At the Redwood City Library, Project Read volunteers have a designated area where they can help nascent readers sound out words without being shushed, and at the Mitchell Park Library and Community Center, soundproof meeting rooms and quiet-zone desks are occupied until closing time.
Menlo Park's library has no shortage of users and devotees. The library hosts programs such as a knitting group, a mystery book club, a film discussion group, and children's story times. And there always seems to be abundant desk space for, say, a reporter on deadline to set up camp.
According to Library Director Susan Holmer, though, if the Menlo Park Library appears to work for all of those purposes, that's mainly because of the extra work librarians put in to keep things running smoothly. The library has been through several renovations that have yielded an ungainly floor plan. Lacking a large meeting room, staff often lug extra chairs up from the basement to set up and disassemble for meetings in the library's main hall, which can add to personnel costs.
The library's skeleton, which dates from the 1950s, is aging, she said, and additional renovations will trigger costly mandates to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
So it was natural that the city pounced when staff announced in July that local billionaire developer and philanthropist John Arrillaga had made an offer to help build a new main library. Both need and the drive to keep up with the Joneses generated enthusiasm for the proposed project among city leaders. And the offer also jump-started an existing conversation about how to build a new Belle Haven branch library.
Seven months later, though, the proposed main library project hangs in a state of limbo. For the city to make good on the Arrillaga offer, it has to come up with millions of dollars to launch the project. And right now, the most likely way to raise that money — persuading the public in a timely manner to help fund a new main library through a bond measure — appears to be unrealistic. Results of a preliminary public survey indicate there may not be the requisite two-thirds of public votes needed for a bond to move projects for the main and the Belle Haven branch libraries forward. Whether those results are reliable or the issue needs further research and public outreach remains a question with which the council is expected to grapple.
At the same time, the City Council has determined that the new main library project isn't on its list of top six priorities for the year, and ratcheted up its efforts to build a new Belle Haven branch library.
How the city got here
While Mr. Arrillaga's offer was unsolicited, according to City Manager Alex McIntyre, it did not appear entirely out of the blue. In 2014, the city initiated a process to determine how to improve and modernize the city's library, according to Ms. Holmer, the library director. At the time, there was interest from the Library Commission and the Library Foundation to conduct a needs assessment and fundraising campaign in advance of the library's centennial in 2016, according to a 2015 report evaluating the library's operations and administration.
Comments by both library staff and library users reflected both an appreciation for the current facility but also some frustrations. Concerns noted included spaces that are sometimes difficult to navigate, underutilized space in the outdoor patio, lack of community meeting space and group study space, not enough teen space and children's space and lack of space for emerging technologies.
Consultant Anna Marie Gold of Sacramento-based Municipal Resource Group noted that libraries "are becoming increasingly creative in use and re-use of library space, such as new community gathering spaces (aka the new Starbucks), maker spaces for teens and all age levels and early childhood learning spaces. ...The ability (for libraries) to adapt their physical space to continuing new user demands is critical."
According to Monica Corman, president of the Menlo Park Library Foundation, even before that analysis, her foundation board had conducted its own study comparing Menlo Park's facilities with libraries across the region, including large systems like San Francisco, San Jose and Oakland, and smaller ones like Walnut Creek, Los Gatos and Los Altos. It came up short.
"When you see what these other communities are doing, you think, 'We can do that and we should do that,'" she said. "It's a sign of a good civilization when you have a good library."
Next, the city hired a consultant to develop a strategic plan for the main library, which also identified facilities as one arena in which the Menlo Park Library could improve — specifically, to add flexible and collaborative meeting areas to better accommodate programs that align more with "community center" functions such as hosting group meetings, providing maker spaces, and holding classes and other learning-based activities.
Following the strategic plan, the city hired architectural firm Noll & Tam to conduct a space needs study. The results, released last March, indicated that to meet community needs, the library should be expanded to 44,000 square feet from its current 32,000 square feet.
Then in July, Mr. Arrillaga made his offer, and in rapid succession, with little discussion, city staff and the City Council dedicated $1 million to conduct studies on public opinion, to hire someone to lead the project (no employee has been hired yet) and to do public outreach to figure out where a new library should be sited on the Civic Center campus and what, if any, other uses should be accommodated there.
Ideas include a new multi-use meeting room that could be used as City Council chambers; a new child care center, if the new library footprint were to overtake the existing Menlo Child Care location; and housing.
Mr. Arrillaga has also helped in a similar way with previous city projects, which is why his name is on the gym, gymnastics center and recreation center. Those were built comparatively quickly in the 2000s because the city already had bond money that could go toward those projects.
As of Feb. 7, the city was in the middle of processing a purchase order for $134,066 of the initial $1 million for siting and work expected to begin soon, according to Brandon Cortez, city management analyst.
According to Mr. McIntyre, the terms of the offer are that the city must come up with the first $20 million, plus an estimated $10 million in soft costs, and come up with that money expeditiously.
He said Mr. Arrillaga hasn't set any deadline, but is used to working on developments that can move quickly, as at Stanford.
Ultimately, Mr. McIntyre said, "If we can't raise the money, there's no project."
So far, two of three public meetings have been held to discuss the siting of a future library. Generally, attendees have appeared to support the current location for the new library, which could mean an added cost to create an interim library, and further implications for future roadway/train track grade-separation projects, but would also leave the child care center intact.
One option being considered is to separate Ravenswood Avenue from the Caltrain tracks by tunneling the road under the rails, which could eliminate access to Alma Street from Ravenswood Avenue.
There didn't appear to be a consensus on whether housing should be permitted as part of the project. Adding housing would create further complications to the project, Mr. McIntyre said, and might be treated as separate potential project.
In recent months, the call to build better, more accessible library facilities in Belle Haven has risen to a higher pitch, especially as the city has considered improvements to the main library on a more expeditious timeline. Initially, the main library was prioritized for attention because its facilities are older, Ms. Holmer said. However, a couple of years ago, the Belle Haven branch library began to be operated as a school library and public access was eliminated during school hours.
Complaints about the library included concerns that the collection maintained was juvenile and limited in its general-audience offerings, and about hours. Some said that because of notable traffic increases in the Belle Haven neighborhood in recent years, some families coming home from work could never get home and take their kids to the library before it closes.
The city has responded by extending the library's evening hours and adding interior improvements.
Building a new library in Belle Haven, though, is a process that's farther behind and more complex than the proposed main library project. To start with, the city doesn't have a designated place where a new library would go. It is likely that the city would have to acquire land, which alone can cost $8 million to $10 million an acre, according to Mr. McIntyre.
On Feb. 7, the city hosted its first meeting with the Belle Haven Neighborhood Library Advisory Committee, a group appointed to help lead a study to determine the neighborhood's library needs. After the needs study is done, a space needs study must be completed, a site identified, and funding ascertained before planning and designing the project can begin in earnest.
The City Council has expressed unanimous support for a new Belle Haven branch library and the principle that progress on that effort should not be hindered by any holdups with the main library project.
Other funding options
Many new libraries in the area have been funded by some mix of voter-approved revenue measures, city funds, grant funding and private donors.
Other organizations could step in and help. Steven Haas of the Friends of the Menlo Park Library, an organization that uses book sales to raise money to fund library operations, said the organization has some money saved in its reserves that might be used for capital purposes if called upon.
And Ms. Corman said the library foundation plans to launch a capital campaign, but needs more concrete plans to work with before fundraising can start in earnest.
The city's finance and audit committee has also discussed options to come up with the funding. According to committee member Ron Shepherd, a bond measure would likely carry a hefty amount of interest the city has to pay back over time too. The city may also consider raising the utility users' tax from its current 1 percent, to 3.5 percent, the maximum level that voters approved in 2006.
While there is consensus on the City Council to support a library project in Belle Haven, there is less consensus as to where the main library plan should be on the city's work plan due to uncertainty about the level of public support for the project.
Councilman Ray Mueller said he thought the early survey results were conclusive that there isn't enough public interest to generate the funding for the main library now. "My mind's not foreclosed on the project," he said. "I can't see a pathway (to funding the project) and would like to focus on other things."
Councilwoman Catherine Carlton agreed. The survey results, she said, indicate that "at this point, it's not registering on people's radars as something they want to critically address this year."
She pointed out that the mixed response from the public on the proposed library project differs from the primarily positive and enthusiastic response the city has received to the concept of rebuilding the Guild Theatre into a concert and community events venue, estimated to cost $10 million to $20 million. The founders of the nonprofit Peninsula Arts Guild, which is behind the offer, initially stipulated that if they did not get community support and help from city staff to move the project quickly, they would explore options to develop the project elsewhere.
Other council members think the results were less definitive, and that there should be more public outreach.
Councilwoman Kirsten Keith said that this kind of opportunity is rare and could help the city transform its libraries into a "state-of-the-art modern library system."
To her, the survey wasn't comprehensive enough, nor the public outreach and education sufficient to accurately measure public interest in a bond measure.
Mr. Arrillaga's offer, to her, represents an offer to do something that the city may never accomplish otherwise because of other priorities and escalating construction costs.
"If we can't somehow figure out how to take advantage (of the offer)," she said, "We won't ever do this. "
Another perk of working with Mr. Arrillaga, she said, is that the city won't have cost overruns or construction lawsuits because of the conditions of Mr. Arrillaga's offer. As nice as the Mitchell Park Library and community center is now, she said, there were major delays and cost overruns associated with the project, which cost about $45 million. Litigation ensued between the city of Palo Alto and a contractor the city fired, before a settlement was eventually reached shortly after the facility's grand opening at the end of 2014.
Maybe some kind of compromise could be made, Councilman Rich Cline said. What if the city were to make the project smaller, so it costs less? And what happens if the city can't come up with the requisite $30 million?
He said the proposed project is still in the conversation phase — he said he didn't think it was realistic for the city to set up a bond measure for 2018, but added that if a bond measure is off the table, the city should continue to look for other funding alternatives.
Mr. Cline said he thinks the city should aim to "get the best for both (libraries) and try not to lose opportunities based on knee-jerk reactions."
"We all have different approaches on how to solve this," he said.
If there are mixed messages, Mayor Peter Ohtaki said, "That's because the situation is kind of fluid right now."
For him, one of the biggest concerns is how to raise the funding without raising taxes and making sure the city can pay back its debt service from the bond in the years to come. And there are broader questions of how libraries will be used in the 21st century. He said he sees the argument that there's need for more flexible group rooms and community spaces.
To him, the survey was preliminary and public opinion is still not set in stone on the project, since the project itself has so many unknowns. Until consensus is reached on the site and on possible shared uses for a new potential library, Mr. Ohtaki said, the project remains a nebulous concept. "The main library is not dead, but it needs further work."
The third siting meeting will be held Thursday, Feb. 15, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Menlo Park Main Library, 800 Alma St., in the Civic Center. After that, the plan is to bring the matter back to the City Council for further discussion in March or April, according to Mr. McIntyre.
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