The opportunity for the Palo Alto History Museum to inhabit the city-owned historic Roth Building could soon draw to a close if its board of directors can't come up with $1.75 million by November of next year, a frustrated Palo Alto City Council decided on Monday night.
The history museum concept, which has languished for a decade as its board of directors has attempted to raise funds, received a one-year extension on its lease-option agreement from the council, but the board must raise half of the still needed $3.5 million funding for its Phase I by November 2018.
If the association can't secure the $1.75 million by then, the city will discuss leasing the building to another organization, the council decided in an 8-0 decision, with City Councilman Adrian Fine absent.
The city acquired the building and its 0.41-acre site, which formerly housed part of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, in April 2000 for $1.9 million. The 1932 building, which was designed by famed architect Birge Clark at 300 Homer Ave., has sat empty for 17 years. In 2007, the Palo Alto History Museum board of directors approached the city to take over the building and agreed it would fund the seismic retrofitting and historical rehabilitation upgrades.
But 10 years later, the dream of a place to house the city's considerable history, which includes the Ohlone tribe, Spanish land grants, the founding of Stanford University, the inception of Silicon Valley and such notable residents as basketball star Jeremy Lin and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, still remains underfunded. Construction costs have leaped from about $6 million to $9.2 million just to make the building habitable. There's another $10.2 million on top of that needed to set up the museum itself, museum board President Rich Green told the city council.
Green said the group has a new focus on fundraising and it is making progress toward its goals. He hopes to have the museum open and for it to be the centerpiece for the city's 125th anniversary in 2019. So far, the museum board has garnered $5.7 million for the seismic retrofit and historical rehabilitation. Donations have come from more than 600 families so far, he added, including a grant from the Peery Foundation.
A roomful of residents also stayed late into the night to voice their support for the history museum. Kimberley Wong, whose ancestors were among the city's pioneering Chinese families, urged the council to extend the lease and said the museum would be a valuable resource for the community.
But council members expressed doubt the board could pull off such a feat, much less raise more than $10 million to open the museum, in such a short span of time if it hasn't been successful in the past decade. Mayor Greg Scharff, who supports the museum in concept, said the board has only raised $1.4 million from donors. The balance of funds in hand -- $4.3 million -- has come with help from the city, including $1 million from the city's coffers, $2.88 million from transferable development rights (TDRs), and from interest earned on that money and from library impact fees, according to a city staff report.
When the museum board approached the council in 2014 to help with the funding effort, council members agreed to give the museum $1 million and to designate the Roth Building as a TDR "sender site." That move allowed the eventual sales of TDRs, which are rights that developers purchase in exchange for density bonuses for other projects in downtown. In concept, the city markets the development transfers and holds the money for rehabilitating historic projects.
It used the same process to fund rehabilitation of the Sea Scout building in the Palo Alto Baylands (now the EcoCenter), agreeing in 2007 to pay the nonprofit Environmental Volunteers $300,000 for services rendered for the building's renovation. The city approved the actual sale of transferable development rights for the Sea Scout Building in 2016.
Vice Mayor Liz Kniss made a motion to approve the lease extension with the fundraising quota, which Councilwoman Lydia Kou seconded. Kniss said the city doesn't want to wait any longer while the building continues to decay.
"Our concern is that we have a building that is unused for 18 years. There are parts of it that are just not sturdy anymore," she said.
As part of the motion, the mayor would create a fundraising auxiliary committee of three council members who will meet with the museum's board on a regular basis. Staff would also give a progress report to the council in six months.
If all else fails and the museum does not raise the needed money by next November, the lease of the building to another organization would not necessarily mean the end of the museum, council members said Monday. The lessee could sublease part of the building to the museum.
To further spur fundraising, the city would use leftover Sea Scouts transferable development rights proceeds of $685,000 for historical restoration as a challenge grant for the next year. But this amount would not count toward the $1.75 million the association must raise by November 2018.
Green said the history museum board has already spent an additional $600,000 on the initial capital-project investment for architectural, arborist, city and contractor fees. He worried what impact the council's decision might have on fundraising if the donor community feels the city won't keep its commitment to using the building as a historical museum.
But council members said they have already promised enough. In no uncertain terms, Scharff said they must raise the $1.75 million by next November or the bid goes out to another organization.
Some council members did not fault the museum for the slow pace of fundraising. They noted that it often takes years to generate large sums of money for nonprofit projects.
The history museum does have a new interim director, Laura Bajuk, who has many connections to the local community. Bajuk is a Palo Alto resident who worked in history museums in Los Altos and Los Gatos. In a May interview, she told the Weekly that the nonprofit wants to make the museum into an interactive gathering space, not the stereotypical, stodgy museum where people can't touch anything.
Last week, Bajuk said the museum board is addressing funding by cultivating relationships within the corporate community that has historical, significant roots in Silicon Valley. The nonprofit is also planning fundraising parties hosted by residents in the coming months.
At the start of the year, the museum hosted educational events to begin generating buzz about the yet-to-open Museum. In March, it held a screening of "Lesson Plan," a 2010 documentary about an experiment that a Cubberley High School teacher conducted in 1967 at the now-defunct school. The project simulated the rise of fascism during World War II by creating an elite social movement for students. The event filled the Cubberley Community Center Theater to capacity, Bajuk said.