News - September 14, 2011

Debate over Atherton library heats up

by Renee Batti

Should the town of Atherton survey residents about where to rebuild the town's library?

Despite the town's multi-year discussion of the plan to build a new library — which included several presentations at City Council meetings and numerous open meetings of a citizen task force studying options for the project — a number of residents are protesting the task force's advocacy of building the new facility in Holbrook-Palmer Park, and urging the council to survey residents.

The task force has narrowed its focus to two options: rebuilding the library at its current site in the Town Center, which would require a seismic retrofit and expansion of the 82-year-old, 4,790-square-foot building; or razing the Main House in the town's only park, and building a new library of up to 11,000 square feet in its place.

Judging by a presentation made by the task force and San Mateo County Library staff at a Sept. 8 meeting in Holbrook-Palmer's Pavilion, the favored option is a park location for a brand new facility.

Opponents of that plan come to their position from several directions. Some say they think a larger, upgraded library is needed, but it shouldn't be built in the 22-acre park, which is heavily used for recreational walking and other low-impact activities, and a limited amount of youth sports. These opponents argue that a library, which would also be used as a community center, would increase traffic to an unacceptable level and destroy the park's ambiance.

Most of the opponents say that upgrading and expanding the existing library would avoid degradation of the park, and would keep the library in a logical, convenient location — at a fraction of the cost of a park library.

But others say the existing library should be seismically retrofitted with no expansion, arguing that because of the growing popularity of electronic books and social networking, more space for book collections and community gathering areas isn't necessary.

Needs and impacts

Members of a panel presenting an update on the library issue at last week's meeting told some 65 to 75 attendees that the existing library doesn't meet the needs of the public, and that library usage is growing, not diminishing, in spite of trends toward e-books and social networking.

Anne-Marie Despain, the county's director of library services, stressed that national trends in library usage dictate that new facilities need more flexible space to adapt to a wider range of uses than traditional 20th century libraries had to accommodate. One modern-day need that libraries must accommodate, she said, is for public gathering spaces, which is required for a cohesive community but seems to be disappearing in modern times.

This is one reason, she noted, that libraries throughout the nation are getting larger: "People take up more space than a book shelf."

Lisa Costa Sanders, the town's deputy planner, said that if the existing library were renovated and expanded, two more parking spaces would be required in Town Center. The project would also have to be studied with a full-blown environmental impact report, she said, because the building is considered historic.

Building the library in the park would require no new parking, and the Main House could be torn down with no full EIR because it is not considered historic — an assertion challenged by former mayor Malcolm Dudley. Mr. Dudley is leading the charge to save the Main House, which was one of three structures in the park at the time the land was donated to the town.

Although parking would be adequate, traffic flow would be affected on nearby streets, Ms. Costa Sanders said. "There would be an impact at (the intersection of) Watkins and Middlefield" that the town would have to mitigate, she said.

The cost of an 11,000-square-foot library in the park is projected at about $8.2 million, according to the town's finance director, Louise Ho. The town currently has about $5.6 million in a fund that must be spent on the library, and that fund is expected to grow to $8.3 million by 2015, she said.

Debate continues

The strong sentiments held by residents and officials who attended last week's meeting were apparent immediately following the panelists' presentation, with several residents arguing for a public comment period before moving from one display table to another to speak individually with library and town staff and task force members. They also pressed for a survey of residents before any decision about the library's location is made.

Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen, who served on the library task force, forcefully debated several residents who challenged her defense of the park as the optimal library site. As Ms. McKeithen urged the residents to better inform themselves about the proposed project, former mayor Dudley, just a few feet away, spoke passionately with several residents about the need to preserve the Main House.

Meanwhile, task force member Sandy Crittenden told the Almanac that his decision to support a library in the park was difficult, but he believes it's a good one. Mr. Crittenden, who grew up in Atherton and was married in the park, said he can be found walking in Holbrook-Palmer five days a week. He has been a member of the park foundation since 1994, and his mother, Barbara, was a co-founder of the Atherton Dames, which supports the park.

"It's not like I'm trying to devalue the park," he said.

Mr. Crittenden said that a key factor in the opposition to building a library there is people's natural resistance to change. "I would love to turn the clock back 40 years, too," he said, but he has accepted the need for the change.

"The library's going to make the park better, and the park is going to make the library better," he said.

The issue goes before the town's Parks and Recreation Commission in October, and may go before the council for approval of a site that month as well.


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