News

Editorial: An elusive Palo Alto History Museum

Hope springs eternal as building decays

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.

Related content:

City ups contribution for Palo Alto History Museum

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.

Comments

7 people like this
Posted by Par for the course
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 19, 2014 at 11:17 am

Unbelievable! Can't a few of these tech moguls, who've sucked money out of the ground that should be growing fruit trees, chip in a few of their megabucks to pay homage to the place that made them rich?


5 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 19, 2014 at 11:17 am

Instead of having to sell more TDR's to help fund a Museum, it would be nice if the same developers who have received so much in the way of bonuses,exemptions, exceptions, grandfathered conditions, in the strongest office market in the world, with all the associated negative impacts, got together and donated the money to fund the Museum. I know that sounds crazy,
but I thought I would just throw that out there.


3 people like this
Posted by Mike
a resident of University South
on Dec 19, 2014 at 11:37 am

Editor

You are flogging the wrong horse. The proper target for your ire is city hall, which bought this derelict shell from the PA clinic without having any particular use for it. In 2000, the city council led by Mayor Kniss purchased 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 never came close to finding a viable civic use for the Roth Building. The only credible offer to lease it has come from the history museum group, which has been trying to find the then $7M, now $9M, needed to make the building habitable by current standards. That's a very heavy challenge for a small non-profit entity, even (or especially) in Silicon Valley.

The alternative is that the city ponies up several hundred thousand $$ to demolish its useless toy, throwing away also the $millions it paid for it. Only councilmembers Burt and Schmid seem to have an independent objective grasp of this dismal reality. PAHM is a private organization coming to the rescue of our doggedly inept city government, and it deserves our support.

The Weekly could make a real contribution to this issue if it found out why city hall impulsively decided to buy the building for itself, with no immediate need for it and no viable use in sight. Maybe starting here: Web Link.


1 person likes this
Posted by Gethin
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 19, 2014 at 12:12 pm

Gethin is a registered user.

In theory I fully support a Palo Alto History Museum. However if well intentioned locals cannot gather any significant public support then we should stop this endless process and move on.


1 person likes this
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 19, 2014 at 12:41 pm

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 as well as 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:
TI:1:36:09
Web Link

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

Web Link
Web Link

Dassault Systems:
Web Link


Like this comment
Posted by Wayne Martin
a resident of Fairmeadow School
on Dec 19, 2014 at 12:42 pm

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

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.


2 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 19, 2014 at 2:37 pm

For $9 Million, the building could be leveled and a very nice building put in which provided some useful function. At $20 Million, why not build the new police headquarters there.


1 person likes this
Posted by M Anderson
a resident of another community
on Dec 19, 2014 at 5:36 pm

This is an ill fated pet project of Karen Holmans. In your last article you said she was no longer involved with the museum, yet her Linked In page still lists her as Executive Director. MOAH already exists across the street in the Williams house, how much audience is there for yet another museum. Shouldn't they just join forces. Meanwhile all the copper downspouts and gutters have disappeared under city stewardship and the murals are also in peril. This project was DOA several years ago.


Like this comment
Posted by commonsense
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 19, 2014 at 5:46 pm

echoing M Anderson - That Holman did not abstain because she is not involved in the museum is complete bs. This museum idea 100% hers - shame on Holeman for not pointing this out. That property and building, that the city owns, could be sold today for a lot of money. This is purely wasteful.


1 person likes this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 19, 2014 at 5:57 pm

Nothing historic in Palo Alto. As mr Martin pointed out, Palo Alto is only 125 years old. This is a colossal waste of money. Who will actually go visit our local historic museum?
If I remember correctly, holman refused to recuse herself claiming she is no longer associated with the museum. But if she still claims on her linkedin account that she is...
Of course, holman has a history of not recusing herself when she should.


Posted by Roger Overnaut
a resident of Evergreen Park

on Dec 19, 2014 at 7:41 pm


Remember me?
Forgot Password?
Due to violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are only visible to registered users who are logged in. Use the links at the top of the page to Register or Login.


Like this comment
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 19, 2014 at 9:23 pm

Roger:
Web Link

Looks like a conflict of interest to me


Like this comment
Posted by Voter
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 20, 2014 at 12:06 am

commonsense and Agenda:
She made it clear that she has not worked for the Museum for two and a half years.
But your ignorance and bias are up to date, front and center.


3 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 20, 2014 at 7:25 am

Palo Alto is increasingly recognized by the outside world as one of the most important drivers of world history. That is why it is so tragic that the current Council and staff have allowed and promoted and been oblivious to the destruction of its unique character. Now the obsession with a symbolic bike bridge while there has been no sensitivity to the rest of the urban landscape, the streetscapes, the neighborhoods. And the absence of substantial private donors to the Museum among all this wealth is truly shameful and really unbelievable.


2 people like this
Posted by Agenda
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 20, 2014 at 4:50 pm

Voter and roger-- so holman is being dishonest on her LinkedIn page then. And just because we question a council persons actions-- especially when it involves millions of dollars, is not ignorant, biased or lacking perception.
Also, roger, me can see why you have been band by TSF.


Like this comment
Posted by Crescent Park Dad
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 21, 2014 at 12:22 am

Crescent Park Dad is a registered user.

Apologies to Captain Renault...

I'm shocked, shocked to find that someone's LinkedIn page is out of date!


Like this comment
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 21, 2014 at 4:41 pm

Curmudgeon is a registered user.

Wayne Martin is usually well informed on the issues. With this one he makes a notable exception.

One dimension of history is quantity of time. Another is what has happened in whatever time elapsed. Palo Alto's history is middling by the first metric and incandescent by the second. Everyone ought to find out for themselves. Click on the elements of the matrix at Web Link.


Like this comment
Posted by wmartin46
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 22, 2014 at 11:23 am

wmartin46 is a registered user.

> One dimension of history is quantity of time.
> Another is what has happened in whatever time elapsed.
> Palo Alto's history is middling by the first metric and
> incandescent by the second

Well .. not exactly certain what you are saying. Examples always help to clarify ideas that might be a little difficult to explain in one sentence.

I have far more to say about this issue that I have allowed myself to post at the moment. I have spent a lot of time this year thinking about this issue, and actually making writing suggestions about how to deal with areas of historic preservation here in Palo Alto that have, as far as I can tell, fallen on deaf ears.

For instance, I came to the conclusion that in order to understand Palo Alto’s history, one would have to have some awareness of: 1) California history, 2) California Constitutional history, history of the railroads, San Francisco History, San Jose History, Menlo Park history, Mayfield history, transportation technology history, and Stanford University history. Additionally, one would need to understand the Progressive Movement in the US, public health issues in the US, prohibition, and anti-railroad and anti-capitalism in the US. All of the topics came into play in Palo Alto’s history. Clearly, these issues were not born in Palo Alto, but as people came here to the growing city, they brought the mindsets of other places (both here in the US and Europe) into the small town, that was nothing more than a bedroom community for Stanford at that time.

I also came to see that after 1950, one has to look at the intellectual output of the population as a whole, which is a much harder thing to do—since many of the ideas that might make Palo Alto as creating new history for some can not be found in the local papers. One has to scour the archives of Stanford, the US Government, and possibly even foreign governments. This task clearly is beyond the scope of the current group trying to divert money from the public treasury to their belief that occupying a building downtown will somehow enshrine something that they hold personally hold dear.

Wayne Martin


Like this comment
Posted by wmartin46
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 22, 2014 at 11:33 am

wmartin46 is a registered user.

To sort of try to wrap up my comments into a "sound byte" .. I've been trying to suggest that "the future of history" here in Palo Alto should be digital, not paper. It should be online, so that people can access the information when they want, not when someone from the City decides that they can have access to the data. And lastly, on-line resources need to be both image, and text-based. Just lookiing at something is not as helpful as being able to look at the originial image, and be able to download text that can be imported into one's research material.


Like this comment
Posted by wmartin46
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 22, 2014 at 11:50 am

wmartin46 is a registered user.

Here is a short paper that I have written that attempts to simplify some of the ideas that I have been trying to explain. The paper is about eight pages long, and can be downloaded--

Researching In The Digital Age:
Web Link

Wayne Martin


Like this comment
Posted by rick
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 22, 2014 at 1:31 pm

rick is a registered user.

@Wayne -- nice rank in the Text Correctors Hall of Fame. Fascinating flashback to earlier times, but I ran out of steam around 1500 lines. Someday I'll revisit. Always so much to do. I try to remain informed on historical efforts.


Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 22, 2014 at 5:03 pm

pat is a registered user.

> “Click on the elements of the matrix at Web Link

It says:
“It Happened Here
“For well over a century, astonishing people in Palo Alto have created innovations that affect the lives of millions of people around the globe. Palo Alto is uniquely poised at the intersection of intellectual, technological, financial and green-energy trends. In many ways, Palo Alto is among the most influential communities in the world—rich with heritage and pride.”

Good grief!

Steve Jobs didn’t start Apple in Palo Alto. Yes, there’s an Apple store here. Yes, Google & Facebook had/have offices here. Yes, PARC is in PA, but it’s Stanford land. How much credit does PA want to take for these visionaries and their companies?

Palo Alto is not Stanford.

The history of the tech companies and their products belong in the Tech Museum or the Computer History Museum, where they’re already well represented.


Like this comment
Posted by rick
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 22, 2014 at 5:18 pm

rick is a registered user.

If it happened within city limits, I'll claim it for Palo Alto. I think it was cool to watch De Gaulle motorcade up Cowper Street.


Like this comment
Posted by wmartin46
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 22, 2014 at 5:34 pm

wmartin46 is a registered user.

> If it happened within city limits,

Not certain that Xerox, or DEC, or Lockheed will be seeing it the same way. Moreover, when it comes to the Tech companies--so much of the intellectual output is/was defense-oriented, and generally not known in the public domain. So, at the moment, that work is still in a black box somewhere.

Wayne Martin


Like this comment
Posted by rick
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 22, 2014 at 8:42 pm

rick is a registered user.

Lockheed's NASA work is public. Several cutting-edge solar satellite telescopes were designed and built in Palo Alto. -- Web Link -- Also many satellite instruments for Earth's magnetic field and radiation environment. As for game-changing defense work, some of their key participation in the cold war Corona reconnaissance satellite program dating from the late fifties was recently declassified.

Does anyone know where Hiller built helicopters in Palo Alto? Guess I need to revisit their museum.

And more important, let's not forget to claim the first Mrs Fields cookie shop.


Like this comment
Posted by EditorJean
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 23, 2014 at 12:12 am

EditorJean is a registered user.

When my husband Ralph Libby, a librarian with the City of Palo Alto for over 35 years passed away in June 2012 the suggestion was made that a gallery be named for him at the proposed new museum. The Ralph Libby Gallery would exhibit and archive what historian Steve Staiger calls the "other people" -- the facilitators, the resources, the not-so-rich and not-so-famous who are depended on for daily life that is appreciated and unique in Palo Alto. Galleries funding at PAHM is $100,000. The Ralph Libby Gallery is endowed with that amount by an anonymous donor and others whom he mentored and inspired. But, I was told, this would not come about if the museum was not constructed. The endowment will come only if there is a museum.


Like this comment
Posted by wmartin46
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Dec 23, 2014 at 6:46 pm

wmartin46 is a registered user.

> Lockheed's NASA work is public.

Given NASA's hand holding with the military, I suspect that a lot of its work, where here in Palo Alto, or not--is not public. Given the keen interest in American technology by the Chinese military, I wouldn't be surprised to see a lot of this information dry up one of these days.

Perhaps Lockheed/Palo Alto might be helpful in providing data that a technology museum might want, but I doubt that this so-called "museum" will ever really soar to NASA heights.

I also suspect that Locheed is decentralized these days, so that sub-systems are designed/fabricated in any number of locations.

Just a point of order--during the Aerospace eras here in the Santa Clara country--there was a social group called "the old crows". I remember reading in the Merc many years ago that some of this group used to say that about 25% of the budget of all the technology companies in the Valley was "black".


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

Be the first to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Natural wine bar Salvaje opens in Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 0 comments | 1,765 views

Cap On? Cap Off? Recycling Bottles is Confusing
By Laura Stec | 41 comments | 1,590 views

Premarital and Couples: "Our Deepest Fear" by Marianne Williamson
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,385 views

Everything you've always wanted to know ...
By Sherry Listgarten | 11 comments | 953 views