City ups contribution for Palo Alto History Museum

City Council agrees to foot some construction costs, sell 'transfer of development rights' to help museum

How much money should Palo Alto spend in the present and the future in order to establish a museum that would tell the story of the city's past?

That's the question that the City Council agonized over on Monday night as it considered the latest request from the nonprofit Palo Alto History Museum, which for years has been trying to establish a museum in the historic Roth Building next to Heritage Park. The downtown project has been in limbo for years, though now History Museum staff believes the museum can be up and running in the fall of 2016. Provided, that is, it gets a little help from the city.

This week, the council considered the museum's requests for $1 million in public funds to fix up the back wall of the 82-year-old Roth Building and for another $1.65 million as a grant that would be matched by other donors. The History Museum also asked the council to designate the Roth Building at 300 Homer Ave. as a "sender site," which would allow the city to raise money for the building's rehabilitation through sales of transfer of development rights (TDRs). Developers who purchase these rights effectively buy themselves density bonuses at projects elsewhere downtown.

After a long discussion, the council ultimately agreed to go along with two of the three proposals. By a 6-1 vote, with Larry Klein dissenting and Mayor Nancy Shepherd and Marc Berman recusing themselves, the council agreed to begin the process for selling the TDRs for the Roth Building.

Though the museum's financial plan estimates the sale to bring in about $1 million for the building's restoration, officials expect the figure to be considerably higher because of the sizzling real-estate market. By the same vote, the council directed staff to identify funding sources to pay for the reconstruction of the damaged back wall.

The request for a grant proved a tougher sell, with the council ultimately voting 7-0 not to go along with it at this time. Council members agreed to reconsider it next year when staff is also scheduled to provide an update on the TDR sale.

The council majority agreed that because the Roth Building is a public facility, it would be appropriate to spend public money to rehabilitate it.

"This is a city-owned asset," Councilman Pat Burt said. "Whether it's the Historical Museum or otherwise, we own this building and we'll own the appreciation of the asset as a result of improvements to it."

Councilwoman Karen Holman, who has previously served as a director at the History Museum (her involvement ended more than two years ago), spoke in favor of rehabilitating the Birge Clark-designed building.

Vice Mayor Liz Kniss concurred, saying, "Regardless of whether this actually comes to pass or not, I think the rehabilitation and seismic work need to be done."

Klein vehemently disagreed. He called requests from the History Museum "inappropriate" and contrary to the deal that the city had struck with the museum in 2007, when it agreed to let the nonprofit use the Roth Building with the proviso that the museum would take care of the rest.

After making these arguments, Klein voted against all three requests. He noted that when the council adopted its infrastructure plan in June and surveyed the public about its priorities, the level of support for the history museum was relatively low. Approving public funds for the project would be an "end run around the infrastructure plan," he said.

He also said he was not impressed with the museum's fundraising effort thus far. Museum Board President Rich Green said the group has received $400,000 in gifts and has $2.5 million in pledges for the rehabilitation, which will cost an estimated $9.1 million.

While Green said the museum has more than 500 donors, Klein said, the "only big funder I can see is the City of Palo Alto."

"I think this is just a way for the city to waste money," Klein said.

Others were more open toward contributing city funds toward a history museum, which would be built in two phases under the current plan. The first phase would repair the building to make it functional. The second phase would fund the installation of exhibits, creation of education programs and transfer of the city's historical archives into the building. Green said the goal is to open the museum as soon as possible after the first phase is complete and to "make it a community asset as quickly as possible."

The vision of the Palo Alto History Museum is to create a facility that would "showcase the remarkable heritage of Palo Alto through the careful collection, preservation and continued social engagement with precious local artifacts and documents," according to the nonprofit's website.

The vision statement for the organization declares that the space design "will inspire community participation, attracting the diversity of our local history-makers while reaching out to the next generation of inquisitive school children."

The council's votes on Monday bring the museum closer to reality, though a considerable gap remains. Council members specified that the TDRs should be sold at a price no lower than $200 per square foot. With 9,592 square feet of TDRs available, this means the sale would fetch at least $1.9 million for the rehabilitation. This would still however leave the History Museum with a shortfall of more than $3 million for construction in the first phase and a gap of $9 million for the second phase's build out of the exhibits and programs.

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2 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 17, 2014 at 8:48 am

This is a big waste of money. If, after all this time, the PA History group has not been able to raise the money needed to renovate this building and support their program, it should be obvious that the support is not there. Not to mention giving the group permission to add to the density downtown, with concomitant parking problems. I do not see that provision for the additional parking spaces is included, or that there is parking provided for Museum visitors. I really wish the City Council would stop this kind of funding and focus on real needs. The schools are becoming overcrowded - Jordan has 900 students - and senior and low income housing is a continuing problem.

1 person likes this
Posted by Jim H.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 17, 2014 at 9:34 am

It's already been 7 years, and the Roth Building is still sitting there without an end in sight. Now they want the city to give them money and they'd still only have 2/3 of the money needed. Is this really the best use of they city's money and of the building?

With the building being owned by the city, and now the museum wants to use development rights from the city to pay for the building. Isn't that giving the city incentive to grant these development rights to developers and thus overbuilding their projects? Sounds like a conflict of interest.

Larry Klein is the only voice of reason on the council. Give the museum a deadline to raise the money and rehab the building. If they can't meet the deadline, sell the building.

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Posted by Barbara Rieder
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 17, 2014 at 11:28 am

The low key fund raising efforts of the nonprofit Palo Alto History Museum have contributed to limited visibility of the value and importance for Palo Alto to showcase its rich past in a restored Roth Building.It seems in a partnership with the Palo Alto Weekly, a quarterly, full page 'WOW' description of the museums vision including educational programs and the ability to make an ongoing, monthly financial contribution via a web-site would result in broader support.

1 person likes this
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Dec 17, 2014 at 11:43 am

So the city is now in the business of giving money away for projects the public is not interested in and at the same time selling development rights to increase office density downtown? Classic!

1 person likes this
Posted by 12345
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 17, 2014 at 2:40 pm

Now the city is in the business of selling rights to developers to build more office space than would otherwise be allowed AND giving money to pet projects nobody supports? Awesome!

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Posted by Concerned Retiree
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 17, 2014 at 3:26 pm

Isn't this the same organization that Karen Holman headed for five or six years until it ran out of money? Sounds like the CC wants to continue down the same path again.

There are surely better ways to spend that $1 million.

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Posted by Mr.Recycle
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 17, 2014 at 4:08 pm

I think the previous commenters are right to be skeptical. But, the building is a run down eye sore, and has the potential to be a very nice structure (whatever ends up occupying it). I wouldn't mind the city paying for renovation, but selling TDRs is just another excuse to ruin downtown, and yet another developer perk. I wish the city council would go away until the new members are sworn in.

1 person likes this
Posted by Jordan
a resident of University South
on Dec 17, 2014 at 6:09 pm

The city ups the contribution for the Palo Alto History Museum? What History Museum? All I see is a beautiful, abandoned building slowly rotting away. It reeks of urine because the homeless are using the entrance as a toilet. Why not lease the building to an entity that can afford to pay rent? Letting the Roth Building decay is hardly preserving Palo Alto's history. Better to give the 1 million back to the hard working people who earned it in the first place. The City Council already has more than enough revenue.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 17, 2014 at 7:50 pm

The building is owned by the city and it is a registered historical building. With or without the museum lease, the city is responsible for the building's health. I think that is lost on most people. Bottom line is that the money is going to repairing and restoring the "back wall" of the building, not to the museum foundation.

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 18, 2014 at 10:12 am

I am most definitely opposed to the City’s being involved to the tune of possibly $10+M dollars for a “history” museum for Palo Alto. Unlike other towns, where occupation has gone back centuries (like London, Paris, and Berlin), or even US towns (like New York, Boston and Baltimore)—Palo Alto’s history is barely 125 years in length, with most of its early history intimately wrapped up with the growth, and problems, of Stanford University.

Earlier this year, I spent several months investigating the early days of Palo Alto, from its inception as a bedroom community for Stanford by Timothy Hopkins, its initial incorporation in 1894, and the adoption of a Charter in 1909 through to the adoption of the current Charter in 1950. For the most part, the most significant history that emerged from this study was the never-ending obsession that Palo Alto had with banning alcohol, and regulating “corporations”—such as the electric railroads, and controlling the electric/gas/water distribution companies that were bringing commodity utilities to Palo Alto. By an large, a study of Palo Alto history becomes a study of ever-increasing growth, cost of the local government, coupled with increasing control of people’s lives.

I located over 1200 newspaper articles in on-line databases about early/middle Palo Alto, which I have downloaded and will one day release in monograph format. While the early days of the City offer some keen insight into the minds of turn-of-the-Century Americans, most of the energy of early Palo Alto was spent building the current 3x5 block business district, which has not grown much since 1910 and conducting a never-ending war on alcohol and other “vices”.

During my researches, I came across some interesting technology, which could be utilized locally to create a virtual museum that would be far less costly to Palo Alto taxpayers, and far more interesting to visitors to our town—if it were to be intelligently deployed.

The link immediately below is to a PBS special on D-Day. At TI: 1:36:09, the technology of Dassault Systemes (France) is used to provide an up-close and personal view of what were called Mulberry Harbors (used to offload men and material onto the beaches of Normandy)—

Mulberry Harbors:
Web Link

The following links are about Dessault Systems and some of their projects—

Web Link
Web Link

Dassault Systems:
Web Link

Paris 3D—A Tour of the City Over the Ages:
Web Link

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Posted by Jim H.
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 18, 2014 at 11:08 am

@ CP Dad. Given that the building is publicly owned, why is the city relying on the museum foundation to tell them to fix city property? Why isn't the city maintaining the building already?

Given the city's history of managing any project that consists of more than ordering pizza (please see Mitchell Park Library, El Camino Park, road re-resurfacing, Cal Ave, etc...), it'd be much better to have the city out of any rehabilitation of the building.

The city should sell the building. It is obviously falling apart. If they get involved in rehabbing the building, their $1M investment will quickly balloon to much more than that.

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 18, 2014 at 11:22 am

(Cont. of Above)

Paris 3D—A Live Event:
Web Link

Dassualt Systems—D-Day Demo:
Web Link
D-Day Virtual Reality Center :
Web Link

Boston Museum of Fine Arts:
Web Link

It seems to me that before the City of Palo Alto fritters away perhaps $10+M of the taxpayers’ money, that a look at the cost of a virtual museum should be conducted, with a feasibility plan developed that outlines the cost of acquiring/maintaining this sort of technology.

The current plans for a Brink-n-Mortar museum to highlight the history of downtown Palo Alto are incredibly poorly thought out, and should not be pursued at this time. The people involved have demonstrated that they do not have a plan worthy of private investment, so it makes no sense to open the spigot of public funds for them to mismanage, and probably waste.

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Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 18, 2014 at 12:00 pm

I admit I have limited knowledge on this situation (all from the CC meeting the other night) --- but my understanding is that the museum went out and solicited analysis, architect, engineering and contractor costs to fix the back wall. The winning estimate from the contractor (Vance Brown) was $700K + $300K for contingencies. Though doubtful, it is plausible that the project will cost as low as $700K.

As to selling the building and property - I see no reason why not. Unless there are some unknown requirements that the city must maintain possession of the property/building. Perhaps someone on this thread may know the answer?

Lastly, I don't think the history museum is expecting city funds (though they did try to solicit a "matching donation" - unanimously denied) for their operations or for their plans to build out the interior of the facility. The museum plans to fund raise and establish an endowment. So I'm not sure if Wayne Martin's financial concerns about supplementing museum operational costs are relevant in this case.

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Posted by Hmmm
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 18, 2014 at 12:59 pm

This seems like throwing good money after bad. The History Museum has shown no ability to raise the funds necessary to renovate the property. According to a 2007 article(, the Museum had raised $2 million. According to the above article, their total fundraising now stands at $3 million. It seems like they have only managed to raise an additional $1 million in seven years. Does anyone really believe they can raise an additional $6 million dollars in a timely fashion?

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Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 18, 2014 at 1:13 pm

> I don't think the history museum is expecting city funds

Every special interest group in Palo Alto, and some even not in Palo Alto, have come to the City, at one time or another, and trying to pan handle funds. The Airport just got $1.65M (plus $500M worth of land), the Cable Coop wanted the City to buy it out several years ago, and rements of that same group is still pushing for subsidized cable at their homes.

Let's look at the true/total costs, plus lost opportunity costs, for this project. The number $5M for the Roth Building comes to mind. Suppose it were sold today--it's hard to believe that it wouldn't get at least $7-$8M. Then there are all of the structural costs that are needed to make the building safe for occupancy. Not certain if there is a valid estimate on the table, but one post suggest that $1M is in the range. We also have to consider the lost property tax that will come to about $1M over the net 10 years--assuming an $8M assessement, which is very, very, low, once the new owners rebuild the building to their specifications.)

Now, what about furnishings, and other internal decorating costs? Well, we'll have to put those in the ??? column.

Now, there are utilities, and other operational costs. Then, long-term building maintenance and insurance. Next we will be looking at salaries, benefits, and equipment for the museum, not to mention traveling expenses and consulting fees for the officials and their friends.

Looking at this cost profile for 10 years, it's very difficult to see $10M as anything by terribly underestimated. Looking at longer periods, say 25 years at a time, a lot of money is going to have to appear from somewhere to keep the doors open--for a town with almost no history to begin with. It is really hard to believe that this group of people will not make a yearly trek to Council for an ever-bigger handout, year after year!


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Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 18, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Marie is a registered user.

Once again the CC is funding good works that will be paid by the neighbors and residents of Palo Alto, by giving them development rights to sell. The Museum is a historical building - it shouldn't be able to be developed.

If the citizens of Palo Alto want to fund the Museum, and i am not necessarily against that, let us do it honestly, with real money, not development rights which lead to increased offices and a further jobs/housing imbalance, that is degrading the way of life of everyone in Palo Alto.

I'm supportive of more moderate and low income housing. I do not support any give aways to encourage more office buildings nor housing affordable only by the 1%. Let's work on preserving our current moderate housing, instead of replacing it with much higher density housing, suitable only for the rich (tell me who else can afford $5K a month in rent or dwellings in excess of $1M), who are going to own cars anyway.

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Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Dec 18, 2014 at 2:16 pm

But who else is willing to repair and occupy this badly neglected, decaying old building? The city council led by Mayor Kniss bought it on impulse when the clinic moved out, obligingly demolished 75% of it to benefit the well-connected developer that built the condos behind it, then locked the doors and walked away.

City hall has never found a viable city use for the Roth Building. The only credible offer to lease it came from the history museum group, which has been trying to find the million$ needed to make the building habitable by current standards. They are a private organization coming to the rescue of our doggedly inept city government, and they deserve our support.

Maybe Gennady could research this saga and give us the details, especially about how the city suddenly decided to buy the building for itself with no viable use in sight. Start here: Web Link.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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