The Menlo Park City Council voted 3-1 on Jan. 15 to move forward with a strategy and timeline to build a new Belle Haven branch library and rebuild or renovate the main library, as well as combine elements of the two projects to streamline efficiency.
Councilwoman Betsy Nash cast the dissenting vote and Mayor Ray Mueller was away attending his father's funeral.
Between August 2017 and October 2018, the city of Menlo Park scrambled to take advantage of an offer by billionaire philanthropist John Arrillaga to help fund the construction of a new main library after the first $20 million in capital costs. The council agreed to set aside $1 million to jump-start the needed studies and hire someone to oversee the project amidst community outcry that the public outreach process was being sped through or circumvented. Arrillaga ultimately rescinded his offer.
Where these projects will fall on the council's work plan remains to be seen; the council still needs to hold its annual goal-setting meeting, which is when priorities for the calendar year are set. That meeting has been postponed until Friday, Feb. 8.
The main question of the Jan. 15 discussion was whether the city should be authorized to couple the two library projects in some phases for cost and efficiency reasons, or whether the [ Belle Haven Library project should be completed separately first.
"Belle Haven is a little bit of a book desert," former library commissioner Jacqui Cebrian noted in supporting the option to make the Belle Haven project the first priority while combining efforts on the two library projects when possible.
Council members agreed that building a new Belle Haven Library should be the city's first library-focused priority. The city is now working on a space needs study for the Belle Haven branch.
Staff and consultants are now collecting feedback for that study and have so far received about 800 responses.People who want to weigh in should complete an online survey in English or Spanish here. All residents who live east of Bay Road were also sent surveys by mail, according to a staff report. The deadline to respond is Jan. 31.
The draft space needs report is expected to be reviewed by the council on March 12 and the final version reviewed on April 9.
After April 9, both libraries will be at the same phase in their plans for the future, which could create the opportunity to streamline the projects and ease administrative burdens by including both in a request for proposals for architectural design, according to Sean Reinhart, interim library services director.
According to a timeline he presented, preliminary designs for both libraries could be completed between June 2019 and June 2020, with preliminary cost estimates completed in September 2019 and financing options and mechanisms developed and approved by early 2020. The rest of the design work would be completed by February 2021. Construction could then take place between August 2022 and August 2025.
The council emphasized that combining design processes for the main and Belle Haven libraries would be permissible only if it does not slow down progress on the Belle Haven Library.
Councilman Drew Combs said he was skeptical that there are synergies or economies of scale that could be attained by combining both project processes, but continued, "I think we do have to trust staff in this instance."
It's not clear that voters will support coupling the two projects, since taxpayers will likely have to pay some of the costs of the new libraries even if private funds are raised or public-private partnerships negotiated.
A number of people in public comments over the previous months indicated that they don't support rebuilding the main library at this time.
The council has delayed determining the specific funding mechanisms that would be used for the library projects, such as a bond measure or a tax.
"I got beat up by a lot of people who felt pretty strongly they absolutely wanted a (new) Belle Haven Library, and don't want as much change for the main library at Burgess Park," said Councilwoman Catherine Carlton. "I don't want to see us spend a lot coming up with a grand final decision without substantial research into whether or not people really want us to do this."
Vice Mayor Cecilia Taylor made it a condition of her vote that staff emphasize more clearly in writing that the Belle Haven Library will be the first priority moving forward.
"I want to see this process started before I turn 60," she said.
Nash expressed concerns about staff constraints and wanted to emphasize the Belle Haven project as a priority.
Foundation help to come
Monica Corman, president of the Menlo Park Library Foundation, announced that the foundation plans to release a request for proposals soon to find a fundraising firm that would advise the foundation on organizing a capital fundraising campaign and completing an "advocacy feasibility study."
"We are trying to be ready for whatever is next for the library," Corman said.