Palo Alto's slow crawl toward establishing a new history museum at the Roth Building seems to have all the classic City Hall hallmarks: lofty goals, wishful concepts and years of discussion with little to show for it.
For nearly two decades, Palo Alto's elected leaders have touted the benefits of opening a museum to celebrate the city's history, both as a birthplace of Google, Facebook and other Silicon Valley giants and as a bastion of environmental activism and educational excellence. Under the long-simmering plans, the museum would occupy the historic Roth Building at 300 Homer Ave., a former Palo Alto Medical Foundation clinic that was built in 1932 and that today stands vacant and in disrepair.
The history of this effort has been one of indecision, missed deadlines, wavering directions and the gradual dilapidation of the city-owned building. Even though the City Council has been eyeing the site for years as the location of the new history museum, council members have been reluctant to pay for the needed improvements. And even though the nonprofit Palo Alto Museum has been the city's partner in the endeavor ever since 2007, when the council first approved its lease option with the museum nonprofit, council members have expressed frustration in recent years with the group's fundraising efforts and have flirted with the idea of selling the building or renting it out to another organization.
Now, despite the city's budgetary challenges, things appear to be looking up for the Palo Alto Museum. Next week, the City Council will consider a memo from three members — Vice Mayor Pat Burt and council members Lydia Kou and Greer Stone — that urges the city to sign a lease option agreement with Palo Alto Museum, a move that would both affirm the city's commitment to the project and allow the nonprofit to raise money toward the museum's construction.
Just as critically, the council is preparing to approve on Monday the expenditure of more than $4 million in impact fees — which are designated for improving parks and community centers — for the first phase of a long-awaited project: the $10.5-million rehabilitation of the Roth Building. The phase calls for seismically rehabilitating the structurally deficient 1932 building and make it possible for Palo Alto Museum to move ahead with the next step: making the building's interior suitable for the new museum.
Rich Green, president of Palo Alto Museum, urged the council earlier this month to move ahead with this action, which he said would enable the museum to open its doors to the public in the summer of 2022. He emphasized that most of the costs of actually establishing the museum will be borne by the nonprofit, which has been applying for grants and soliciting private donations, and that none of it will be shifted from the general fund.
"We're not asking the city to fund the museum in any way — that will be funded under separate private sponsorship and donation. We're only talking about the city's rehabilitation of its own Roth Building," Green told the council at the June 7 meeting. "But still, we have received mixed signals from past city councils that have challenged our fundraising ability. All we want to do is bring this history museum to the community."
The new memo should give Green and other project supporters reasons for optimism. Mayor Tom DuBois has publicly supported the establishment of the history museum and his position — coupled with urgings from the memo's three signatories — all but ensures that the project will get support from the council majority. It is, however, expected to be the slimmest majority, with three of the seven council members recently signaling that they would rather not spend money on the Roth Building at this time.
The new memo from Burt, Kou and Stone suggests that it is critical to move the project forward as soon as possible.
"This project needs to move forward quickly to preserve this vulnerable historic building, take advantage of the existing permit, and move forward this construction season to avoid winter rains," the memo states.
The position represents a sharp break from the recent past. In December 2020, council members chafed at the idea of spending significant funding on the Roth Building in the near future. During the council's Dec. 14 meeting, then-Mayor Adrian Fine opposed the idea of spending impact fees on the rehabilitation project, calling the proposed action an end run around the financial process. Former council member Liz Kniss, who in the past urged her colleagues to explore rezoning and possibly renting out the Homer Avenue property, bemoaned the lack of a clear avenue toward the establishment of the museum. Council member Alison Cormack said it would be irresponsible for the city to not consider selling the building.
The November election, which saw Burt and Stone replace Fine and Kniss, appears to have upended the political dynamic. While three council members — Cormack, Eric Filseth, Greg Tanaka — remain reluctant to spend money on rehabilitating the Roth Building, the other four members are poised to move the project ahead.
The new memo from Burt, Kou and Stone echoes the argument long made by Palo Alto Museum leaders: because the Roth Building is a city-owned asset, it should be the city's responsibility to at least fix up the hard shell of the building so that the museum could then move ahead with improvements to the building's interior.
In addition, the city is scheduled to receive multiple significant community assets and benefits that are outside of museum-based functions or obligations including: publicly accessible park restrooms, a cafe accessible to the park, community meeting spaces and resources for youth research and education, states the memo, citing the proposed features of the new museum.
If the council moves ahead with the recommendation of its Finance Committee, the city would allocate $2 million to the Roth Building project from its Stanford University Medical Center development agreement. It would also use $350,000 in park impact fees to improve the building, which is next to Heritage Park and which would have a bathroom that is accessible to park users. The city is also looking to use about $1.65 million in impact fees that are designated community centers, money that will likely be shifted from planned improvements to Rinconada Park.
In its June 7 budget discussion, which served as a likely preview for next week's budget adoption, the council majority signaled that it wants to see the Roth Building work begin sooner rather than later. DuBois said he believes impact fees and Stanford funds are appropriate funding sources for the project shortly before the council voted 4-3 to support the funding plan.
Cormack, Filseth and Tanaka all dissented, with Cormack saying she is hesitant to transfer fees from other community projects to the Roth Building rehabilitation. Tanaka questioned the need to move ahead with the history museum at this moment.
"Do we need to do it when we're in the second year of a budget crisis?" Tanaka asked. "I don't know if it's the most critical thing we should think about."