San Jose drops Controversial Arrillaga police academy siteSeptember 23, 2020
San Jose officials have decided not to move forward with Silicon Valley real estate billionaire John Arrillaga’s controversial proposal to build a brand new 100,000-square-foot police training and academy complex for the city.
But they are continuing to look for a more suitable site for their much-desired $43 million-plus police facility.
“Between us and the potential partner, we just weren’t able to figure out a deal that made sense,” San Jose Public Works Director Matt Cano said in a recent interview, adding that the city still has “an urgency” to find and acquire a property on which to build a police training facility.
The disclosure comes amidst national and local calls to divert funding away from police departments and just one month after this news organization revealed that the city was working with Arrillaga for months before his team submitted preliminary project plans in late July for the construction of a new police facility on his property.
Cano said he couldn’t say exactly when it became evident the deal would not work or pinpoint the reason. The city just completed a review of the project plans submitted on behalf of Arrillaga less than a month ago.
But city records and internal email correspondence obtained by this news organization through a public records act request can shed some light on the quiet negotiations that had transpired between city employees and the billionaire’s team over the course of more than a year.
Although it is unclear what led him to make such a generous offer, city officials started meeting with Arrillaga in the spring of 2019 about the potential donation of three of his valuable properties on Hellyer Avenue in South San Jose to the city for the development of a first-of-its-kind police training and academy complex for San Jose.
In August 2019, plan concepts for the “Arrillaga SJPD Academy and Regional Training Facility” called for the construction of a 189,000-square-foot training and academy, a 22,000-square-foot shooting range and a 400-meter outdoor track on his vacant plots of land on Hellyer Avenue.
But the city didn’t have enough money to pay for that dream complex or even the scaled-down 100,000-square-foot version submitted a year later in July 2020.
The city had set aside $43 million for a police training facility from Measure T — a $650 million infrastructure bond measure passed by voters in November 2018.
According to a November 2019 email from San Jose Project Manager Domenic Onorato, a 100,000-square-foot facility would cost the city at least $89 million — more than double the allocated budget. The city’s $43 million would only cover construction of a facility of about 35,000 square feet, he added.
In addition to the funding shortfall, multiple red flags were raised about the site, including its position near a fault line and the potential for serious damage from an earthquake, a prohibition on shooting ranges due to the land zoning and a costly annual maintenance assessment that the police department would have been required to foot the bill for.
Nevertheless, by April 2020, it appeared a deal between the city and Arrillaga for the donation of his properties was close to being reached.
Nanci Klein, the city’s director of real estate, on April 9 wrote an email that included more than a half dozen employees in the public works department, including Cano, saying City Manager Dave Sykes was “asking that we get the donation agreement completed as quickly as possible, targeting first week in May?”
The next line of her email, in parenthesis, read: “He won’t go to Council, the CM will sign himself.”
Although bypassing the council on a matter involving such a donation would have violated city policies, it didn’t get to that point because city staff and Arrillaga “never agreed enough on the viewpoints to go to an open city council session,” Cano said in an interview.
When asked about the email Wednesday morning, Klein could not immediately recall the context or what her thought process was at the time. “It was just very unusual that anyone would consider donating and so we were trying to think through the process and work through those instances and it made this a quite different possibility,” she said.
In a Medium post published on Tuesday, Mayor Sam Liccardo promised a “very public process — with public hearings — will determine the outcome” when the city does decide to proceed with one of the other sites that city officials are currently evaluating.
Liccardo added that he still very much intends to keep a promise he made to voters to build a new police training facility.
San Jose currently runs its academy and training operations out of a 107,000-square-foot police substation in South San Jose at Great Oaks Boulevard and Brooklyn Avenue — an $82 million facility built with funding from another public safety bond measure approved by voters in 2002.
The city intended to use the facility as a second police headquarters where nearly 30% of the police force would work and provide critical backup for nearby emergencies so officers could spend less time traveling to and from the main headquarters just north of downtown. But because of staffing shortfalls spurred by the economic recession late last decade and ensuing labor strife over police pension cuts, the substation has never truly served its formal objective — an issue Liccardo would like to fix.
“The police training facility was also promised to our voters in Measure T. I intend to keep that promise, and to fulfill a much older promise to our south San Jose residents for a functioning police substation,” Liccardo wrote in his blog post.
Given the current movement asking city leaders to reimagine the role of policing in America, some community members feel city officials should reevaluate their priorities and put the funding toward different projects.
The city is required to use Measure T funding for “acquisition, construction and completion of certain municipal improvements” and a spending plan passed by the council prior to the election stated that some of the funding would be used to build a new police training center. But legally, the city could opt to put the $43 million toward other municipal capital improvement projects without voter approval.
The Rev. Ray Montgomery, executive director of the social justice nonprofit People Acting in Community Together, said in an interview last month that moving forward with a new multimillion-dollar police facility amid the coronavirus pandemic and calls for police reform would be “detrimental to building trust with the community.”
“It’s simply irresponsible and inappropriate given the deficits this city is currently facing and the unresolved components of what people are asking for,” Montgomery said. “We’re throwing good money at a broken system and the city has once again proven they’re not interested in hearing from or listening to the people.”