Palo Alto's Junior Museum and Zoo, a popular Rinconada Park destination for children to check out bobcats, turtles and ferrets, may soon be on its way to a dramatic makeover.
The City Council will consider tonight a new agreement with the Friends of the Palo Alto Junior and Museum and Zoo pledging the city's cooperation in a project that the group has been eying for years: the reconstruction of the 1941 facility. The letter of intent between the city and the group would pave the way for the two parties to establish development agreements for the building of a new and enhanced Junior Museum and Zoo, and lay out conditions for the operations of the new facility for up to 40 years.
If the project -- which is still in the very early phases -- takes off, it would be the latest in a string of capital projects to take place in Rinconada Park. The Palo Alto Art Center recently underwent a renovation and the expanded Rinconada Library (formerly known as Main Library) is scheduled to re-open to the public at the end of this year. The city is also now putting the finishing touches on the Rinconada Park Master Plan, a vision document that will explore potential improvements for the sprawling park along Middlefield Road.
The proposed letter of intent with the Friends group doesn't include any information about the design of the new facility or the city's financial obligations when it comes to the project. Barring an objection from the council, these details would be finalized in the next year, as the two sides move ahead with forging development agreements. The city's contributions are expected to be limited. A staff report to the council notes that the Friends group will be "responsible for raising the required funds for the project" and for advocating the facility in the community. City Manager James Keene's proposed letter of intent also points out that the city "does not have sufficient funds to rebuild the existing JMZ (Junior Museum and Zoo) facility and the Parties anticipate that the cost of the operation of the newly designed JMZ facility will exceed the current City's budget appropriations for the JMZ."
But while fundraising by the Friends group is expected to play a big role in the new facility, the letter of intent also suggests that the city will be expected to kick in some money for the project.
"The City desires to stabilize and reduce on a long-term basis its financial support for the JMZ operation and the Friends seek financial support from the City in the initial years of the operation of the rebuilt facility," states the letter of intent from Keene to Aretha Coleman, president of Friends of the Palo Alto Junior and Museum and Zoo.
The group has been talking about renovating the 1941 facility for nearly two decades. In 1997, a report by the consulting firm Adamson Associates deemed the facility overdue for renovation and recommended a seismic upgrade. Five years later, a different consultant commissioned by the Friends group determined that the facility's space demands exceed its capacity.
The most recent study to raise flags about the facility's condition was the 2011 report by the Infrastructure Blue Ribbon Commission, a citizens group that surveyed all of the city's maintenance and facility needs. In its final report, the group pegged the cost of bringing the museum up to shape at $221,000.
For the Friends group, the outreach has already begin. The group has launched what it has called the JMZ Initiative to spread awareness and raise funds for the project.
"The need for rebuilding is urgent because of the aging conditions and limitations of the facilities," a document from the Friends group describing the initiative states. "The timing is right with the development of a Master Plan for Rinconada Park. The community's capacity to fund this project obligates us to act now."
The Friends group also makes a point in the document that increased attendance to the museum and zoo and the rising demand for its educational programs "have outgrown the size of the current facilities." The new facility would include a dedicated area for bus drop-off and a new Science Education Center, according to the document. There would also be a "more organized and secured lobby area" and a replacement of an "outdated HVAC system" with a "variety of environmentally friendly solutions to climate controls."
The council will discuss tonight a set of guiding principles proposed by Keene in negotiations with the Friends group. These include stabilizing and reducing the city's long-term financial support for the museum's operations; establishing a long-term structure for financial and programmatic oversight of the operations; and reaching an agreement within 12 months.