We say that with some regret, after endorsing the idea last September as a great opportunity for the town, which has what will soon be $8 million in a fund that can be spent only on the library. After a round of many meetings, a steering committee appointed by the town decided to push for building a library of 10,000 to 12,000 square feet in Holbrook-Palmer Park. It would replace the 4,790-square-foot facility at Town Center that has been in use for 82 years.
But while the impact of building a new library has been widely exaggerated by some town residents, there is a possibility that increased services in a new and larger space could attract more patrons, although how many and how often is unclear. Certainly the added space of a larger library would be a bonus, in that it could be used by any Atherton organization that needed it.
Unfortunately, the Achilles Heel of the project is likely to be the environmental impact report released last month that found there is no feasible way to correct the traffic impact at Watkins Avenue and El Camino Real, if the library were built in the park. In addition, the city would have to install a traffic light at Watkins Avenue and Middlefield Road to lower the traffic impact at that busy intersection.
We suspect the traffic impact analysis could be enough to convince Mayor Bill Widmer, the apparent "swing vote," that the town should vote on the controversial project before a final decision is made. If he does change his mind, it would leave council members Jim Dobbie and Kathy McKeithen, a tireless supporter of the new library, one vote short of keeping the park project alive unless voters support it. That would be a shame, but if a majority of residents say they oppose a library in the park, then so be it.
The money that would pay for a new library, regardless of where it's built, comes from a fund created by Proposition 13 that put aside a small slice of Atherton property taxes for the library, and the fund will contain more than $8 million in a year or two.
If a proposal is drawn up, the town could ask that some of the money be used to renovate the small library at Town Center, although the site is cramped and a small garden there could be lost. That scenario comes with its own problems, and the unavoidable traffic problems identified in the EIR that would result at Watkins and El Camino Real if the library is built in the park would exist as well if the existing library is renovated and expanded.
We think residents should keep in mind that the Main House in the park, which would be torn down if the library is built there, is not historic, and that the town already has decided not to make it available for outside events like weddings and parties. Local events would have to be restricted if an extra-large function was scheduled at the library, although we doubt that would occur very often.
But the traffic concerns are something else. And even if the Watkins-El Camino intersection problems were solved, the town has no money set aside to install an expensive traffic light at Middlefield Road and Watkins Avenue. And without that it would be virtually impossible to go that direction during rush-hour traffic.
At this juncture, it looks as if Atherton could lose this golden opportunity to build a really first-class library at Holbrook-Palmer Park. We hope it plays out in another way, but at this point, the library's opponents appear to have an edge.