One of Palo Alto's most popular family attractions received a big boost Monday night, when the City Council gleefully backed an ambitious plan to rebuild and expand the Junior Museum and Zoo.
By a unanimous vote, the council voted to advance the long-planned reconstruction of the Rinconada Park museum and zoo -- a project that will be predominantly funded through private donations. The Friends of Junior Museum and Zoo had recently completed a $25 million fundraising plan for the project (with the Peery Foundation providing $15 million).
The council voted 8-0, with Adrian Fine absent, to approve the environmental clearance for the project, pass a park-improvement ordinance (which enables development on park space) and approve a $270,124 budget appropriation for a new museum and zoo at 1451 Middlefield Road.
Once completed, the museum will feature new exhibit galleries, classrooms, storage spaces and an outdoor area that will allow visitors to mingle with birds, insects and other zoo critters. Until then, much of the museum's collection will be moved to Cubberley pending construction of the new facility.
For the council, which is prone to scrutinizing and polarizing over new developments, the approval of the new zoo was never in doubt. The project is being funded by the Friends group and effectively donated to the city, making approval a formality.
The formality, however, was a long time coming. The project initially received scathing reviews from the Architectural Review Board and had to undergo several design revisions before finally winning the board's endorsement in September. The council's vote Monday allows construction to commence in 2018, with the goal of completing it in the summer of 2019.
Staff plans to re-open the museum to the public around May 2020.
"There are few moments in life where you can sit back and say, 'This is great, the community is moving forward and we should be proud of our community,'" Mayor Greg Scharff said. "This is one of them."
The council's vote is a significant milestone for an effort that began nearly decade ago. Aletha Coleman, president of the Friends of the Junior Museum and Zoo board of directors, said the group had originally envisioned a $7 million to $10 million project, though to date its improvements had been limited to more modest projects, including upgrades to the bat cave and the bobcat cage.
Coleman said that since she became board president 12 years ago, the board has added new members with skills in negotiating and financing -- an effort that appeared to have borne fruit. On Monday night, she told the council she was thrilled to give a $25-million "historic gift" for a rebuilt zoo.
"We feel we're going to be helping thousands of children in the community with more science education and a new fantastic, wonderful building," Coleman said.
The council was equally thrilled. Vice Mayor Liz Kniss said the Friends group has done a "remarkable and miraculous job."
"It's going to be a very impressive project when it's done," Kniss said.
Councilman Cory Wolbach also commended the Friends group for raising $25 million for the project. The new museum won't be just a valuable community amenity, but also a great bargain for the city.
"What this means is we're getting dollars for pennies," Wolbach said. "The return on investment for the city of Palo Alto is truly remarkable."
Even so, the city is scrambling to find the roughly $3.4 million it will need to contribute to the project. The money, according to staff, is needed to redesign the parking lot, install new exhibit programs, put up park signage and temporary relocate the zoo.
According to a Community Services Department report, staff is "exploring potential funding sources for these costs, including grants and other City resources in context of the City's overall budget." The report notes that given limiting funding, the council will need to clearly prioritize its capital projects, including the Junior Museum and Zoo, early next year.
On the bright side, the zoo has recently secured some federal funds for a program aimed at promoting exhibits and programs that would be accessible to children with physical and developmental disabilities.
The $270,124 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services will support a three-year program called "Access from the Ground Up." The program will include, among other aspects, 27 new science exhibits for children of all developmental levels and abilities, according to a news release from the city.