Menlo Park: Council considers pairing main and Belle Haven library projects

Kids read at the Belle Haven Library on Feb. 7, 2018. The current Belle Haven Library shares a site with Belle Haven Elementary School and only students are permitted there during school hours. (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac)

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 Arrillaga ultimately rescinded his offer.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.


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7 people like this
Posted by Lynne Fovinci
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 18, 2019 at 12:51 pm

I am greatly encouraged that Menlo Park will be moving forward with next steps in modernizing our library system.

10 people like this
Posted by Monica Corman
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 18, 2019 at 1:18 pm

Menlo Park can do what so many other Bay Area cities and towns have done in the recent past and that is, to build modern libraries that can serve the needs of people of all ages in the community. It was very gratifying to have the MP Council vote to move forward with a strategy and timeline to do this in Menlo Park. How great it will be to enrich the people of Menlo Park with libraries that have spaces for programs, meeting rooms, children and teen sections, and of course, books and quiet places for reading and study. And most important of all, libraries are free to those who come there to learn and be inspired. What a wonderful concept.

5 people like this
Posted by Mandy Montoya
a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights
on Jan 18, 2019 at 2:29 pm

Menlo Park is such a wonderful place to live and raise a family. The type of community I want to live in has public resources and facilities that welcome all, inspire us and meet the needs of the community as a whole. I hope we can find a way to support something that has historically been so important to the foundation of our towns and young people's minds.

6 people like this
Posted by Lynne Bramlett
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 18, 2019 at 4:22 pm

Lynne Bramlett is a registered user.

Council is right to be cautious regarding coupling both library projects together. The residents' expressed concerns about the Main Library project also need addressing. A major concern has to do with if a new Main Library is more important than other unfunded, yet approved or proposed, capital improvement projects. We don't have unlimited money to pay for everything so we will have to prioritize!

We need to prioritize in an effective way that deeply involves residents, small business owners and major stakeholders such as our schools! Otherwise, I predict that MP will continue to see changing priorities, undue influence of the squeaky wheels or special interests and unhappy staff as their priorities keep changing.

The best way to prioritize would be for our Council to commit to a community-based strategic planning process. We need to establish a shared vision, shared short list of values and a shared idea as to our strategic priority areas! While we have a myriad of plans, some with the name "strategic" in them -- we lack one overarching living document to guide decision-making! A strategic plan would sit above all other plans in MP and give our governing body, residents and stakeholders a living document to guide MP into the future. It would help us all know how we could best contribute our time and talents towards achieving our shared vision and strategic goals.

Voters elected our new council, at least in part, because they wanted a new direction for MP. As I see it, our gravest need is to institute "good governing" reforms based on best practices from other municipalities.

Meanwhile, the Library and its supporters will find advocacy-related resources at the American Library Association's sponsored United for Libraries website. Web Link The book "Vote Yes for Libraries" (Anne M. Turner) also has some interesting insights.

5 people like this
Posted by betsaloo
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Jan 21, 2019 at 1:41 pm

I am so excited to support 2 new libraries in Menlo Park. As a provider of family art workshops at many peninsula libraries, i can attest to the need for more communal space. Workshops in the Menlo Main library basement is not what our families deserve. I ask the council and citizens to have a bold vision for the entire city - imagine the joy we can bring to every citizen - now THAT is something to prioritize!

2 people like this
Posted by Carmen
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 23, 2019 at 8:22 pm

What happened to housing?

3 people like this
Posted by Mical Atz Brenzel
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 24, 2019 at 9:05 am

I was very happy to see the City Council approve the plan and timeline for modernizing both of our Menlo Park libraries. This is a positive direction for our city and a welcome use of City resources. Thank you to all of those folks who have worked so diligently on this project and will continue to do so.

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