After mediators launched Menlo Park's third meeting on Thursday, Feb. 15, to pick a site for a proposed new main library by insisting attendees abide by a series of discursive ground rules, several attendees stood and asked city staff politely but assertively to make sure their comments were accurately recorded and their feedback taken into account.
The meetings, for attendees, involved being told ground rules for the discussion, hearing a presentation, getting a chance to ask clarifying questions, breaking into small groups, offering feedback and then relying on note-takers in each group to accurately record and relay their feedback. Several attendees of previous meetings said they didn't think the opinions they'd previously expressed were accurately represented by staff.
The meetings, intended to ascertain public opinion as to whether the city should pursue building a new library at its current Alma Street site – if a library construction project is approved – or relocating it closer to Laurel Street, raised other questions about the reliability of the public process.
One attendee pointed out that during the second siting meeting, there seemed to be little public support for the Laurel Street site. At the third meeting, consultants raised a number of arguments as to why the Laurel Street site might be preferable – if the library were relocated there, it would ease interim library costs and could free up the space for other uses, such as an outdoor amphitheater, suggested consultant Chris Noll of architectural firm Noll & Tam. By the end of the meeting, one small group out of three expressed support for the Laurel Street site.
On the other hand, one topic that did appear to have mixed opinion during the previous meetings – whether affordable housing should be built as part of the project – appeared to have already been ruled out by city staff. Assistant Library Director Nick Szegda said that adding housing would cause delays to the project, since it would require a full environmental impact review, so staff wasn't likely to recommend moving forward with housing to the City Council.
Angie Evans of the San Mateo County Housing Leadership Council, who two days prior had presented the City Council a video of people in the community voicing support for housing as part of the library project, said that there's some misinformation about housing going around. Stand-alone affordable housing buildings tend to have the most access to state and federal funding, and there's no reason a separate stand-alone affordable housing project couldn't take place alongside the library, but start construction later because of an extended timeline to accommodate an environmental review, she said.
Watch the video here.
Meeting attendees conducted a rough straw poll of their own as to who supported the library project at all. Several hands, out of about 45 attendees, were raised. (This was done informally and quickly, so may not have accurately captured the sentiment in the room.)
When staff insisted that the question wasn't within the scope of the meeting's agenda, an attendee asked, "Why not? We're paying for it," referring to the roughly $30 million the city will have to come up with to pay its share of funding needed to make good on an offer by developer John Arrillaga to pay for the remaining construction costs.