For nearly two decades, Palo Alto's elected officials and civic leaders have viewed the historic Roth Building next to Heritage Park as the perfect place to launch a museum celebrating the city's legacy of leadership in technology, education and health care.
But with the city's finances on the wane and frustrations mounting about the slow pace of progress on museum fundraising, some members of the City Council indicated on Dec. 14 that it may be time to abandon the project and consider other options, including a possible sale of the 1932 building that was designed by renowned architect Birge Clark and that once housed the Palo Alto Medical Clinic.
For the city leaders, the historic building at 300 Homer St. is both a headache and treasure. It is a historic asset in a prime downtown location, adorned with murals that celebrate medical achievements. It is also vacant, derelict and seismically unsafe.
Everyone agrees the building should be fixed up as soon as possible. But the only plan to do so thus far has come from Palo Alto Museum, the nonprofit that has been spearheading the museum project since 2004. The organization presented the council with two options. One would help structurally and seismically rehabilitate the building to create what's known as a "cold shell" for the museum. Another would involve making further renovations to make the building occupiable by the museum. The former option would cost an estimated $6 million; the latter would run at about $10.5 million.
Most of the funding for the cold shell option would not come from the general fund, according to the museum's proposal. The nonprofit has about $500,000 in cash on hand for the construction and another $4.9 million in revenues from the city's "transfer of development rights" program, which supports the rehabilitation of historical buildings. The museum has also received $300,000 in county grants and city staff has identified another $300,000 that can be allocated for the project from library impact fees (the new museum would hold Palo Alto's historical archives, which are currently housed at Cubberley Community Center).
For the more ambitious $10.5 million plan, the museum had recommended utilizing other impact fees, including ones designated for park improvements.
But with the city's finances in a rut, council members showed little appetite last week for significantly investing more public funds in the project. Instead, the council reverted to its familiar pattern and requested that staff consider other options for the Roth Building.
As in the past, council members talked about the urgent need to rehabilitate the building as soon as possible. They recommended leasing some — or all — of the building to a private entity. And for the first time, they floated the idea of outright selling the historic building, though several members also noted that they don't particularly favor going this route.
They stopped well short, however, of taking the type of actions that proponents of the museum had been hoping for.
Council member Alison Cormack was among those who urged action on fixing up the Roth Building. She said she has recently toured the building and saw medical equipment that has been in the building since the city purchased it in 2000.
"I'm appalled that our city and prior councils and this council and staff have let that building just sit there for 20 years. … I'm actually really stunned. I'm stunned this has not been on our infrastructure list," Cormack said.
But while Vice Mayor Tom DuBois noted at the Dec. 14 meeting that the Roth Building is a Palo Alto-owned asset and suggested that the city needs to at least fund the cold shell, most of his colleagues were reluctant to spend more public money on the project. Cormack brought up the idea of selling the Roth Building, saying it would be irresponsible for the council to not consider that option.
The council voted 5-2, with DuBois and council member Lydia Kou dissenting, to direct staff to explore a menu of options for the Roth Building, including considering a possible sale, with Palo Alto Museum getting a first right of purchase. Other options are pursuing a lease that would generate revenue, rezoning the site to make it economically viable and partnering with the museum to build a "warm shell" without the use of public funding.
All of these options fall well short of the nonprofit's request. The museum has already spent $1.8 million on rehabilitation plans for the Roth Building. It has also received pledges of $2.1 million for museum programs and exhibits, according to Rich Green, president of Palo Alto Museum board of directors. That funding, however, cannot be used for the retrofitting work.
"I think we've charted a very clear, expedient path to getting that building rehabilitated in a very short period of time with a huge contribution of funds from museum donors and museum efforts," Green said. "So it seems to me like the smartest way forward is to stay the path — use our plans, use the funds that we raised and work with us … by possibly reallocating some of the available impact fees to completing the warm shell, getting the building occupancy permit so that we can come in and install our museum."
Council members showed little appetite, however, for tapping into the city's pool of impact fees. Mayor Adrian Fine called the museum project "laudable" but suggested that allocating the impact fees to the museum would represent "an end run around the financial process." Impact fees, he said, are intended for a whole range of priorities relating to parks, libraries and community centers.
"If I knew we could've done it on council, I would've done it years ago," Fine said. "I would have said, I love bike lanes and dog parks and let's use the impact fees to fund those. I find this entirely inappropriate."
Council member Eric Filseth also rejected the notion that the city has millions of dollars available for the museum project. He joined the council majority in directing staff to return in six months with an update on other uses for the building. While the vote was very similar to the council's prior direction to explore other options for the Roth Building (with the notable addition on a potential sale), council member Liz Kniss said she believes the options represent a reasonable road for the city at a time when its finances are strained.
"We are in terrible times," Kniss said. "We've still got a raging pandemic. We've got an economic situation that looks about as bleak as one has looked in a long time. We don't have a really clear avenue for really dealing with this as of yet."