The Palo Alto City Council once again provided a lifeline to a nascent Palo Alto History Museum group that has repeatedly been unable to demonstrate sufficient community support to propel the project forward.
It is a painful approach that isn't fair to either museum advocates or Palo Alto residents and taxpayers. And worse, the council's action Monday night to help the museum will likely result in a yet-to-be determined developer getting the right to substantially exceed zoning limits in the future on some unknown downtown building at the very time the city is trying to rein in such development.
This council has followed in the footsteps of its predecessors in being unable to take decisive action that might be viewed as wavering in its support for a history-museum dream that has been percolating for more than a decade without substantial progress.
The journey began 14 years ago when the city purchased the historic Roth Building at 300 Homer Ave. and adjacent land for $10 million from the Palo Alto Medical Foundation as it vacated downtown and moved to its current site on El Camino.
In 2003, some three years after the building had been boarded up, the city invited proposals from nonprofits interested in renovating the Birge Clark-designed historic building in exchange for a long-term lease at little or no rent.
As expected, the only proposal submitted was from a group made up of many well-known community members active in historic preservation interested in creating a history museum. The City Council at the time endorsed the plan, which involved private fundraising of some $7 million.
For the last 10 years the city-owned building has been allowed to deteriorate as the museum supporters failed to find the needed major donors to jump-start a capital campaign. The city made modest investments for repairs to keep the building from completely falling apart, but its condition has steadily eroded, and of course now needs much more work than if it had been done immediately.
Museum advocates have kept returning to the city, as they did this week, looking for major public financial support they say is critical to raising the estimated $20 million now needed for renovation, seismic upgrade and museum build-out.
On Monday, without any assurances or confidence that the museum committee will be able to raise the money needed to move forward with any more success than in the past, the City Council agreed to sell bonus development rights called TDRs to raise up to $2 million for the project. It also approved $1 million to repair and fortify the building's back wall.
TDRs (transferable development rights) are incentives to developers who undertake renovations of historic buildings by allowing them bonus square footage for use on another property.
The city is using the incentives, which will give a developer a density bonus enabling the construction of almost 10,000 square feet more than the zoning allows on another project, to raise money for the museum project. The density rights will be sold by the city in a public bidding process.
This is exactly the same payment-for-zoning process as our infamous (and currently suspended) planned community (PC) zoning, where a developer can exceed the zoning rules by providing a public benefit deemed worthy by the City Council. In this case, the benefit will be cash to help the museum renovate the Roth Building.
The council's action, taken on a 6-1 vote with Councilman Larry Klein the only dissenter (Nancy Shepherd and Marc Berman did not participate due to owning property near the site) is just another poorly conceived idea for propping up the history museum, only this time making the community pay for it through another over-sized project that will exceed our zoning rules.
Klein has been right to try and put a stop to these convoluted attempts at supporting the history museum. The city has already made substantial contributions, and has now doubled down based on little more than wishful thinking.
Instead of more gifts from the city, what museum organizers need are firm fundraising milestones that, if not achieved, will result in the non-renewal of its lease option next June.
The city has an asset that has been wasting away for the last 14 years. It must treat it like any other city asset, spend the money to renovate it and move city staff out of expensive nearby leased space into the building or find a paying tenant.
We would love to see a history museum in that location, but if supporters can't raise the money with all the support and patience shown by the city, it's time to move forward with another plan.