Atherton City Council members said they are concerned about not knowing how much money will be available to pay for a new civic center, but nonetheless unanimously approved a conceptual design for the town's new facilities, expressing hope that some "pretty pictures" from the architects could boost fundraising.
At an Oct. 7 special council meeting, council members said they do not like not knowing how much money has been raised by Atherton Now, the nonprofit raising money for the project. A 2012 ballot measure approved by Atherton voters says the civic center must be mostly paid for with donations. The only exceptions are public funds that have been set aside to pay for a new library and for building department offices.
Even the council members who are Atherton Now committee members seemed not to know the fundraising totals. "I don't know exact numbers," said council member Elizabeth Lewis. "There is funding and pledges that essentially take us through the architectural phase," she said.
But most important, she said, is getting the architects to make more detailed drawings to show to the public. "I think that once we can move it to the next phase," she said, the committee can "take it to the public, tell the story and get the excitement going."
"What we really need (are) some pretty pictures," she said.
Ms. Lewis and Mayor Rick DeGolia serve on the Atherton Now committee and also as council liaisons to the Civic Center Advisory Committee, which has been discussing the conceptual plans for months. But other council members were seeing the plans in detail for the first time and had concerns.
"I don't know what the budget is and I don't know how much funding we've actually raised," said council member Bill Widmer. That uncertainty makes it hard to approve certain design features, such as equipping the buildings to run off solar panels and geothermal energy and to recycle all the water used onsite, he said.
"I kind of feel the same way," said council member Cary Wiest. "The concept of spending blind is a little disturbing to me," he said. "When you don't know the budget, how can you drive the design?"
Council member Mike Lempres said that the council needs to figure out how to "marry up the dollars that are coming in, with the options" for things such as green roofs or water recycling. He said the council needs a timeline just in case sufficient donations do not come in. "If there is really ever any reason to go back to the voters, when would that be?" he asked. "I'm not anticipating any problems," but, he added, the council needs to be prepared just in case.
Mayor DeGolia said that while he agrees "it's important for us to know what the funding is," it has been hard for the Atherton Now committee to raise money without "images that they can use to excite people's imaginations." With a more refined design the public will be able to see civic center features "that people can really get excited about," he said.
Ms. Lewis said the center should be designed "for the future. We don't need to build for today, or for yesterday."
Council members agreed they will ask Atherton Now to present monthly fundraising reports, and that the civic center advisory group would also give the council regular updates.
The concept approved by the council shows a new two-story, 27,000-square-foot building for police, administration and council chambers. The building would have two wings joined by a common lobby located near Fair Oaks Lane. New council chambers would be at the end of the police wing, away from the lobby.
A new one-story library of slightly less than 10,000 square feet would be located near the site of the existing library. The existing historic council chambers building would be renovated and serve as an extension of the new library. There would also be a small police garage building. The existing small corporation yard building, where the town stores maintenance and emergency equipment, would stay.
Mack5, the consultant hired by the city to manage the civic center project, reported that it will be more expensive to build the project detailed in the specific design than the master plan's project. The estimate shows close to $27.2 million would need to be raised as donations -- about $2.2 million over the amount the advisory committee had said it would be comfortable with as a fundraising goal.
For comparison, Portola Valley raised $17 million in donations for its $20 million town center in 2008.
The Mack5 report says the total projected cost of the project is now $42.9 million and can be reduced to $38.4 million by taking out some features. The cost of building a new library, which will be funded with tax money that can be spent only on the library, would be $13.5 million, including the cost of renovating the historic council chambers building. Town building fee revenue set aside for new building department offices totals $2.2 million.
The consultants say the project is due to start at least 18 months behind the original schedule, and this has added $2.8 million to the cost because of inflated construction expenses. The master plan projected a start date of July 2015.
Other higher costs include $1.3 million for increasing the size of the administration and police building, $2 million for solar energy systems, and $800,000 for increasing the contingency fund from 10 percent to 12 percent.