News

Palo Alto approves Junior Museum and Zoo expansion

After years of planning and fundraising, project gets green light from City Council

One of Palo Alto's most popular family attractions received a big boost Monday night, when the City Council gleefully backed an ambitious plan to rebuild and expand the Junior Museum and Zoo.

By a unanimous vote, the council voted to advance the long-planned reconstruction of the Rinconada Park museum and zoo -- a project that will be predominantly funded through private donations. The Friends of Junior Museum and Zoo had recently completed a $25 million fundraising plan for the project (with the Peery Foundation providing $15 million).

The council voted 8-0, with Adrian Fine absent, to approve the environmental clearance for the project, pass a park-improvement ordinance (which enables development on park space) and approve a $270,124 budget appropriation for a new museum and zoo at 1451 Middlefield Road.

Once completed, the museum will feature new exhibit galleries, classrooms, storage spaces and an outdoor area that will allow visitors to mingle with birds, insects and other zoo critters. Until then, much of the museum's collection will be moved to Cubberley pending construction of the new facility.

For the council, which is prone to scrutinizing and polarizing over new developments, the approval of the new zoo was never in doubt. The project is being funded by the Friends group and effectively donated to the city, making approval a formality.

The formality, however, was a long time coming. The project initially received scathing reviews from the Architectural Review Board and had to undergo several design revisions before finally winning the board's endorsement in September. The council's vote Monday allows construction to commence in 2018, with the goal of completing it in the summer of 2019.

Staff plans to re-open the museum to the public around May 2020.

"There are few moments in life where you can sit back and say, 'This is great, the community is moving forward and we should be proud of our community,'" Mayor Greg Scharff said. "This is one of them."

The council's vote is a significant milestone for an effort that began nearly decade ago. Aletha Coleman, president of the Friends of the Junior Museum and Zoo board of directors, said the group had originally envisioned a $7 million to $10 million project, though to date its improvements had been limited to more modest projects, including upgrades to the bat cave and the bobcat cage.

Coleman said that since she became board president 12 years ago, the board has added new members with skills in negotiating and financing -- an effort that appeared to have borne fruit. On Monday night, she told the council she was thrilled to give a $25-million "historic gift" for a rebuilt zoo.

"We feel we're going to be helping thousands of children in the community with more science education and a new fantastic, wonderful building," Coleman said.

The council was equally thrilled. Vice Mayor Liz Kniss said the Friends group has done a "remarkable and miraculous job."

"It's going to be a very impressive project when it's done," Kniss said.

Councilman Cory Wolbach also commended the Friends group for raising $25 million for the project. The new museum won't be just a valuable community amenity, but also a great bargain for the city.

"What this means is we're getting dollars for pennies," Wolbach said. "The return on investment for the city of Palo Alto is truly remarkable."

Even so, the city is scrambling to find the roughly $3.4 million it will need to contribute to the project. The money, according to staff, is needed to redesign the parking lot, install new exhibit programs, put up park signage and temporary relocate the zoo.

According to a Community Services Department report, staff is "exploring potential funding sources for these costs, including grants and other City resources in context of the City's overall budget." The report notes that given limiting funding, the council will need to clearly prioritize its capital projects, including the Junior Museum and Zoo, early next year.

On the bright side, the zoo has recently secured some federal funds for a program aimed at promoting exhibits and programs that would be accessible to children with physical and developmental disabilities.

The $270,124 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services will support a three-year program called "Access from the Ground Up." The program will include, among other aspects, 27 new science exhibits for children of all developmental levels and abilities, according to a news release from the city.

Related content:

Webcast: Junior Museum and Zoo expansion

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Comments

5 people like this
Posted by Congrats to the JMZ
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 5, 2017 at 7:28 am

Congrats to the JMZ and all the people that worked hard to move this forward. What the article didn’t mention was how negative Karen Holman was about the project, but at least she voted for it.


2 people like this
Posted by Mindful
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 5, 2017 at 9:09 am

"aimed at promoting exhibits and programs that would be accessible to children with physical and developmental disabilities."
Some of which should go toward making Briones Park more disability friendly, since it sits right across the street from a long-time program for student disability rehabilitarion. (A better use than taking the only community space over there away and making it a dog park, of all the insensitive north-south inequities.)

I hope the new design will still make it possible for parents to park themselves and let their very young charges have a safe place to explore, unhelicoptered, as this space does.

Congratulations! Thanks to everyone involved in creating what will surely be a wonderful place.


7 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 5, 2017 at 11:20 am

Marie is a registered user.

Sadly, the new Junior Museum will only be available to rich students with physical and developmental disabilities as the council also endorsed a gigantic policy change: a free museum for children (although with lots of members who support it financially) will now cost - well who knows. I've seen $10 for adults $5 for kids but the latest said maybe $8. Anyway, this wonderful resource, will now only be for the 1% or maybe in wealthy Palo Alto, 5%. Forget seeing any more kids from East Palo Alto. The museum was particularly good for entertaining toddlers for 1-2 hours - about their attention span - but not at this price.

Why couldn't the well heeled supporters funding the millions of construction dollars spend a pittance of this amount to enable the museum to be available to all? Maybe they didn't like how crowded it could get with so many little kids that were "not their kind". This is a big loss to Palo Alto and children from our extended community.


11 people like this
Posted by Lou
a resident of Menlo Park
on Dec 5, 2017 at 11:37 am

I'm not sure where the negativity of the above commenters is coming from. The JMZ raised the money from private donors. Saying "Oh the money should go to x y or z project not that one" makes no sense. If the American Cancer Society raises money, do you complain that AIDS research should get the funds? All that happened was that the city council approved their plans to use the funds they themselves have raised.

As for it being a pay-to-enter museum, I have LONG taken my kids to the current museum. There has always been a suggested donation, and we initially did pay the $5 per person suggested entry, until we decided we went often enough to justify the membership. The museum and zoo as they are are awesome. The staff is wonderful, and they put on fantastic programs. The space is dated, sure, but we love it. I wish them the best for their expansion. I just hope it does not turn out to be super-cold-modern, concrete and glass, all hard & cold surfaces as is the trend these days. It's so NOT homey for young kids! But sigh, such are the times. :-)


1 person likes this
Posted by cold hard surfaces
a resident of Community Center
on Dec 5, 2017 at 12:29 pm

Agree with Lou:
>I just hope it does not turn out to be super-cold-modern, concrete and glass, all hard & cold surfaces as is the trend these days <

Like the cold, hard City Hall lobby (not only ugly, but noisy too, glass walls, huge screens on the wall); and the Mitchell Park Library, cold, hard, wasted open spaces.

This is a trend we need to oppose.


9 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 5, 2017 at 12:44 pm

I for one am deeply saddened by this.

Our family would go to the zoo, often times several times a week, while waiting for the school bus to come down from Foothill Park, or as part of a trip to the Childrens Library, or with a swim.

We paid a donation and felt happy to help.

I don't think the new zoo will be an addition to another trip. Instead it will be a destination in itself full of out town school field trips. I would like to find myself mistaken, but the ad hoc type visits we experienced will be a thing of the past.


10 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 5, 2017 at 1:29 pm

Annette is a registered user.

Reading this article I have 3 thoughts: 1) good for the Friends group; 2) we are lucky to have Cubberley to use as a temporary location of yet another community service; and 3)thank goodness for the Peery Family Foundation. This is another stellar example of their community support.


5 people like this
Posted by Nayeli
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 5, 2017 at 4:10 pm

Nayeli is a registered user.

Question: What happens if a family visits but doesn't have money for admission?

It would be nice if there was some fund that would cover the cost for children from low-income families. I'd contribute to such a fund!


4 people like this
Posted by mattie
a resident of Downtown North
on Dec 5, 2017 at 5:34 pm

Thank you thank you thank you to the donors!

I understand that the path was not without its bumps. Take solace in the fact that the path through torturous bureaucracy DOES have upsides, even if they're not always so apparent. Your effort and generosity are beautiful!


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