Facing a funding shortage and mounting costs, a nonprofit dedicated to celebrating the city's past is now staring at an increasingly murky future.
The Palo Alto History Museum, which has been trying since 2007 to fund the rehabilitation of the Roth Building at 300 Homer Ave., remains more than $3 million away from its goal of making the building suitable for occupancy, according to staff and consultants. Given the funding gap, the City Council signaled on Monday that it is preparing to consider other uses for the historic and dilapidated building, which the city had purchased in 2000.
By a 5-1 vote, with Vice Mayor Tom DuBois dissenting and Councilwoman Lydia Kou absent, the council agreed to invite other organizations to propose uses for the Roth Building. At the same time, the council directed its Finance Committee to consider another possibility: an increased commitment of public funds for the long-awaited but perpetually elusive project.
The council reached its decision after the city's consulting firm, Macias Gini & O'Connell, reviewed the nonprofit's fundraising to date and concluded that the building's rehabilitation remains between $2.4 million and $2.8 million shy of the $9.2 million price tag. According to the review, the Palo Alto History Museum has about $1 million on hand for construction as well about $937,000 in pledges, of which about $909,000 could potentially be available for the first phase.
Even with contributions of about $5.1 million in public funding, the museum remains well short of what it needs to fix up the building, particularly given the recent escalation of construction costs. The $9.2 million estimate is from 2016 and the project contractor, Vance Brown Builders, has indicated that the price tag today is expected to exceed $10 million.
Project supporters urged the council Monday to increase the city's contribution, a move that they argued would give other potential donors confidence and boost the museum's prospects. DuBois suggested that given the city's recent decisions to contribute more than $8 million toward the reconstructed Junior Museum and Zoo, an increased investment in the Roth Building would be appropriate.
"For a town of 60,000 people, I think we're a pretty interesting place," DuBois said, pointing to the city's rich history of tech pioneers (HP, Varian, Google and Facebook), academics (Stanford University) and cultural trailblazers (singers Jerry Garcia, Joan Baez). "We have a lot of cool, unique things that happened in Palo Alto. I think it's been a long history for the museum."
But while DuBois supported increasing the city's investment in the museum, his colleagues indicated that it's time to look elsewhere. Councilwoman Liz Kniss, who served on the council in 2000, when the city first bought the Roth Building (she returned to the council for another stint in 2012), proposed putting out a request for proposals that could involve rezoning the site so that it can accommodate new uses. The site is currently zoned as "public facility."
Kniss argued that Roth Building is a valuable part of the city, which has fallen into ever deeper disrepair over the past 15 years. It's time to consider a different direction, she said.
"It's time for us to go on to whatever the next chapter may be," Kniss said.
Councilwoman Alison Cormack agreed and said the recent strategy — which she characterized as "muddle along" — isn't working. In addition to inviting other groups to propose uses for the Roth Building, Cormack and her colleagues also unanimously agreed to consider arrangements in which the Palo Alto History Museum shares space with another tenant, which may involve having the city occupy a portion of the building.
The council's Monday decision was informed by the Macias Gini & O'Connell review, which concluded that about $681,500 of the $937,000 that donors have pledged to the museum had "high risk factors" associated with them, which decreased the likelihood that the museum will actually collect the money. The more realistic amount that the firm deemed to be collectible was between $242,600 and $583,000, according to the review.
"Based on our analysis at this time, there is no evidence to support that PAHM has the required $9.2 million available for Phase 1. We estimate that PAHM needs to secure approximately a minimum of $2.36 million, and at most, $2.85 million for Phase 1 expenses to meet this goal," the report states.
But for Kniss and others, the bigger factor wasn't the recent analysis but the project's long and somewhat frustrating history of the project. Even though the nonprofit met the council's goal of raising $1.75 million for the project in 2018, the Palo Alto History Museum has also seen its expenses go up as it hired staff for an operation that initially consisted of a handful of volunteers.
Laura Bajuk, executive director of the History Museum, disputed the conclusion from Macias Gini & O'Connell that a good chunk of the pledges that the group has received are not collectible. She told the Weekly that she has recently checked back with would-be donors and almost all said they would honor their pledges (she estimates that $914,000 of the pledges remain valid).
"I'd say, we're going to have a much higher collectivity than what they projected," Bajuk said. "But pledge money disappears if a museum is not part of project."
Bajuk also argued Monday that the cost of rehabilitating the building would spike further if the council changed directions. The museum's agreement with Vance Brown, which obtained a building permit for the rehabilitation last year, would no longer be applicable. Neither would the donations, both for the capital costs and for the museum programs and exhibitions (which would cost an additional $8 million). Bajuk said the community is excited to move into the building and actually get the programs in place.
"We'd like to be in museum business and not in the construction business," Bajuk said.
Sergio Mello, who is in charge of corporate outreach for the museum nonprofit, told the council that the city has many corporate donors who would like to step up and contribute to the museum. Many, however, are waiting to see whether the project is viable and has the city's support.
"It's really important for the corporate (donors) and a lot of the citizens to feel this support, and that there is a joint effort from all the sectors of society to be able to bring this project to fruition," Mello said.
Palo Alto resident Elisabeth Rubinfien suggested that the council's support to date has been "lukewarm." The most significant contribution from the council to date has been its dedication of funding to the project through "transfer of development rights," a mechanism that allows builders to contribute funding in exchange for additional square footage of allowed development.
"Donors like me, who are committed, we put conditions and made pledges because we aren't interested in donating to a city building that the city would use for offices or other uses," Rubinfien said. "We want to build a museum. If we put in thousands now and the museum can't get off the ground, we have no recourse."
The council generally shared her desire for a museum, with Councilman Eric Filseth suggesting that the Finance Committee needs to have a full discussion of further contributions by the city. But Filseth and his colleagues also signaled that they are both skeptical about the museum's current prospects and open to other uses for the building. Filseth noted that even though the museum has raised significant funds (including about $2 million for programming), the funding gap remains significant and the status quo "gets worse every year."
Mayor Adrian Fine concurred.
"I think the restart is appropriate," Fine said. "It does allow us to preserve the building and bring it to shipshape as needed."