Atherton: Park is still best library site, councilwoman says
Building a two-story library in the park is still the best course for Atherton, City Councilwoman Kathy McKeithen said this week, commenting on the draft environmental report that said the proposed library would intensify the traffic-congestion problem at Watkins Avenue and El Camino Real.
"There's absolutely no question that the park is far and away the best location as far as the EIR (environmental impact report) is concerned," said Ms. McKeithen, a member of the town's library task force that recommended building a new facility in Holbrook-Palmer Park.
Regarding the Watkins/El Camino traffic impact, the EIR says that all alternative projects studied in the environmental review would significantly impact the intersection, she noted.
And although the EIR stated that there is no feasible way to mitigate the intersection's traffic backups resulting from the new library, Ms. McKeithen said she's not so sure. A possible solution, she said, is to ban left-hand turns from Watkins onto southbound El Camino all the time, rather than only 4 to 6 p.m. weekdays, as the restriction now exists.
Critics of the plan to build a library in the park — including former mayor Didi Fisher, who is gathering signatures to put the question on the ballot — could not be reached for comment before press time.
Ms. McKeithen, Mayor Bill Widmer, and Councilman Jim Dobbie formed the council 3-2 majority that voted last October to support a library in the park.
Mayor Widmer noted last week that his support was contingent on the EIR findings, leaving the door open to reconsider his support of the project, which has generated intense criticism by a number of vocal residents.
As of late last week, Mr. Widmer said he had yet to thoroughly study the EIR, and was going to hold his judgment until he had a chance to do so.
Just as the traffic congestion at El Camino and Watkins is expected to increase significantly under any alternative studied, Middlefield Road's intersection with Watkins is also expected to be affected by any of the options. But the EIR listed a traffic signal at that intersection as a mitigation measure that would reduce the impact to "less than significant."
Denise Kupperman, a leading figure on the library task force, acknowledged that a new library in the park would create additional traffic at the two intersections, but noted that "this is the case regardless of where it is located, and ... these intersections already have issues that need to be addressed." The traffic impacts are rated "significant" as defined by the California Environmental Quality Act, but in fact "are not major," she said.
Opponents of building a library in the park cite a range of concerns, including the desire to keep the park quiet and pristine, and its use limited largely to Atherton residents. (Regional in nature, libraries are open to anyone.)
But many opponents have cited the inevitable increase in traffic and parking needs should the library be built in the park.
John Ruggeiro, a Transportation Committee member, said he has long been concerned with traffic impacts resulting from a library in Holbrook-Palmer Park, and committee members have requested that the matter be put on the Transportation Committee agenda. That request has been denied by the town, he said.
The EIR studied alternatives that included a smaller-scale library in the park — a one-story building of 10,000 gross square feet and about 8,900 square feet of usable space. The proposed project will allow a building of up to 13,500 square feet, although Councilwoman McKeithen said the building would likely be smaller than that.
By removing the second floor, however, a key goal of library advocates would be foiled: The creation of a community gathering place that would include a new town heritage room, and meeting and activity space for arts and civic programs.
The smaller-scale option is further complicated by the plan to tear down the Main House to make way for the new library. The Main House, in spite of its age and rat-infestation problems, is now used by the town's Arts Committee, the Holbrook-Palmer Park Foundation, the Atherton Dames, and the Atherton Civic Interest League, among other community uses.
If the town reduces the size of the library, those community groups — which would have found a home on the proposed library's second floor — would have to find other sites to operate from.
Other alternatives analyzed in the EIR were a renovation and expansion of the existing library in the Town Center, and construction of a library within a new Town Center, which may be built in a number of years using mostly donated funds.
The EIR cited an environmental impact unique to the existing library alternative: a significant, unavoidable impact to historic resources. The historic building, which needs a seismic retrofit, would be greatly altered if expanded to meet the minimum space needs identified by a recent library needs assessment study. The expansion also would significantly reduce the existing outdoor space, including part or all of the reading garden.
Both the existing library alternative and the new library in a rebuilt Town Center option would have to mitigate noise impacts, including the noise from the trains that roar down the nearby tracks.
The draft EIR will be reviewed at the April 25 Planning Commission meeting.