The population of Menlo Park on the Bay side of 101 could triple in the coming years, but because of regular traffic gridlock in the area, residents there still primarily have access only to the Belle Haven Branch Library, which, in its current state, is housed at an elementary school and offers limited hours for public use.
To remedy this need, the city of Menlo Park has been working to streamline a process to build a new library in Belle Haven as soon as possible. The project took a step forward on April 16, when the City Council voted unanimously to approve a space needs study and move forward with the next steps in the process: completing a conceptual design for the new library, exploring potential locations and coming up with estimates for how much it will cost.
The Belle Haven library project has been discussed for years, but took on a new life in 2017 after an offer by John Arrillaga to build a new main library triggered public complaints that the city's priority ought to be the Belle Haven library instead.
The space needs study that was recently completed recommends a new library of 12,300 square feet.
Based on community feedback, the study recommends that the new library include a place where kids can go to get after-school homework help, a sound-insulated room for teens, a 100-seat community room that can be subdivided, a space for computer classes, a space for story times and activities for young children, quiet reading areas for adults, and multiple sound-insulated small study rooms for two to four people.
In Belle Haven and in areas of Menlo Park closer to the Bay, there is a greater need for literacy support than elsewhere in the city. Those areas have a greater proportion of children struggling to attain grade-level reading proficiency than areas that are part of the Menlo Park City or Las Lomitas school districts.
At Willow Oaks Elementary School, 67% of third-graders did not meet grade-level literacy proficiency, nor did 47% of third-graders at Belle Haven Elementary, according to 2018 test results. Both schools are in the Ravenswood City School District based in East Palo Alto. These percentages are less than 10% in the Woodside, Menlo Park, Portola Valley and Las Lomitas districts.
The City Council's discussion on this topic came immediately after it held a study session to talk about recommendations in a separate plan for the city's park and recreation facilities. Those recommendations raised the possibility of rebuilding the Onetta Harris Community Center and Menlo Park Senior Center in Belle Haven, and there was some discussion of bundling those projects together with a new library. Belle Haven resident Sheryl Bims favored the idea, urging the council to "be visionary" and consider economies of scale when considering constructing new city buildings.
However, staff said that including the library project as one to re-envision the city's Belle Haven parks and recreation campus would require backtracking and create delays for the project.
Belle Haven resident Rachel Bickerstaff told the council that she felt the consultants and advisory committee working on the project "really did do their job in making sure that our voices were heard," and urged the council to move forward with the staff recommendations.
"I appreciate the comments about the possibility of missed opportunities if we don't look at this comprehensively," Councilman Drew Combs responded. "My concern is (that we're) moving the goalpost. ... I think I have to prioritize the good over the perfect. ... The current library situation here is not sustainable and not reflective of the equity we want to see in Menlo Park. We need to deliver that."