos resident Curt Powell said. “We could have had a swimming pool for our little kids.”

After his words met with laughter from a member of the audience, Powell spoke again, angrier, louder.

“You can laugh. I don’t care what you think,” he said.

A history of indecision

Residents and council members alike commended the effort it took to get to this point; many previous plans for a new Hillview Community Center had failed, and self-proclaimed “old-timers” recounted how it felt to get their hopes up for naught, again and again.

“As a previous council member once said, ‘We keep kicking the can down the road, and if we keep kicking the can down the road, we are going to end up with an outhouse,’” Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins said upon a plea from Mayor Lynette Lee Eng to “act more responsibly” and “take a couple more months to do it right” and seek additional bids. “You think it’s not wise to spend this amount of money today, and tomorrow we are going to get even less. I just don’t get how that is acting responsibly.”

Councilwoman Anita Enander voted against authorizing the funds along with Lee Eng, who admitted to contacting other bidders and general contractors at random after discovering the city had only one bid for the project and concluded the city had not lived up to its fiduciary duties.

Bruins and fellow council members Jan Pepper and Neysa Fligor ultimately agreed to approve the base bid, solar panels and pedestrian connection.

“I think it’s now time to celebrate. This is a major accomplishment despite the fact that I am disappointed,” Bruins said after voting in favor of the allocation. “We could have shown how five women got this thing across the finish line. And we got it across the finish line – I just wish it was with all five (of us).”

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