If all goes according to best-case-scenario plans, the city of Menlo Park could have a new library in Belle Haven completed as soon as 2024.
At least, that's what staff and consultants told the City Council at its Tuesday, Oct. 9, meeting.
Although some members of the public told the council that the target date doesn't seem soon enough, the project otherwise was moved forward expeditiously – in one go, the council voted unanimously to approve the findings of a needs assessment for the Belle Haven Library, conducted by the city and consultants from the architecture and design firm Gensler; to work with architecture consultant firm Noll & Tam to move forward with the next step, a space needs study; and to fund that study up to $75,000.
According to a report presented to the council by Jerod Turner and Kimberly Wong, consultants from Gensler, the consultants collected 384 pieces of feedback from neighborhood residents and others, and identified a number of weaknesses: limited operation hours, a limited collection for adults, a lack of awareness in the community about the library, a limited capacity to support kids who aren't in school yet, a lack of separated spaces for reading, studying or games, and isolation from nearby amenities and community services.
The library also has a reputation of being only for kids, since it is located at Belle Haven Elementary.
In talking to people in the neighborhood, the consultants said, they found that many people are tired of "outreach without action by the city."
"The current pace of change within the Belle Haven neighborhood is perceived as rapid," consultants reported, noting that multiple studies by the city stretch the patience of community members, especially in a neighborhood where residents were described as working class with multiple jobs and little free time.
They also said that people felt disconnected from the city and underserved by it compared with residents of other neighborhoods.
Among the recommendations for a new Belle Haven Library are:
● Do public outreach to change the perception that the library is only for kids.
● Children use the space after school, and providing a place to play, be outside, and have other activities other than computer usage would be beneficial to them.
● The three major needs expressed are for a grocery store accessible to the neighborhood, traffic alleviation and better access to city services for things like housing support, legal services and education, as well as spaces for civic participation and activism, the report says. Since a library can't really address the first two of those concerns, it could perhaps be located near city services.
● Public outreach materials should be in English and Spanish, and information should be presented both digitally and in hard copy, perhaps through physical message boards located in key neighborhood places.
● People want the library to provide a community space to gather, and offer flexible spaces to do things like read quietly, play video games, hold meetings, spend time with others, or make things through a makerspace or art studio. They also liked the idea of an outdoor space.
The study included case studies of other libraries in the area, including the Fair Oaks Branch Library in Redwood City, the East Palo Alto Library and the Mitchell Park Library in Palo Alto. Each has its own unique features the city might want to evaluate further, the consultants said.
The Fair Oaks Branch Library was recently renovated, with only about 600 square feet added, to create a dedicated teen center, an interactive wall and an early childhood play area.
The East Palo Alto Library is located on the city's civic center campus and operates as a community hub for residents.
Mitchell Park Library, at 41,000 square feet, has become a popular after-school gathering space and has children and teen zones, a game room, and a nearby sports court. Programs there are held in three languages, the report says.
According to a tentative timeline in a staff report, the space needs study could be completed in July 2019. After that, schematic designs would need to be completed and siting decisions made, which could happen as soon as June 2020.
From there, the city would need to identify funding, complete an environmental impact analysis, get final City Council approval for the project, approve final building designs, and then build the library. A tentative timeline puts the completion date in April 2024.
Belle Haven resident and Library Commissioner Jacqui Cebrian, who has participated in an advisory committee to give feedback on the plans, expressed frustration that the plans aren't moving faster. She started serving on the Library Commission in 2010, and back then, when her daughter was a young child, there was talk about a Belle Haven branch library. Now, her daughter has started high school, Cebrian said. "Your most ambitious timeline has this done two years after she graduates," she said.
"Our community has become increasingly isolated," she said. "We have the greatest literacy needs with the least access to services."
She added that now is the time to prioritize work on the library, with a new high school being built east of U.S. 101. She encouraged the city to prioritize a designated teen space at the Belle Haven Library, and in the interim, to place a number of "Little Free Libraries" – wooden boxes installed for people to put books in to take and exchange – in key locations around the neighborhood and in city parks.
Belle Haven resident Pam Jones urged the city to use land it already owns when choosing a site. Cecilia Taylor, Belle Haven resident and City Council candidate, also urged the council to fast-track the process.