"This is a great day that has been many, many years in the making" said Mayor Bill Widmer to a crowd seated in folding chairs set up in the parking lot and a closed-off section of Ashfield Road between the town offices and historic council chambers building.
Council member Rick DeGolia, who with fellow council member Elizabeth Lewis has represented the council on the town's Civic Center Advisory Committee, gave some of the project's history. "Today we launch the most significant construction project in the history of Atherton," DeGolia said.
It has been 90 years, he said, since Atherton opened its original town offices in what is now the historic council chambers. "That created a center in the newly incorporated town of Atherton," he said. The new project will transform that center dramatically, he said. Once work is completed, nothing of the existing town buildings but the historic council chambers will remain. The renovated building will become part of the new 9,000-square-foot library, and will house a small cafe, a multipurpose room and the town's history archives.
DeGolia said the current administration building that also houses the police station was built in 1960 and over the years has been supplemented by seven now worn-out trailers. "These facilities have more than served their useful lives," he said.
The town had tried at least three previous times to replace the buildings, but "the efforts failed due to lack of funding," he said.
"This time, with the help of Atherton Now and our residents who voted to use our general funds, we are going to get this done," DeGolia said.
In 2017, 61% of Atherton voters said in an advisory measure that money from the town's general fund could be used to help pay for a new civic center. That overturned a 2012 ballot measure calling for the design and construction of a new town center to be primarily paid for with private donations.
When the project is completed, estimated to be in 2021, a public courtyard will connect a new mission-style building housing police offices, town administration, building and planning offices, and a council chamber/emergency operations center to the new modern library.
Even the layout of streets in the area will change, with Ashfield Road, which now runs between the town offices and the historic council chambers, becoming a purely residential street.
Much of the town's 4.5-acre parcel "is now largely a parking lot that was well-used when our residents commuted to San Francisco on the train," DeGolia said. The train station is now open only on weekends. The new town offices will be located in that parking lot, with the entrance on Fair Oaks Lane. Because that area has few trees, the project has been designed so enough solar power could be added to make the building "the first zero-net energy civic center in California," DeGolia said. The solar aspect has not yet been funded, however.
Council member Lewis, who DeGolia said "has worked harder than anybody else in this town" on the new civic center, said the current project has been underway since the late 1990s. She said former council member and mayor Didi Fisher took the lead in raising private funds to allow the project to get started.
When private fundraising failed to raise enough money to finance the civic center, the council asked voters to approve using money available from the town's general fund to pay for the construction.
"The need is here," Lewis said, and "we have the resources now."
"I can't tell you how wonderful it feels to me to see this project start," Lewis said.
Sandy Levison, who helped spearhead the private fundraising campaign by Atherton Now, a nonprofit formed to raise money for the civic center, thanked Fisher, who recently moved to McCall, Idaho. Fisher and the late council member and mayor Nan Chapman were early supporters of the project, Levison said.
More than 150 donations for the civic center were received, Levison said, many from supporters of the town's police department "who wanted the officers to have a decent place to work."
Steve Dostart, an Atherton resident who served on the Civic Center Advisory Committee, said the town involved the public in the design of the civic center. "We did what you asked," Dostart said. "We think you'll like it."
Even the contractor who will build the civic center spoke. Dana McManus, the CEO of SJ Amoroso Construction, a former longtime resident of Atherton's Lindenwood neighborhood, promised "Amoroso is going to come through."
"I love Atherton," he said. "I can honestly say that today, we're on budget and on time, and we're going to keep it that way."
After the comments, council members grabbed gold-painted shovels, donned hard hats and posed for the ceremonial groundbreaking with a pile of dirt specially delivered for the occasion.