Boosted by a city audit that found Palo Alto's libraries in poor condition and in need of significant improvements, the Palo Alto Library Advisory Commission will recommend a new two-story Mitchell Park Library/Community Center to the City Council tonight.
At their Thursday night meeting last week, library commission members chose a single-phase building plan, called Option B, to replace the aging library and community center in one fell swoop.
A separate two-phase plan that would build the library first and replace the community center at a later time was rejected because of its high cost and the disturbance prolonged construction would create in the surrounding neighborhood, council members said.
"There are gross inefficiencies -- it's a mess," Commission member Sanford Forte said of two-phase building projects.
"There are 1.3 to 1.8 percent per month cost increases for building a recreation center after the library, and we would risk another process around the recreation center down the road," he added.
The council tonight is not scheduled to make a decision about the two options. Instead, it is expected to vote on whether to increase the city's capital-improvement budget by $275,000, to accommodate a fuller design work-up of both options A and B. Following that work, expected to be completed by late January 2008, the council would make its determination of which option to approve, according to a city manager's report.
Commission members were still smarting over the 2002 failure of Measure D, a $49.1 million bond measure that would have renovated Children's Library and rebuilt the Mitchell Park Library/Community Center. The measure won a majority of votes, but did not muster the two-thirds approval needed for passage. But they expressed hope they could resurrect the Mitchell Park rebuild, which is smaller than the one offered during Measure D, they said.
"The need was there then and it is there today," Commission Chair Sandra Hirsh said.
The proposed library would be a 36,265-square-foot, two-story structure with a program room, tech center and children and teen areas. The community center would comprise 15,001 square feet, with "green" and solar-roof components and would wrap around a courtyard containing a heritage live oak.
Commission members did not outline potential costs of the proposed complex, but said with inflation it would cost more than structures of similar size and scope would have in 2002.
Library Director Diane Jennings said that cost estimators had not yet completed a figure and she did not know if one would be available by Monday night's meeting.
The biggest hurdle is public education, commission members told members of the Lew Edwards Group, a communications, government affairs and political consulting group hired by the city to do public outreach. During Measure D, opponents were well organized and could be expected to be so again, they said. Proponents will need to convince the public that the new plans are not a rehash of Measure D, the commission members said.
But a city audit called Palo Alto's libraries "dilapidated" and cramped, when compared to 10 other libraries toured in Mountain View, Menlo Park, Santa Clara, Cupertino, Los Altos, Redwood City, San Mateo, Sunnyvale and San Jose. Libraries such as Menlo Park, Sunnyvale and Los Altos are approximately the same age as Palo Alto's but have been significantly remodeled since being built. Mitchell Park Library was built in 1958.
"Other libraries have private meeting rooms that can be reserved for groups, large or small. Palo Alto offers only one private meeting room at one library that can accommodate four people," the report noted. Palo Alto libraries are cramped, poorly lit and have fewer tables and outdated furniture, making them far less inviting than other libraries, the report added.
"This wasn't an issue we intended to address," City Auditor Sharon Erickson said. Of the 10 outside libraries, "none were as poor as Palo Alto's libraries."
Hirsh said library circulation figures are at an all-time high, but many people are going to libraries in other towns with better amenities.
"Can we get them back? Will they support a bond measure?" she asked.
Opponents to the Measure D expansion claimed in 2002 that use of library facilities is on the decline due to virtual delivery of library services and movement of information through the Internet. But the report found that high-tech venues for information "have not diminished the demand for the public work space that a Library building offers."
Ultimately, the audit agreed with a previous report by the city staff and the library commission calling for "significant renovations," including expansion of Mitchell Park Library, renovation of Downtown and College Terrace libraries and adding a meeting room to the Main Library.
However, Erickson said this week, details on the facility renovations are "policy choices most appropriately left to the community and the City Council."
"It's all about the facilities. Libraries now serve so many functions. They are used for meetings, programs and events. They are not just for information gathering anymore," Commission member Susie Thom said.