News

Funding, patience in short supply as Palo Alto plans for new history museum

City Council Finance Committee reluctant to fully rehabilitate Roth Building, opts for seismic and structural fixes

The Roth Building at 300 Homer Ave. has long been eyed as the future home of the Palo Alto Museum. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

City leaders often tout Palo Alto's historic role as the birthplace of Silicon Valley and a pioneer in the fields such as technology, education and medicine.

But despite their agreement that this history is worth celebrating, members of the City Council have struggled for nearly two decades to advance a project that would do just that: the transformation of the dilapidated Roth Building at 300 Homer Ave. into the new Palo Alto Museum. After buying the historic building in 2000, the city selected the Palo Alto History Museum in 2005 as the future tenant.

Since then, the project has amassed a loyal following, including a legion of former mayors, historians, tech leaders, business leaders and philanthropists. Generations of councils have touted the many benefits of the new museum, which include the restoration of a treasured building, the creation of a new home for Palo Alto's historic archives and the provision of research space, exhibition halls and a cafe. The project would also include a bathroom that would be available to patrons of Heritage Park, which is adjacent to the Roth Building.

Proponents of the project touted Palo Alto's rich history as a pioneer in technology, education and medicine.

"We know we're sitting on a goldmine of historical treasure," Rich Green, president of the Palo Alto Museum board of directors, told the Finance Committee on Tuesday.

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Fundraising, however, has been a persistent challenge. Last year, a review commissioned by the city found that the Palo Alto Museum (formerly known as Palo Alto History Museum) has about $1 million on hand for construction as well as $937,000 in pledges, most of which could be used for the first phase of the museum. The review concluded that the museum remains more than $2.4 million shy of its goal.

Facing the funding shortfall, the council's Finance Committee struggled on Tuesday to find a solution. On the one hand, members agreed that the city-owned building has been vacant for two decades now, is falling apart and is in urgent need or reparation. On the other hand, they were reluctant to make the kind of investment that would really move the project forward, opting instead for an approach that achieves incremental improvement while virtually ensuring that the museum project will remain in limbo for the foreseeable future.

Members of the Palo Alto Museum requested that the city help it complete the first phase of the project, the restoration of the building to turn it into an occupiable space. Green said moving ahead with the construction of a museum at the Roth Building is "the fastest, most cost-effective way to restore this historic building," he said. With the city's help, the project could get started within 30 days and be completed within a year. Meanwhile, the museum would raise the roughly $8 million that would be needed to fund the museum's exhibits, furnishing and programs.

"Clearly the city gains from a continued partnership with the museum," Green said. "We have created a shovel-ready project for the city. It's taken a long time and we've put a lot of effort and money into that. I will say there's been some uncertainty in the city partnership and we'd like to move forward from that uncertainty."

But rather than giving the museum the funding it requested, the committee recommended a more limited investment: the construction of the "cold shell" for the new museum at a cost of $6 million. The allocation would enable seismic and structural upgrades to the dilapidated building, bringing it up to safety standards. It would not, however, be sufficient to actually make the building suitable for occupancy. That would cost about $10.5 million, staff and museum officials had estimated.

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Vice Mayor Tom DuBois supported moving ahead with the project, which he noted is leveraging private funds, city funds and grant money from Santa Clara County and offering significant public benefits. The city, he noted, has recently invested in other private projects with public benefits, including the reconstruction of the Junior Museum and Zoo and the construction of the new Avenidas building. DuBois said the city should do more to support the Palo Alto Museum.

"We've kind of been half in half out. I think it's time we were either all in or all out," DuBois said.

His two colleagues, however, were more reluctant. Council member Liz Kniss cited the project's long history and its funding challenges as evidence that the project lacks community commitment.

"I'd like to see this success, I truly would," Kniss said. "And we've spent hours as a council discussing how we could motivate that money coming into this particular project and we have not been incredibly successful in our negotiations with the museum."

From the museum's perspective, the project's lack of success stems in part from the city's history of half measures and limited support. The museum is being tasked to raise money to fix up the public building it does not own, an endeavor on which it has already spent $1.8 million. It does not have a lease with the city, leaving donors with little assurance that the museum would actually materialize in the rehabilitated building.

Former Mayor Karen Holman, a longtime advocate for the history museum who is now working with the nonprofit to advance the project, noted the "cold shell" proposal has several significant flaws. Without assurances that the building will become a museum, the city may not be able to use the roughly $4 million in "transfer of development rights" revenues and county grants to fix up the roof and restore the Victor Arnautoff murals in the historic property.

"Neither of these sources of funding are available to a cold shell project because they depend on the use of the museum's permitted plan," Holman told the Weekly in an interview. "There needs to be a long-term commitment for the Roth Building to the donors to use those plans."

John Northway, who studied under renowned architect Birge Clark and who now serves on the board of directors of Palo Alto History, said the "cold shell" is not a particularly viable option because it would require the development of new plans while adding up to $500,000 to the project's cost.

"The biggest problem is the use of the plans and not being able to use the funds that are there," Northway told this news organization. "We have an obligation to our donors. We can't go ahead and just spend money without having assurances of the city, and that would be by a lease."

In its attempt to assist the Palo Alto Museum, city staff had identified about $6 million in funding that it could apply to the project, which includes $4.9 million in "transfer of development rights" revenues; $300,000 in county funds; $300,000 in library impact fees. The nonprofit also has about $500,000 in cash on hand for the construction.

By a unanimous vote, the Finance Committee recommended using the $6 million to help construct the cold shell. It also directed staff to engage in negotiations with Palo Alto Museum over a new lease, a move that city officials hope will add some stability to the somewhat rocky public-private partnership.

While the museum was hoping for additional help, Council member Greg Tanaka joined Kniss in opposing the type of firm commitment that museum supporters were hoping for. He noted that if the city taps additional funding sources to fund the full rehabilitation of the Roth Building, it would have to defund other projects in the city's infrastructure plan. This includes the relocation of outdated playgrounds at Rinconada Park and implementation of automated material handling at several library branches.

"This year has been a pretty devastating year financially," Tanaka said, pointing to plummeting revenues from hotel and sales taxes.

Tanaka called the Roth Building a "lost opportunity," noting that it has been sitting empty and not generating any rent for the city for two decades.

"Another year that goes by is another year that the project is not being used, that we're not getting revenue from it and the community is not benefitting," "I'm concerned about how tough it's been to raise money for this project. As stewards of the city, I think it's important for us to consider that."

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Funding, patience in short supply as Palo Alto plans for new history museum

City Council Finance Committee reluctant to fully rehabilitate Roth Building, opts for seismic and structural fixes

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, Nov 18, 2020, 9:13 am

City leaders often tout Palo Alto's historic role as the birthplace of Silicon Valley and a pioneer in the fields such as technology, education and medicine.

But despite their agreement that this history is worth celebrating, members of the City Council have struggled for nearly two decades to advance a project that would do just that: the transformation of the dilapidated Roth Building at 300 Homer Ave. into the new Palo Alto Museum. After buying the historic building in 2000, the city selected the Palo Alto History Museum in 2005 as the future tenant.

Since then, the project has amassed a loyal following, including a legion of former mayors, historians, tech leaders, business leaders and philanthropists. Generations of councils have touted the many benefits of the new museum, which include the restoration of a treasured building, the creation of a new home for Palo Alto's historic archives and the provision of research space, exhibition halls and a cafe. The project would also include a bathroom that would be available to patrons of Heritage Park, which is adjacent to the Roth Building.

Proponents of the project touted Palo Alto's rich history as a pioneer in technology, education and medicine.

"We know we're sitting on a goldmine of historical treasure," Rich Green, president of the Palo Alto Museum board of directors, told the Finance Committee on Tuesday.

Fundraising, however, has been a persistent challenge. Last year, a review commissioned by the city found that the Palo Alto Museum (formerly known as Palo Alto History Museum) has about $1 million on hand for construction as well as $937,000 in pledges, most of which could be used for the first phase of the museum. The review concluded that the museum remains more than $2.4 million shy of its goal.

Facing the funding shortfall, the council's Finance Committee struggled on Tuesday to find a solution. On the one hand, members agreed that the city-owned building has been vacant for two decades now, is falling apart and is in urgent need or reparation. On the other hand, they were reluctant to make the kind of investment that would really move the project forward, opting instead for an approach that achieves incremental improvement while virtually ensuring that the museum project will remain in limbo for the foreseeable future.

Members of the Palo Alto Museum requested that the city help it complete the first phase of the project, the restoration of the building to turn it into an occupiable space. Green said moving ahead with the construction of a museum at the Roth Building is "the fastest, most cost-effective way to restore this historic building," he said. With the city's help, the project could get started within 30 days and be completed within a year. Meanwhile, the museum would raise the roughly $8 million that would be needed to fund the museum's exhibits, furnishing and programs.

"Clearly the city gains from a continued partnership with the museum," Green said. "We have created a shovel-ready project for the city. It's taken a long time and we've put a lot of effort and money into that. I will say there's been some uncertainty in the city partnership and we'd like to move forward from that uncertainty."

But rather than giving the museum the funding it requested, the committee recommended a more limited investment: the construction of the "cold shell" for the new museum at a cost of $6 million. The allocation would enable seismic and structural upgrades to the dilapidated building, bringing it up to safety standards. It would not, however, be sufficient to actually make the building suitable for occupancy. That would cost about $10.5 million, staff and museum officials had estimated.

Vice Mayor Tom DuBois supported moving ahead with the project, which he noted is leveraging private funds, city funds and grant money from Santa Clara County and offering significant public benefits. The city, he noted, has recently invested in other private projects with public benefits, including the reconstruction of the Junior Museum and Zoo and the construction of the new Avenidas building. DuBois said the city should do more to support the Palo Alto Museum.

"We've kind of been half in half out. I think it's time we were either all in or all out," DuBois said.

His two colleagues, however, were more reluctant. Council member Liz Kniss cited the project's long history and its funding challenges as evidence that the project lacks community commitment.

"I'd like to see this success, I truly would," Kniss said. "And we've spent hours as a council discussing how we could motivate that money coming into this particular project and we have not been incredibly successful in our negotiations with the museum."

From the museum's perspective, the project's lack of success stems in part from the city's history of half measures and limited support. The museum is being tasked to raise money to fix up the public building it does not own, an endeavor on which it has already spent $1.8 million. It does not have a lease with the city, leaving donors with little assurance that the museum would actually materialize in the rehabilitated building.

Former Mayor Karen Holman, a longtime advocate for the history museum who is now working with the nonprofit to advance the project, noted the "cold shell" proposal has several significant flaws. Without assurances that the building will become a museum, the city may not be able to use the roughly $4 million in "transfer of development rights" revenues and county grants to fix up the roof and restore the Victor Arnautoff murals in the historic property.

"Neither of these sources of funding are available to a cold shell project because they depend on the use of the museum's permitted plan," Holman told the Weekly in an interview. "There needs to be a long-term commitment for the Roth Building to the donors to use those plans."

John Northway, who studied under renowned architect Birge Clark and who now serves on the board of directors of Palo Alto History, said the "cold shell" is not a particularly viable option because it would require the development of new plans while adding up to $500,000 to the project's cost.

"The biggest problem is the use of the plans and not being able to use the funds that are there," Northway told this news organization. "We have an obligation to our donors. We can't go ahead and just spend money without having assurances of the city, and that would be by a lease."

In its attempt to assist the Palo Alto Museum, city staff had identified about $6 million in funding that it could apply to the project, which includes $4.9 million in "transfer of development rights" revenues; $300,000 in county funds; $300,000 in library impact fees. The nonprofit also has about $500,000 in cash on hand for the construction.

By a unanimous vote, the Finance Committee recommended using the $6 million to help construct the cold shell. It also directed staff to engage in negotiations with Palo Alto Museum over a new lease, a move that city officials hope will add some stability to the somewhat rocky public-private partnership.

While the museum was hoping for additional help, Council member Greg Tanaka joined Kniss in opposing the type of firm commitment that museum supporters were hoping for. He noted that if the city taps additional funding sources to fund the full rehabilitation of the Roth Building, it would have to defund other projects in the city's infrastructure plan. This includes the relocation of outdated playgrounds at Rinconada Park and implementation of automated material handling at several library branches.

"This year has been a pretty devastating year financially," Tanaka said, pointing to plummeting revenues from hotel and sales taxes.

Tanaka called the Roth Building a "lost opportunity," noting that it has been sitting empty and not generating any rent for the city for two decades.

"Another year that goes by is another year that the project is not being used, that we're not getting revenue from it and the community is not benefitting," "I'm concerned about how tough it's been to raise money for this project. As stewards of the city, I think it's important for us to consider that."

Comments

vizslamadness
Registered user
Barron Park
on Nov 18, 2020 at 10:16 am
vizslamadness, Barron Park
Registered user
on Nov 18, 2020 at 10:16 am
16 people like this

To not develop this museum would be a serious mistake and a travesty. This museum location is perfect and will attract all kinds of visitors. Being next to Heritage Park, it is a perfect place for people to picnic if they want after going to the museum. In addition there is another interesting museum across the street. How convenient is that?

If the City of Palo Alto can rebuild the Children's Museum (for the 3rd or 4th time), why can't they build this museum. It is a shame that the Silicon Valley moguls can't pitch in a few million dollars for this project. It would be greatly appreciated.


commonsense
Registered user
Professorville
on Nov 18, 2020 at 10:41 am
commonsense, Professorville
Registered user
on Nov 18, 2020 at 10:41 am
6 people like this

$50,000,000 over budget (and counting) and now considering $10m for this project? No comprendo.


Lee Forrest
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Nov 18, 2020 at 10:53 am
Lee Forrest, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Nov 18, 2020 at 10:53 am
16 people like this

Is this the old PAMF building? If so, I remember going there as a child growing up in Palo Alto.

It looks kind of run down...another one of those pseudo, PA ubiquitous Birge Clark Spanish-era retro designs.

Why not just demolish the decrepit building & have a fundraiser to erect a new museum.

Local high-tech companies could contribute as well & have their name engraved on a brass plate near the entrance.


Observer
Registered user
Greater Miranda
on Nov 18, 2020 at 11:42 am
Observer, Greater Miranda
Registered user
on Nov 18, 2020 at 11:42 am
2 people like this

My enthusiasm and support for this museum would be MUCH greater if it was not so single-mindedly focused on Palo Alto's role as a pioneer in technology, education and medicine. Important as those three areas are, the technology part overlaps the mission of the Computer Museum. But more importantly, the mission of the Palo Alto Historical Association (PAHA) is much broader, and there are many other areas of Palo Alto History that are of interest to those who live here, and potentially to outside visitors. The collection of PAHA will not be fully utilized if the focus remains as narrow as it seems to be. My understanding is that the narrow focus is due to the leadership that has shackled planning and fund-raising efforts to date. If that is the case, perhaps some leadership change is in order. I would take issue with the possible argument that the focus must be narrow in order for the museum to be feasible. A broader focus on the history of this community could be exactly what is needed in order to move this effort forward. Clearly, the strategy to date is not working.


Noel
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Nov 18, 2020 at 12:48 pm
Noel, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Nov 18, 2020 at 12:48 pm
6 people like this

There are lots of things that would be nice to have in Palo Alto including a history museum. But they all cost money. Spending $10M+ to renovate an old building to create a sub-optimal space for a museum that would then proceed to cost the city $1million+ per year to operate is WAY down the list of thing we should be spending money on right now. It makes far more sense to sell the building and take existing funds to create a roving history exhibit that can rotate among our several libraries and maybe Cubberley and some of our schools.


Gary G.
Registered user
Palo Alto Hills
on Nov 19, 2020 at 11:20 am
Gary G., Palo Alto Hills
Registered user
on Nov 19, 2020 at 11:20 am
2 people like this

Local history is an important area. The space is beautiful and has tremendous potential. Likely the best use of the area is expansion of computer stations with designation of one floor exclusively for local students to use. Los Gatos built a spectacular library with dedicated sections to young children and high school students. The future of public service needs to be more focused on children and supporting families which during this period of COVID-19 have really been limited in social resources. The library resources dedicated to young people in Palo Alto are simply not sufficient to support the needs of the population. A forward thinking approach would be to integrate local history with the AP Examination Structure and to develop testing systems to engage students over local history as a municipal service.


Do this so that it doesn't cost the city money it won't get back.
Registered user
Downtown North
on Nov 19, 2020 at 1:03 pm
Do this so that it doesn't cost the city money it won't get back., Downtown North
Registered user
on Nov 19, 2020 at 1:03 pm
3 people like this

The history group has had over a decade to raise money to fix this building and they have not done a darn thing. They seem to be incompetent and I don't think they should be given a free lunch.

It would be nice to rehab the building but if the city does it they should then rent out the bulk of the building to a paying entity to recoup the investment until what they have invested is paid back.

Once the building and repair cost is paid back then the city can see about renting some part of it at a lower cost to the history museum while still making enough to maintain the building from entities that know how to make/raise money (unlike the history museum board).


Laura Bajuk
Registered user
Midtown
on Nov 20, 2020 at 11:40 am
Laura Bajuk, Midtown
Registered user
on Nov 20, 2020 at 11:40 am
Like this comment

To Observer's concern about the range of the Museum's programming: yes, tech put Palo Alto on the global map, but that’s the tip of the iceberg.

We need a Museum to tell the whole story. To give context. To build empathy. This feels especially relevant as we face a global pandemic (again), economic turmoil (again) and calls for social justice (still).

The Museum project started in PAHA, and we’ve developed partnerships with neighboring museums, historical associations and archives which stand ready to offer expertise and artifacts. We’re growing connections in the community to bring out hundreds of stories from individuals and groups, so that everyone will see something of themselves reflected in the Museum.

Check out our website for more info and to bring your stories forward: PaloAltoMuseum.org. We’d like to hear from you. - Laura Bajuk, ED, Palo Alto Museum


Laura Bajuk
Registered user
Midtown
on Nov 20, 2020 at 11:49 am
Laura Bajuk, Midtown
Registered user
on Nov 20, 2020 at 11:49 am
2 people like this

Noel, I hear you. I'm a taxpayer here, too. But allow me to clarify a few things:

"Spending $10M+ to renovate an old building..." – Yes, it’s a lot. This City-owned building has substantial seismic issues, which is taking the bulk of the budget. Construction costs have risen, creating a larger gap. But we have over $6M already raised to rehabilitate it, despite resistance from donors to invest in rehabbing a building we'll never own.

"...proceed to cost the city $1million+ per year to operate..." It’s not the City's (or taxpayer's) bill to pay. Unlike other cultural institutions in the City, we are NOT asking for operating support.

I've run history museums (Los Gatos, Los Altos) for over 20 years, stabilizing them financially so they could better serve their communities. For the Palo Alto Museum, we have a 7-year financial plan that is conservative and attainable, and will build the Museum this community deserves.

Check it out in the City staff report from the meeting for details. - Laura Bajuk, ED, Palo Alto Museum


Lee Forrest
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Nov 20, 2020 at 2:29 pm
Lee Forrest, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Nov 20, 2020 at 2:29 pm
16 people like this

>"It is a shame that the Silicon Valley moguls can't pitch in a few million dollars for this project. It would be greatly appreciated."

^ Good point...if the museum is going to primarily focus on & pay homage to high-tech, then the million/billion-aires & their offspring who prospered off of this endeavor can easily shell out the dough to build & maintain the proposed museum. A brass plate with their names engraved on it should pacify the majority of them...unless consumed by the vanities.

On the other hand...if the museum is also going to include the natural history of Palo Alto, then perhaps the Sierra Club, Audubon Society, Friends of the Earth & other conservation groups could chip in as well.

As for Ohlone representation...simply install a small casino & restaurant to help make ends meet. This will encourage others who don't particularly care about local history to engage themselves.

Historical representation of other ethnic groups & topics can be left up to the museum review board members...maybe along the lines of 'floating' themes.

Done deal.


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