King Lear – A frugal Los Altos Community Center Master Plan

King Lear, former Mayor of Los Altos, speaking at the Packard Foundation fundraiser for Neutra House.

King Lear, former Mayor of Los Altos, speaking at the Packard Foundation fundraiser for Neutra House.

King Lear, former Mayor of Los Altos, wrote this letter to City Council.  He attended the Jan. 12 City Council retreat where the goals for the year are set.  One goal is to make decisions about the Los Altos Community Center Master Plan, aka our civic center facilities.  In particular, what kind of repairs to make to the Hillview Building, and how to fund city hall, police, and library buildings. The City has determined a site plan and zoned for it.


Open Letter to Los Altos City Council

Dear City Council:

James explained on Saturday that the Master plan goal for “connectivity” with downtown is visual, not functional. Now that I understand that, I think the Taj Mahal characterization comes out of this goal to make the Civic Center a beautiful “place” beginning at the entrance from San Antonio Road.

 

When Los Altos was incorporated, the residents considered city government a necessary evil. No one wanted to pay for it, but they wanted their own zoning controls, sewer district, street maintenance and public safety. The proposal to incorporate barely passed and the resulting city government was historically frugal. For example we talk artists into lending us their art. We do not buy it. The public paid for our Youth Center, History Museum, Covington pool, and the Neutra House.

When Los Altos was incorporated, the residents considered city government a necessary evil … the resulting city government was historically frugal

 

The kumpf plan for the civic center was a repurposed school plan

The Kumpf plan for the civic center used a repurposed school design for the buildings. The large community center building was never built.  Later the Hillview school site next door was purchased and fitted as a community center.

A look at the history of our present Civic Center is interesting. Our original civic center plan proposed by the Ernie Kumpf firm and attached below had a central area that tied city hall, police station, library and community center together around a landscaped center with a standalone city council chamber. Covered walkways connected everything. Auto parking was in the outer areas. Kumpf used a repurposed school design for the buildings.

 

But the city did not make the full investment. The city constructed the city hall; the police station, and eventually the library. The walkways were built without the covered protection. Instead of a central park-like area with the distinctive standalone city council chamber (shown below) the City held council meetings in the city hall lobby, and kept the apricot orchard. They did not build the community center building but did build the Youth Center with donations helping. They later bought Hillview school and repurposed these buildings to be our community center. The city hall building was then extended to the north for a proper city council chamber.

…the City held council meetings in the city hall lobby, and kept the apricot orchard. They did not build the community center building

 

Our civic center makes a very modest statement with its low profile buildings scattered in a historic orchard. This fits our founding philosophy of having a modest but functional city government. People do not visit the “Civic Center” as a place. They go to the police station, or city hall, or the library, or to a room in the Hillview Community Center, or the senior center, or the Neutra House. They care about how close they can park to their destination and what services are available there.

 

So this issue of whether we should have a beautiful Civic Center layout or a modest one is the key to deciding between an expensive tear-down and new layout versus remodeling or rebuilding in place. An architect hired to develop a master plan would obviously want to start over. By hiring an architecture firm to do a new master plan, the council committed up front to spending lots of tax money for a beautiful Civic Center. Even with no increase in useful space there would be high costs just to rebuild everything from scratch. The field users were not that interested in moving their soccer and baseball fields but were OK with it as long as they did not have to pay for it. The first master plan concept included moving the Neutra House (at a significant cost) just to gather historic buildings in one area. Fortunately public comments changed that.

 

By hiring an architecture firm to do a new master plan, the council committed up front to spending lots of tax money for a beautiful Civic Center.

 

So people are being asked to come up with about $10K per household, not including interest on the bonds, to orient the City’s buildings in a beautiful plan. The cost to remodel or rebuild in place would be far less and with less disruption to city services. The argument being made to the public is that the Hillview Community Center is falling apart. Therefore, we want to build a new police station, a new city hall and community center, a new library, move the fields, etc, etc. The poll showed that about 55% would support a bond. You cannot raise this to 67% with a campaign on the advantages of a beautiful layout. The council should accept this rejection.

I would like to see other options and costs that do not include establishing a beautiful “place”

I would like to see other options and costs that do not include establishing a beautiful “place”. I still want to move the community/youth theater downtown close to restaurants and surplus parking in the evenings. Keep it at a modest 99 seats to keep license fees low. I still want to leave the library as it is. I would be happy to remodel the police station in place, where it has been for fifty years. I would like to build a new two story building to replace Hillview. That was the original plan. Keep some open courtyard areas. The extra space upstairs could handle added admin needs, perhaps including an emergency operations center. The EOC does not have to be in the police station. Include one or more large rooms like the MPR and Social Hall on the ground floor and keep the bocce ball courts next to the senior center. Put the pool at Covington where the city swapped land with the school district and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to win the right to build it to build it there in a more central location, closer to south Los Altos. An alternate thought would be to replace the Youth Center with a city pool facility and replace the lost youth center space in the new Hillview facility if it fits, perhaps as a convertible social hall/EOC.

 I still want to leave the library as it is. I would be happy to remodel the police station in place, where it has been for fifty years. I would like to build a new two story building to replace Hillview.

Regards, King Lear


Neutra House Los Altos at sunset

These days King Lear is known for his preservation and stewardship of the Neutra House facility next to the Hillview Community Center. The organization sponsors a popular annual lecture series on mid-century architecture. The place is available for rent by the hour for small meetings of non-profits and businesses.

 

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One Response to King Lear – A frugal Los Altos Community Center Master Plan

  1. Robin Chapman April 4, 2013 at 5:49 pm

    Cheers to King Lear for giving the present City Council members some background on the Los Altos ethos. In addition to his comments I would like to add a few things I learned in researching my upcoming book California Apricots: the Lost Orchards of Silicon Valley.

    When city fathers were making decisions on where to put their low impact city buildings, Frank Lloyd Wright was in the Bay Area and they asked for his help. He advised them to choose the Gilbert Smith orchard site as it was not just conveniently located, but also created a context for Los Altos–a small town surrounded by orchards.

    In the years that have gone by, most of the surrounding orchards have disappeared. But in 1983 the City Council gave this orchards Historic Landmark status, so that nothing could be done to this space without hearings.

    I hope the present City Council will heed both King Lear’s advice on a modest update to city hall, as well as heed the 1983 City Council resolution to keep the Gilbert Smith orchard as a heritage landmark of our history.

    It would make enormous sense, since the poll conducted last year only showed 22.7% of local citizens in favor of the council’s grandiose plans to plow under the orchard and build a massive new Civic Center complex.

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