Guest opinion: Atherton's chance to define 'a sense of place'


By Rick DeGolia | Atherton councilman

In 2013, Atherton launched a resident-driven process to build a new civic center to address the urgent need for better library, administration and police facilities on the land next to the train station that currently feels like a parking lot. Over the past 20 years, attempts to replace Atherton's facilities have failed three times, largely due to lack of funding.

Before I was elected to the City Council, I had no idea that Atherton's facilities are falling apart and beyond repair. Our one-room library is a modified 1928 residence with a charming, small-town feel, but it doesn't begin to offer what modern libraries provide today. The police and administration facilities were built in the 1950s and added to over time, with seven "temporary" trailers that are rotting, leaking and incredibly inefficient. For example, male and female officers and anyone in custody share the same restroom. You can see how deplorable these facilities are at

Thankfully, these conditions are about to change. Atherton has hired nationally acclaimed, San Francisco-based architects, WRNS Studio, to design new facilities and to restructure the 4.5-acre parcel that runs from Fair Oaks Lane to Maple Avenue along the train tracks. The council has approved a conceptual design that will be broadly shared in a series of community meetings early next year. The key features of the proposed civic center will include:

● A new library-tech center that will enable us to access books and digital resources, train students to program over our new fiber network, and host art shows, book clubs and other programs to build our community and celebrate our history.

● A modern police facility with state-of-the-art communication systems, a secure armory, and tools to train and manage our community police force.

● An attractive, safe administration building and council chambers to offer postal and other services and facilitate town governance.

● New amenities for our community, from a cafe to a pedestrian-friendly town green that is attractive, but understated, and that represents Atherton.

Imagine a civic center with a cafe where you can meet a friend for coffee. Or council chambers that could be used for music, media presentations and more. And reading or conference rooms in the library, each featuring an Atherton legend such as Willie Mays, Gertrude Atherton or Joe Montana.

What most excites me about this project is that we have the opportunity to define a sense of place for our town that will serve our residents and our staff for generations to come. This is critical to helping Atherton hire and retain high-quality staff. The community we create today will be the one our children and grandchildren remember.

This is the largest and most important project in Atherton's history. With this project we have the opportunity to design and build something that we can all be proud of, both in terms of its appearance and its function.

One of my personal goals is to make this the first Zero Net Energy civic center in California. Beginning in 2020, the state is requiring every new residence to be ZNE. Atherton can break new ground and be a model for both our residents and other municipalities.

The total estimated cost for this project is $42.9 million. With $13.4 million of library tax dollars for the library, as well as some development fees, private gifts and pledges, we are nearly halfway to our goal. (In 2012, Atherton residents approved Measure L, which required the town to build the civic center primarily with private funds. This is why we are not pursuing a bond measure.

Now that we are about to get schematic drawings of the civic center buildings, the fundraising is beginning in earnest. Atherton Now has been established to spearhead the fundraising. We need to raise slightly more than $20 million between now and when we begin construction in spring 2017. Raising these funds will not be easy, but Portola Valley did it for its civic center, and we can do it. Contact or to help out.

This is truly a great opportunity. What I ask is that each Atherton resident get involved. To make this happen, we need help with marketing and outreach at every level. This will be a tremendous coming together, but it needs your participation.

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


5 people like this
Posted by Betteridea
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Jan 10, 2016 at 2:56 pm

I can think of many better ways to spend $40m than nicer administration facilities. How about

* more parks (we only have one)
* better roads
* improved drainage

For me having a cafe near the train station adds zero value. I have fast internet wherever I go. A community center would be nice but not for this price tag.

I think what's really going on here is a few people and the staff want nicer accommodations for themselves.

5 people like this
Posted by Menlo Voter.
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Jan 10, 2016 at 4:54 pm

Menlo Voter. is a registered user.

"I think what's really going on here is a few people and the staff want nicer accommodations for themselves."

It doesn't matter that the buildings are falling apart. After all, they're just "staff" and should put up with any conditions "we," the wealthy residents of Atherton, deem acceptable.

Gee, I wonder why the wealthy have a bad image among the rest of us lowly serfs?

3 people like this
Posted by Middle road
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 10, 2016 at 5:01 pm

I'm halfway between Menlo Voter and Betteridea.

The current facilities are unacceptable and need to be replaced.

What to replace them with? Well, when the idea that the new town center was going to be paid totally through private donations was sold to Atherton voters (Measure L), it really didn't matter how large, opulent, or over-the-top the new facilities were going to be, since taxpayers weren't footing the bill. May as well shoot for the moon.

The result was a $40M, 27,000 square foot plan to house a police station that has three or four cops on duty at any given time. A big gymnasium is part of it.

OK, fine by me, I suppose. But now that that private donations haven't materialized and talk is that Atherton voters will have to foot the bill through a bond measure, how about we scale the new facilities down (WAY DOWN) to something that's realistic and makes sense?

If I'm wrong, please point out where.

Like this comment
Posted by Apple
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 10, 2016 at 8:16 pm

If you're interested in providing input or have questions about the civic center plans, be sure to attend one of the civic center outreach meetings:

Web Link

I'm sure they'll have people there to answer questions.

1 person likes this
Posted by what a laugh
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 10, 2016 at 10:22 pm

Build a new civic center so we can decide how to build our new library. Wow that makes total sense. Is that good planning.....40 million. I think Menlo voter may be on to something

1 person likes this
Posted by JU
a resident of Atherton: other
on Jan 11, 2016 at 10:06 am

As long as they don't use taxpayer money for construction, they can do whatever they want with private donations. However, the funds for the library are already there (from Atherton's property taxes to be used only on the library), so that will likely be built first. If we don't use the library funds, we will lose it (other san mateo county libraries will try to take it from us).

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Contemporary Indian restaurant, Ettan, headed to Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 5 comments | 6,188 views

Good News: The New Menlo Park Rail Subcommittee Hits A Home Run
By Dana Hendrickson | 12 comments | 1,740 views

Premarital and Couples: Tips for Hearing (Listening) and Being Known
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,442 views

Two degrees can do all that?
By Sherry Listgarten | 8 comments | 1,062 views

Tame, Maim and Claim the Wild Sea Vegetable
By Laura Stec | 7 comments | 636 views


Register today!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More