The Palo Alto Museum is preparing to make the leap from concept to reality after the City Council approved on Monday, April 17, the final agreement required to convert the Roth Building into a center for recognizing and celebrating local history.
The City Council voted 6-1 to approve a tenant work letter with the nonprofit Palo Alto Museum, which has been looking to build a museum on Homer Avenue for close to two decades. The council's approval of the letter, with only Council member Greg Tanaka dissenting, paves the way for rehabilitation of the historic Roth Building to begin this spring. If the project goes as planned, the $11.9-million project would be completed by the end of 2024.
The 32-page letter sets out the conditions for Palo Alto Museum's rehabilitation and occupancy of the building at 300 Homer Ave., including the financial contributions that both the nonprofit and the city are making toward the project, insurance requirements and contractors who will be charged with steering the rehabilitation to completion. The museum has retained Garavaglia Architecture as its project architect and Vance Brown as the general contractor for the project.
In a statement issued after the vote, Palo Alto Museum President Rich Green said the new museum will be "an essential destination for anyone interested in learning how this amazing city and Stanford University have impacted the world."
"The city will rejoice as it discovers this new downtown treasure," Green said.
The April 17 vote was the final procedural milestone for a project that has been in planning phases for nearly two decades. City officials have long talked about the need to rehabilitate Roth Building, a historic structure that once housed the Palo Alto Medical Clinic and that has been vacant and in a state of disrepair since the clinic left in 2000.
For museum advocates, the road to Monday's vote has been long and winding. Political support for the project wavered at times and council members had in the past criticized the project for insufficient fundraising. Its fortunes turned over the past two years, with Mayor Lydia Kou and Vice Mayor Greer Stone both advocating for the museum and Council member Pat Burt pushing for the city to repair the city-owned Roth Building.
In 2021, the three council members submitted a memo arguing that the project needs to "move forward quickly to preserve this vulnerable historic building" and to take advantage of the permit that Palo Alto Museum had acquired for construction. Last December, the council approved a 40-year lease with Palo Alto Museum and the license agreement that lays out conditions for the building's occupancy and codifies the city's right to use the archive room.
"Palo Alto can now see a local history museum on the horizon," Kou said in a statement. "With the rehabilitation of the National Register Roth Building now advanced, I look forward to working with the Museum to excite, inspire, record and educate all ages about our rich local history."
Karen Holman, a former mayor and longtime supporter of the museum project, lauded the city's effort to restore the 1932 building.
"It's never easy on a building to be standing vacant," said Holman, a co-founder of Palo Alto Museum. "But the potential is there to create a community asset that we can be very proud of."
Once the rehabilitation is completed, the first floor of the Birge Clark-designed building will feature galleries and community rooms while the second floor will include the city archives, a boardroom, a multimedia room and additional gallery. There will also be a climate-controlled storage room in the basement to protect museum collections.
The nonprofit also plans to hire additional staff and launch a fundraising campaign next year for organizational operations and installations, according to its news release.
Tanaka, who had consistently opposed spending city money on the new museum, reiterated his opposition to the project on Monday and said he would rather see the building converted into something like a youth center.
"I think we should invest in the future," Tanaka said. "I understand that we want to celebrate our past but I think we should be the city of the future. We want to invest in things that help our future."