In the late 1990s, the city of Menlo Park partnered with the Ravenswood City School District to create a community library on the Belle Haven Elementary School campus that would be open to the public when school wasn't in session. It was a major step toward acknowledging that significant city services were not reaching across the Bayshore freeway into the Belle Haven community.
That library branch opened in spring 1999, and in spite of its limitations, a recent preliminary study by the city's Library Commission indicates that Belle Haven residents are more active library users than residents in other areas of the city.
That fact, coupled with the difficulty for Belle Haven children, and even some adults, to access a library across the freeway in the city's Civic Center, raises a critical question about the recent effort to identify the city's library needs, and map out options to meet those needs into the future: Why have the recent library-needs studies focused only on the library's main branch?
According to a staff report by Library Services Director Susan Holmer, three studies have been undertaken since January 2015 "looking at library services and the needs of the Menlo Park community." The third, recently released study lays out three options to either renovate or completely rebuild the main library, with each option designed to allow the city "to respond to the community's changing patterns of library use." But considering that the Belle Haven library and its many users weren't included in these studies, one has to ask which community's needs are being considered -- a question that residents east of the Bayshore are legitimately asking.
The Menlo Park City Council at its March 28 study session was right to balk at the price tag included in the report on the three main library options -- estimated at a minimum of $32 million. But the council needs to show a firm commitment to including the Belle Haven community going forward as the city plans its future library services for the entire community.
Would it benefit main library patrons if the existing 33,000-square-foot branch were expanded by 11,000 square feet? Of course. But with limited funding, what should be the city's priorities in providing library services to the entire community? Could reconfiguring poorly used space in the existing main branch in a less expensive project, and redirecting funds to improve library services in Belle Haven be a more equitable option, improving services for everyone? Could some of the needs identified as beneficial for young people, such as collaborative spaces and a "maker space," be adequately met in existing city facilities, such as the Arrillaga Family Recreation Center? And does the main library really need a cafe?
There are many options to explore in reviewing the community's library needs, but only by including the Belle Haven neighborhood in any review of library services will the council be able to make fair and responsible decisions on the future of those services in Menlo Park.