An offer by local philanthropist and billionaire developer John Arrillaga to help the city of Menlo Park build a new main library has been rescinded, according to an Oct. 1 statement from the city.
Arrillaga made the offer in July 2017, in which he committed to fund the project's costs after the first $20 million. But with the withdrawal of the offer, plans to build a new main library will be shelved.
"I'm very disappointed," said Monica Corman, president of the Menlo Park Library Foundation. "Here was an opportunity to have just a tremendous contribution from someone who Menlo Park has worked with in the past," she said. "We had such an opportunity and we blew it."
"Since the year 2000, 51 libraries have been built new or substantially remodeled in the Bay Area," she said. Libraries today, she noted, are "community centers of the 21st century in ways you don't even know."
The foundation had prepared a video with footage of the Los Gatos and Mitchell Park libraries, with interviews from library staff who said that, as a result of new libraries, they were experiencing renewed interest in library activities and issuing more library cards than before.
"I respect his decision," said Councilwoman Kirsten Keith, who, along with Councilman Rich Cline, was on the City Council subcommittee tasked with communicating with Arrillaga on the project. "(Arrillaga) made a generous offer. ... There aren't other cities that get opportunities like that."
Susan Holmer, who retired as Menlo Park's director of library services on Oct. 5, said that, while she was disappointed with the withdrawal of the offer, "We're also very hopeful that the process will continue. The idea of giving Menlo Park a new main library is not a dead idea to us."
Without the offer, though, the project is back to being on a 10-year timeline, she said. "That's the standard amount of time it takes," she added. The city not only has to plan a new library, but collect community input, get community support, find funding for the project – potentially through bond issues – and then move forward to build the project.
"I think that we weren't able to move as fast as (Arrillaga) desired," Holmer said. "You can't rush public outreach. In Menlo Park public outreach is really of great import. People really want to have their opinions sought. And as much as we tried to do it in a tight time frame, it probably wasn't enough to get that kind of support."
She said she does think there is support from library users for the project, though – but noted that the same reason they're good library customers may explain why there wasn't a particularly loud clamoring from the public in favor of the project.
"People who come to libraries aren't the kind of people who bang on countertops and raise their voices," she said. 'They're quiet and polite, and they want it, but they're not going to jump up and down. … They're quieter about their desires."
Arrillaga's offer, conveyed through third parties like staff and council members, carried some controversy since it was proposed, partly because of the strings attached to the offer.
The offer applied only to the main library at the city's Burgess Park campus, and not to a library in the Belle Haven neighborhood. At the time the offer was made, City Manager Alex McIntyre said he had suggested that Arrillaga's donation be used to help cover costs of building a Belle Haven library, which was higher on the city's list of priorities. The offer also did not apply to soft costs like new furniture and materials, which the city estimated to be about $10 million.
On the other side, staff reported, as discussions of a new main library progressed, Arrillaga's offer was extended to include the costs of underground parking and new City Council chambers – bringing cost estimates for the project up to about $58 million.
The developer had worked with Menlo Park in the past as the chief donor for the projects to build the Arrillaga Family Recreation Center, the Arrillaga Family Gymnasium and the Arrillaga Family Gymnastics Center in Menlo Park's Civic Center.
The catch? The city had to come up with the first $20 million, and fast.
But just how fast Arrillaga expected the community buy-in to come up with that amount of money was not something that had been made public before the announcement of the offer's withdrawal. The statement the city issued on Oct. 1 said that Arrillaga's anticipated timeline was for construction of the new library to begin in 2020.
The city's Oct. 1 statement declares, "Efforts to build consensus in project scope and site have delayed that timeline."
Last year, there were some preliminary efforts to see if voters would support a bond measure to generate up to $50 million – $30 million for the new main library and $20 million for a new Belle Haven library – but polling indicated public support fell flat of the two-third majority needed for such a measure to pass. Survey results indicated that when Menlo Park voters were asked whether they would support a $50 million, 30-year bond measure "to replace the aging Menlo Park and Belle Haven library system with 21st century libraries," only 61 percent said they would definitely or probably support it.
"I think it was pretty clear that we as a city haven't been able to reach a consensus on the main library for all sorts of reasons," said Menlo Park Mayor Peter Ohtaki. "One of the biggest is the cost. ... I think we were hearing clearly from our residents that the city has more pressing priorities, such as the Belle Haven library."
Public outreach problems
During discussions with the City Council, City Manager Alex McIntyre had hinted that the matter was urgent, and that it was by no means a done deal, but efforts to streamline the public outreach process came across as heavy-handed. A public survey to gauge interest in a bond measure to raise taxpayer funds for the project was criticized for appearing to ask leading questions.
Later, a series of three public meetings held in December, January and February to select the site for a new library were dismissed by some for not engaging in the broader, more basic question of whether a new library is needed at all, and if so, where the project should fall on the city's priority list.
McIntyre said in a written statement, "The loss of Mr. Arrillaga’s generous contribution to the new main library project delays this project until a new funding source can be identified."
"Part of me does feel like it didn't have to go the way it went," said council member Rich Cline, who was on a subcommittee that was tasked with discussing the project with Arrillaga.
"It's unfortunate. I don't think anybody's to blame for it," he said.
Cline reflected that perhaps if the city had unveiled the information differently, it would have been met with less skepticism from the public, but added, "No matter what, we were going to have a public process."
He said he hadn't been aware, either, that the deadline was as hard and fast as described in the city's Oct. 1 announcement.
"He definitely wanted to have this thing moved along quickly," Cline said, but noted that in previous conversations, Arrillaga hadn't balked at requests for more time; instead, he joked that the offer was on the table as long as he was alive – he's in his 80s.
According to Ohtaki, making improvements to the main library will likely still remain on the city's to-do list, but will probably be pushed back to a 10-year timeline. "I think this effectively moves the main library to the back burner," he said.
Initial cost estimates from consultants to build a 44,000-square-foot library from March 2017 came in at around $45 million.
After the city received Arrillaga's offer last year, the council authorized staff to expedite the process. In October 2017 the council approved the creation of a $1 million fund to begin the public outreach process for the proposed main library, which included hiring a new full-time assistant to work on the project.
Funds were also used to make improvements at the existing Belle Haven Library and start early assessments to evaluate what might be needed at a new library in that neighborhood.
As the city explored whether to rebuild the library at its current site or move it closer to Laurel Street, staff explored the options of other uses as part of a new library structure, acknowledging that nowadays, many libraries serve not just as receptacles for books and media, but as community meeting spaces. The city briefly considered building a new child care center to replace the existing Menlo Children's Center as part of the project, but the idea was opposed by a number of parents.
Staff also discussed the possibility of including affordable housing as part of the project – if not as part of a new library structure itself, then as a development consideration near Alma Street if the council agreed to tear down the old library and build a new one on Laurel Street. The concept of affordable housing on the Burgess campus has been supported by the Housing Leadership Council of San Mateo County.
In May, the discussion was put on pause. And in August, a discussion on the project was postponed after a Brown Act violation characterized as "inadvertent" occurred.
A discussion of future improvements to the city's libraries is likely to be postponed until January, when the council develops its annual work plan.
Meanwhile, as staff reported with some urgency, construction costs continue to escalate.
Corman added that she believes it will be more challenging for the foundation to raise funds for a library renovation or reconstruction project now that Arrillaga's offer is withdrawn. She suspects that private donors will be skeptical when they're approached at some later date with funding requests from the foundation.
Still, Ohtaki said, "I think it is appropriate that we take our time and do this right."
Belle Haven Library
The city's efforts to move forward with plans to build a new Belle Haven Library are unaffected.
There is also a possibility that the $1 million the city has set aside to work on library improvements could be redirected to the Belle Haven Library, Ohtaki said.
The City Council was scheduled to finalize and potentially approve a recently completed needs assessment for the Belle Haven Library at its next meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 9.
The council was also scheduled to decide whether to move forward with a space needs assessment for the library, and potentially execute a contract with architecture consultants from the firm Noll & Tam to spend up to $75,000 on that study.
Based on a tentative timeline, the space needs study would be scheduled for completion in July 2019. After that, schematic designs and siting decisions would need to be completed, which could happen as soon as June 2020.
Next steps: identify funding, completing an environmental impact analysis, getting final City Council approval for the project, approving final building designs, and then building the library. A tentative timeline puts that final completion date at April 2024.