Editorial: Time for city to create a policy on accepting gifts


Who should decide the timing of public-facilities development and the spending schedule for city funds in Menlo Park? On its face, that doesn't seem like a complicated or controversial question. Residents have the right to expect that their elected officials, with the guidance of staff, will determine the most effective timetable and spending plan for building public facilities and other infrastructure, based on the needs of the community.

But the recent offer of a local philanthropist to contribute at least $25 million toward the rebuilding of the city's main library in the Civic Center muddies the answer to that seemingly facile question.

Local real estate billionaire John Arrillaga, whose past multimillion-dollar gifts to the city over the past nine years have resulted in the creation of three new buildings in the Civic Center, hinges his deal on the city's agreement to pay the initial $20 million of the project and costs associated with staff time, according to city staff.

And, according to City Manager Alex McIntyre, Mr. Arrillaga has required that the money be spent on the main library -- a spacious and functional building that admittedly could benefit from renovation -- rather than the Belle Haven Library branch, which is indisputably inadequate in serving the needs of the Belle Haven community.

The City Council last month accepted the deal, although many of the logistical details about the project have yet to be worked out.

What does the acceptance of Mr. Arrillaga's gift mean to the community? For one thing, it should lead to a grand new two-story library with about one-third more space than the existing facility. It could also result in a below-ground parking area, which would ease the sometimes difficult parking situation library patrons now face.

But it also is likely to result in the delay of other projects, some urgent, such as housing programs and transportation planning, because staff time is finite. And $20 million-plus that had not been allocated for a new library until last month will now be unavailable for other needs formerly considered higher priorities.

Also, by agreeing to Mr. Arrillaga's requirements, the city now will embark on a project that was not considered a priority and that hasn't been subject to the typical community review, which would have included the question: Does the city really even need a brand new library at that location?

Before Mr. Arrillaga's funding offer was made and accepted, the City Council appeared to consider a Belle Haven Library improvement or rebuilding project a much higher priority, based on need, than a main library rebuild. With the city's acceptance of the gift, the decision on setting priorities for library services in Menlo Park was, in effect, made by a wealthy private citizen.

As can be expected, supporters of accepting Mr. Arrillaga's offer state their reluctance to "look a gift horse in the mouth," which in this case could literally be a losing proposition. But something important is lost as well when the direction of city projects and the resulting allocation of city resources are determined by the lure of a wealthy citizen's gift.

With the acceptance of this unexpected donation from a familiar city benefactor, it appears Menlo Park will have another jewel in its Civic Center crown. But now, the city needs to devote the staff time necessary to forge a policy setting reasonable boundaries for how much control of the direction of community projects private donors can expect to have attached to their gifts in the future.

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2 people like this
Posted by PV res
a resident of Portola Valley: Brookside Park
on Aug 2, 2017 at 10:40 am

Why is Menlo Park so opposed to receiving funds necessary to maintain some of their crumbling buildings? Would they rather pay for it themselves? It's extremely generous of Mr Arrillaga (who doesn't even live in Menlo Park) to pay for another cities' library. Have you ever heard the saying 'don't bite the hand that feeds you'?

11 people like this
Posted by Reality 101
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Aug 2, 2017 at 12:36 pm

Here's how it works.

The city says "it will cost $60mm to rebuild a library and we only have $30mm"

Rich developer scopes out project, decides he can do it for $25mm, steps up and offers to "donate" $30mm. City gives him their $30mm (funded by our MP tax dollars, by the way) and he builds the thing for $25mm, thus making a $5 profit AND putting his name on the building. So a building on public property that is supposed to be open to the public now looks like a private club belonging to a rich family.

If he wants to do this for Stanford or another private school, fine. That's how they roll. But it's hugely inappropriate for a city to accept these "gifts" that have strings attached. I remember when people wanted to name a baseball diamond after a former parks & recs commission chair, the city initially balked, despite his many non-monetary contributions to the community, because he hadn't been dead five years. Of course, he wasn't rich, and the city apparently has no problem breaking their own rules if the $$$ is enough. Sad.

8 people like this
Posted by Conscience
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Aug 2, 2017 at 2:05 pm

Nobody wants to look a "gift horse in the mouth!" However, it's troubling that this gift of $20-25 million has reoriented the City's priorities in pretty significant ways. Agree, the City Council must create policies on accepting "gifts." Mr. Arrillaga is very generous for sure, but it is unfortunate that his gift didn't help the Belle Haven! That said, thank you Mr. Arrillaga.

7 people like this
Posted by Judy
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 2, 2017 at 2:19 pm

When I first heard about the donation I had mixed feelings... First, I like the current library - it has a nice, comfortable design and seems large enough, especially since so many people are now reading e-books. Also, the library will most likely shut down during the reconstruction project, which could take a couple of years. I also thought that Mr. Arrillaga's donation would cover the cost of the entire project, so it would be silly not to accept his generous gift.

Then I read in the above article that a new library was never a priority for Menlo Park, and that Mr. Arrillaga's unexpected donation will cover about half the project and the remaining $20 million will need to come from the city. The $20 million from the city was slated for other projects but will now be needed for Arrillaga's library - a new library that was never a priority. I think the City of Menlo Park should use its 20 million for other projects, such as the Belle Haven library.

And lastly, there already is SO much construction taking place in the neighborhood near the library. Eric Schmidt's three story office building with underground parking is currently underway on Alma Lane, and won't be completed for another year or so. Then there's the Derry (sp?) project on Oak Grove. Also, Caltrain is in the process of electrifying the train tracks. It's so much noise for the local residents. One more building under construction is just too much. I think waiting at least ten years for a new library won't be a hardship for anyone.

13 people like this
Posted by Sellout
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Aug 2, 2017 at 9:00 pm

I agree that this gift is potentially inappropriate if it changes the priorities, timing and funding for other projects that are more needed by the community.

It's called selling out.

The library we have was just partially renovated and is fairly nice.

1 person likes this
Posted by Belle Haven Resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Aug 3, 2017 at 9:36 am

One consequence I really don't like is the repeated suggestion that Facebook should put up a similar amount for a full service library in Belle Haven, as if such construction should depend on rich private donors rather than on the public responsibilities of the city government.

3 people like this
Posted by Peter Carpenter
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 3, 2017 at 11:59 am

Peter Carpenter is a registered user.

"With the city's acceptance of the gift, the decision on setting priorities for library services in Menlo Park was, in effect, made by a wealthy private citizen."

Wrong - the decision on setting priorities for library services in Menlo Park was made by the Council, not by the donor.

6 people like this
Posted by maximusgolden
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Aug 3, 2017 at 12:23 pm

Would it be wrong to suspect that Mr. A's contributions to public facilities in the Civic Center might have something to do with softening up the community regarding the Stanford development just across the tracks?

Like this comment
Posted by Insider
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Aug 3, 2017 at 4:16 pm

It's about increasing staff.

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

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