City leaders often tout Palo Alto's historic role as the birthplace of Silicon Valley and a pioneer in the fields such as technology, education and medicine.
But despite their agreement that this history is worth celebrating, members of the City Council have struggled for nearly two decades to advance a project that would do just that: the transformation of the dilapidated Roth Building at 300 Homer Ave. into the new Palo Alto Museum. After buying the historic building in 2000, the city selected the Palo Alto History Museum in 2005 as the future tenant.
Since then, the project has amassed a loyal following, including a legion of former mayors, historians, tech leaders, business leaders and philanthropists. Generations of councils have touted the many benefits of the new museum, which include the restoration of a treasured building, the creation of a new home for Palo Alto's historic archives and the provision of research space, exhibition halls and a cafe. The project would also include a bathroom that would be available to patrons of Heritage Park, which is adjacent to the Roth Building.
Proponents of the project touted Palo Alto's rich history as a pioneer in technology, education and medicine.
"We know we're sitting on a goldmine of historical treasure," Rich Green, president of the Palo Alto Museum board of directors, told the Finance Committee on Tuesday.
Fundraising, however, has been a persistent challenge. Last year, a review commissioned by the city found that the Palo Alto Museum (formerly known as Palo Alto History Museum) has about $1 million on hand for construction as well as $937,000 in pledges, most of which could be used for the first phase of the museum. The review concluded that the museum remains more than $2.4 million shy of its goal.
Facing the funding shortfall, the council's Finance Committee struggled on Tuesday to find a solution. On the one hand, members agreed that the city-owned building has been vacant for two decades now, is falling apart and is in urgent need or reparation. On the other hand, they were reluctant to make the kind of investment that would really move the project forward, opting instead for an approach that achieves incremental improvement while virtually ensuring that the museum project will remain in limbo for the foreseeable future.
Members of the Palo Alto Museum requested that the city help it complete the first phase of the project, the restoration of the building to turn it into an occupiable space. Green said moving ahead with the construction of a museum at the Roth Building is "the fastest, most cost-effective way to restore this historic building," he said. With the city's help, the project could get started within 30 days and be completed within a year. Meanwhile, the museum would raise the roughly $8 million that would be needed to fund the museum's exhibits, furnishing and programs.
"Clearly the city gains from a continued partnership with the museum," Green said. "We have created a shovel-ready project for the city. It's taken a long time and we've put a lot of effort and money into that. I will say there's been some uncertainty in the city partnership and we'd like to move forward from that uncertainty."
But rather than giving the museum the funding it requested, the committee recommended a more limited investment: the construction of the "cold shell" for the new museum at a cost of $6 million. The allocation would enable seismic and structural upgrades to the dilapidated building, bringing it up to safety standards. It would not, however, be sufficient to actually make the building suitable for occupancy. That would cost about $10.5 million, staff and museum officials had estimated.
Vice Mayor Tom DuBois supported moving ahead with the project, which he noted is leveraging private funds, city funds and grant money from Santa Clara County and offering significant public benefits. The city, he noted, has recently invested in other private projects with public benefits, including the reconstruction of the Junior Museum and Zoo and the construction of the new Avenidas building. DuBois said the city should do more to support the Palo Alto Museum.
"We've kind of been half in half out. I think it's time we were either all in or all out," DuBois said.
His two colleagues, however, were more reluctant. Council member Liz Kniss cited the project's long history and its funding challenges as evidence that the project lacks community commitment.
"I'd like to see this success, I truly would," Kniss said. "And we've spent hours as a council discussing how we could motivate that money coming into this particular project and we have not been incredibly successful in our negotiations with the museum."
From the museum's perspective, the project's lack of success stems in part from the city's history of half measures and limited support. The museum is being tasked to raise money to fix up the public building it does not own, an endeavor on which it has already spent $1.8 million. It does not have a lease with the city, leaving donors with little assurance that the museum would actually materialize in the rehabilitated building.
Former Mayor Karen Holman, a longtime advocate for the history museum who is now working with the nonprofit to advance the project, noted the "cold shell" proposal has several significant flaws. Without assurances that the building will become a museum, the city may not be able to use the roughly $4 million in "transfer of development rights" revenues and county grants to fix up the roof and restore the Victor Arnautoff murals in the historic property.
"Neither of these sources of funding are available to a cold shell project because they depend on the use of the museum's permitted plan," Holman told the Weekly in an interview. "There needs to be a long-term commitment for the Roth Building to the donors to use those plans."
John Northway, who studied under renowned architect Birge Clark and who now serves on the board of directors of Palo Alto History, said the "cold shell" is not a particularly viable option because it would require the development of new plans while adding up to $500,000 to the project's cost.
"The biggest problem is the use of the plans and not being able to use the funds that are there," Northway told this news organization. "We have an obligation to our donors. We can't go ahead and just spend money without having assurances of the city, and that would be by a lease."
In its attempt to assist the Palo Alto Museum, city staff had identified about $6 million in funding that it could apply to the project, which includes $4.9 million in "transfer of development rights" revenues; $300,000 in county funds; $300,000 in library impact fees. The nonprofit also has about $500,000 in cash on hand for the construction.
By a unanimous vote, the Finance Committee recommended using the $6 million to help construct the cold shell. It also directed staff to engage in negotiations with Palo Alto Museum over a new lease, a move that city officials hope will add some stability to the somewhat rocky public-private partnership.
While the museum was hoping for additional help, Council member Greg Tanaka joined Kniss in opposing the type of firm commitment that museum supporters were hoping for. He noted that if the city taps additional funding sources to fund the full rehabilitation of the Roth Building, it would have to defund other projects in the city's infrastructure plan. This includes the relocation of outdated playgrounds at Rinconada Park and implementation of automated material handling at several library branches.
"This year has been a pretty devastating year financially," Tanaka said, pointing to plummeting revenues from hotel and sales taxes.
Tanaka called the Roth Building a "lost opportunity," noting that it has been sitting empty and not generating any rent for the city for two decades.
"Another year that goes by is another year that the project is not being used, that we're not getting revenue from it and the community is not benefitting," "I'm concerned about how tough it's been to raise money for this project. As stewards of the city, I think it's important for us to consider that."