Last Sunday I spoke to Palo Alto Library Director Diane Jennings to ask about the preliminary cost estimates of a new Mitchell Park Library, because the cost figures were not adding up for me.
San Jose two weeks earlier had opened up its 28,000-square-foot Cambrian Branch library that cost $11.7 million to design and build, minus furniture and computers.
Group 4, the South San Francisco architectural firm hired by Palo Alto as a consultant, had estimated preliminary costs running between $52 and $62 million, as reported by the Weekly, depending on the size and configuration of Mitchell Library. Guestimates, as I recall, were between 30,000 and 40,000-square feet.
Group 4's figures are at least four times the cost of building the Cambrian Library. In both San Jose and Palo Alto, the library land is owned by the city.
Why the difference, I asked Jennings. She said last Sunday that Group 4's figures included furniture and computers, and also a 10 percent increase per year in construction. She went on to say that the estimates were "very preliminary" and would be reviewed by the city's Public Works Department. "We are trying to include everything in our cost estimate," she said, adding the firm was working on a "very tight time frame." The estimates did not include staffing costs, nor purchase of new books and materials, she added.
I talked to Richard Desmond, director of branch library development for San Jose, and he said the furniture and computer costs for the Cambrian Branch were about $1 million. Okay, so now we are up to $12.7 million for this library, which is serving 60,000 people (Palo Alto's population). He couldn't speculate why the price tag was so much higher in Palo Alto. Construction costs are going up 15 percent a year since 2005, he said, mostly due to the greater global demand for building materials.
The new Cambrian Branch Library features a community living room with a fireplace, a tech center, group and quiet study areas, a storytelling area for 30 children, a community meeting room for 100 persons, and 89 parking spaces. And yes, there is space for a collection of 125,000 items.
The San Jose $11.7 million figure covered design, project management, construction and other related management costs, plus an 80-foot public art stairway project depicting the natural and social histories of the site.
"Did you scrimp on the cost or use cheap building materials?" I asked Desmond. "Not at all," he replied.
This week Jennings revamped her figures, as the Weekly reported Friday, saying the library would cost $20 million less. As the Weekly said, "The price of the most popular proposal -- constructing a new community center/library -- is now $42.8 million, down from a high estimate of $62 million Jennings said. Building just a new library (without including the community center) is now expected to cost $22.5 million, not the $38.5 million previously estimated."
The reason for the "savings," Jennings told the Weekly, is that the estimates had included 10 percent inflation a year which she eliminated, plus she had tightened up the amount added for unknown costs, and reduced the estimated cost of relocating a traffic light and utilities.
The matter is going before the Palo Alto City Council Monday, Dec. 4.
I am still uncomfortable with the numbers.
In 2002, Palo Alto voters turned down a library bond measure for a $49.1 million (cost estimates supplied by Group 4), in large part because of the price tag.
We've had a Library Advisory Commission studying the "what to do about our libraries" question for the past two years, and other library supporters have been tangentially involved.
I credit Jennings for looking into the cost figures this week, and suggesting $20 million could be shaved, but I wonder why the commission had not looked into the cost during the past two years. We can't talk about new libraries without knowing how much they would cost!
It would be like my saying I want a new 4,000-square-foot house with five bedrooms, a large kitchen and a big back yard, without even asking the architect in advance how much something like that would cost.
And even with this new $20 million "savings," I am unclear whether construction cost increases should or should not be built into the estimates.
The Almaden Community Center and Library in San Jose that opened this year is a 64,000-square-foot facility, costing $24 million, Desmond said. And the Bascom Avenue Branch is in the design phase, and will be a 40,0000-square-foot facility costing $30 million -- including increased construction costs.
The time is right for a new library in Palo Alto. Mitchell is definitely old and crowded, and the Main Library is dingy and run down. I would love a new library.
However, we need to spend our money wisely. If other communities can build great libraries for half the cost, most other factors being equal, then we need to make sure we are not being taken for a ride. Remember, these millions for a library bond don't include interest with interest the price tag doubles.