Palo Alto's effort to build a downtown history museum will hit a critical milestone next week, when the City Council approves the final document that is required before construction can commence.
The council is scheduled to approve on Monday, April 17, a tenant letter with Palo Alto Museum, a nonprofit that for well over a decade has been spearheading a plan to build a local history museum. The new museum will occupy the Roth Building, a historic, city-owned building at 300 Homer Ave. that once housed the Palo Alto Medical Clinic, the forerunner to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. The building long ago fell into a state of disrepair.
Once the tenant letter is approved, rehabilitation of the Roth Building could start within a month, according to a report from the city's Administrative Services Department. Under the plan, construction would stretch for most of 2024 and the new museum would open its doors to the public at the end of that year or in early 2025.
The opening of the museum would be the culmination of nearly 20 years of effort, a journey that was delayed by funding challenges and inconsistent political support. The project picked up momentum over the past two years, with most council members strongly supporting the project. In December, council members approved a 40-year lease with Palo Alto Museum and a license agreement to allow the city to use the museum to store its historic archives.
The approval of the tenant letter was delayed, however, as the city worked with the federal government to clarify the requirements for a $3 million grant, which was secured by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Menlo Park, through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The money will help cover the costs of the rehabilitation, which is currently estimated at $11.9 million but which could increase, according to staff. Museum staff also are hoping to use a portion of the federal grant for future phases of the project, namely to furnish the museum and install exhibits.
"This grant is a critical funding source to ensure this project can proceed, and parties have worked to meet the requirements and adjusted terms and conditions to provide sufficient time for these funds to be made available," the city report states.
Once the building is rehabilitated enough so that the museum can move in, the nonprofit will proceed with installing exhibits. Some of the features that would immediately be available to the public include the city archives, the community center spaces and a working exhibit in the main gallery of the building, according to Rich Green, president of the Palo Alto Museum board of directors, who spoke with the Palo Alto Weekly in December.
The museum is contributing $1.85 million to the rehabilitation, which includes $850,000 in donations it has received and $978,825 from the $3 million federal grant.
The remaining $10.2 million will come from city and county sources and from proceeds the museum has received through sales of "transferable development rights.” These sales netted $4.9 million for the rehabilitation.
The city is also contributing $2 million from its development agreement with Stanford University Medical Center and $1.65 million from impact fees designated for improving community centers, an allocation that will require the museum to designate space for community use. It is also adding $350,000 in park impact fees, with the understanding that the museum would include restrooms that would be accessible to visitors of nearby Heritage Park. Finally, the project is getting $300,000 from the city's library impact fees, which will help offset the costs of building a city archive room that will store troves of historical city documents.
Both the city and the museum are preparing for stronger collaboration once the project transitions from concept to reality. On April 10, the Palo Alto Museum helped the council celebrate Palo Alto Day by compiling information about famous residents from the city's earliest days — information that the council used to pass a series of proclamations. At the end of the event, Mayor Lydia Kou gave kudos to the Palo Alto Museum for its role in helping to preserve local history.
"I look forward to the museum starting construction soon and working together on many projects to come in, including more celebrations of the persons and events that have had long-lasting and positive impacts on this place that we call home, Palo Alto," Kou said.