City Council splits over dinosaur sculptures at Junior Museum and Zoo | November 11, 2022 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - November 11, 2022

City Council splits over dinosaur sculptures at Junior Museum and Zoo

Palo Alto moves to delay vote on 'fossil dig' exhibit

by Gennady Sheyner

It's an expenditure that could raise eyebrows in the best of times — seven dinosaur sculptures and giant fossils that would tower over visitors to the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo and cost the city more than $400,000.

And on the eve of an Election Day in which voters were being asked to approve two separate tax measures to preserve basic city services is not the best of times, the City Council acknowledged Monday night. Worried about the impacts — and optics — of commissioning an expansive dinosaur exhibit without having a clear picture of future revenues, council members moved to delay their vote on the planned dinosaur exhibit.

The contract with the firm Blue Rhino Studio wasn't expected to be controversial. The outdoor exhibit has long been viewed as an element in the recent renovation of the children's museum and zoo at 1451 Middlefield Road. The council had already approved a $214,706 contract with Blue Rhino in April 2021 to fabricate three large dinosaurs for the exhibit.

Palo Alto also received $250,000 in matching funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services' Museums of America program and $300,000 from the nonprofit Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo for the creation of a permanent outdoor exhibit known as California Dinosaur Garden, which has a total budget of $980,000.

The proposed contract with Blue Rhino would supplement the three large dinosaur sculptures that had already been approved with four smaller ones as well as large replica fossil skeletons to create a "fossil dig experience," according to a report from the Community Services Department.

But even though the $234,758 contract was listed on the council's consent calendar, a list of items that typically get approved by a single vote with no debate, council members opted in the last minute not to go ahead with the approval just yet. In a rare move, the council voted to approve the project on consent and then, after hearing from several concerned members, redid the vote and fell one vote short of approval. Mayor Pat Burt, Vice Mayor Lydia Kou and council member Greg Tanaka all supported delaying the vote, and while it usually takes four council members to approve a policy, only three are required to pull an item off the consent calendar and revisit it at a future date.

Filseth, who serves on the council's Finance Committee, initially voted against the expenditure. He noted the new zoo's recent struggles to meet its revenue targets, a challenge that has prompted fresh conversations about raising ticket prices. The museum is costing the city about $1.2 million to operate annually. And while the city had projected the museum to recover 65% of its costs through ticket sales, the actual recovery level between its opening date last November and the end of June was about 54% and the number of visitors has been well below the city's projections.

Faced with rising costs, the Finance Committee considered various scenarios in September for raising ticket prices from the current level of $10, though it did not make any recommendations to do so. A past proposal to set prices at $18 was scuttled last year after facing heavy criticism from residents and members of the Friends group, which had raised $25 million for the museum's reconstruction.

Given the museum's challenges, Filseth posited that approving four additional dinosaurs on the eve of the election may not be the best move. He noted that if Measure L, which reaffirms the city's practice of transferring money from the gas utility to the general fund, doesn't pass, the city would be facing budget cuts that may require scaling back library services and other popular programs.

"We're going to prioritize the expansion of a dinosaur exhibit at the time that we're cutting the College Terrace library or the next terrible thing that the next council will have to do," said Filseth, who is terming out at the end of this year. "That's a hard thing to look at now."

Filseth said that he would have voted in favor of the contract if he knew that Measure L would pass. That, however, was not the position the council found itself in on Monday night.

Council members Tom DuBois and Burt largely agreed and both called the item on the dinosaur garden a "close call." But while DuBois favored moving ahead despite his reservations, Burt suggested delaying the vote on the contract until after the election.

"Given all the issues in flux in the sustainability of the Junior Museum and Zoo budget, I think I want to have this reconsidered," Burt said. "I'm not certain that not going forward is the right approach, but I do want to look at it in the context where we stand on what looks like an unsustainable budget on the JMZ."

Cormack suggested that the city's expenditure is a contractual obligation and argued that the capital expenditures for the dinosaur exhibit were already budgeted and are separate from the operating funds needed to keep the museum running.

"The funds are available and were intended for this purpose," Cormack said.

Email Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner at [email protected]


Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 8, 2022 at 10:36 am

Online Name is a registered user.

"The contract with the firm Blue Rhino Studio wasn't expected to be controversial. "

Of course it wasn't which shows how out of touch this city really is with what the residents want. The JMZ is already a sterile, unattractive money pit because the outside consultant who built it had no local knowledge about what made the old zoo loved to many.

At a time when the city's pleading poverty, when our libraries STILL haven restored their old hours, when we're short police, when our unfunded pension liabilities remain unfunded etc etc, this Dinosaur Garden is an absurd joke that's left many of us appalled and wondering what the city's thinking (if that's the right word).

Posted by rita vrhel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 8, 2022 at 10:51 am

rita vrhel is a registered user.

You have got to be kidding me !!!!!! I did not even read who voted yes or no as, IMO, all votes should be a loud and resounding NO!!!!!

Is not this the museum that use to be just perfectly funky and free to all ? So many pleasant memories.

Then it was revamped, made into a First Class (hello Jim Keene!) Jr. Museum. For what and for whom?
Current admission is outrageous, financial issues abound and it seems the funky museum has morphed into a white elephant. (no pun intended)

Placing the Museum on sound financial footing without using General Fund dollars and seeking Corporate sponsorship would be better than dinosaur statues!

This is why so many residents are rightly concerned, if not incensed, about the way their tax dollars are spent.

Thank you.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 8, 2022 at 12:51 pm

Resident is a registered user.

"We're going to prioritize the expansion of a dinosaur exhibit at the time that we're cutting the College Terrace library"?? I haven't seen a proposal to cut the College Terrace Library lately. The last time the City Council proposed this, the uproar ended with appointment of an activitist Library Advisory Commission and College Terrace Library survived. Of course, the City Council has now eliminated the Library Advisory Committee (which was not very active lately, to be honest) so they think they can get away with this again? Although there is not single library open on Mondays, there is also not a single job positing for a library staff on the PA City website. Maybe they were thinking that the dinosaurs could staff the libraries.

Posted by Bystander
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 8, 2022 at 1:15 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

I have not been inside the new museum/zoo and have no intentions to do so. The old fixture was a regular haunt when our kids were growing up. Some visits were 15 minutes and others were longer, a place to go on a wet afternoon or an extension of a visit to the park or the library. Now that I am a grandparent, I can't see me spending any time taking kids at that price when all they want maybe 15 minutes.

Posted by Tina
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 8, 2022 at 1:39 pm

Tina is a registered user.

Dear Palo Alto City Council members, please use the money to help restore library hours like the poster above mentioned, not on dinosaur sculptures that look cool but no one honestly needs. $400K can go a long way I am sure, and there are probably a million other more important priorities for which the city can think of to use it. Why this?

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 8, 2022 at 2:07 pm

Online Name is a registered user.

"I have not been inside the new museum/zoo and have no intentions to do so. The old fixture was a regular haunt when our kids were growing up."

I have because the city sent neighbors a pass for a 30-minute visit to thank us for tolerating the construction for so long and then -- even with the live birds and the tortoise -- we decided there was no reason to go again. Now the live birds are gone, too.

We used to pass there old zoo on our way to the library and there were always groups of people at the entrance whom our dog was happily greeted, Fun chatting with the kids and adults.

Now we've spent millions on a consultant to eradicate all that and want to throw more money after bad! For what?

Do staff, the City Manager, the City Council Members ever get out of their bubble to check on what they're destroying before they do so? Do they ever pay attention to what we want?

So glad I voted against both tax measures because they'll just flush that money away, too.

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 8, 2022 at 2:35 pm

Annette is a registered user.

I am relieved to see that this was not rubber-stamped. That it was even on the Consent Calendar was wrong. The optics were TERRIBLE. To be buying dinosaurs at the same time that you are asking residents to approve two ballot measures that would annually restore the General Fund begs so many questions. Does the City really need both measures to pass? Are services really in jeopardy or was that just so much campaign talk? Does anybody review what Shikada puts on the Consent Calendar?

Sometimes Palo Alto outdoes even itself when it comes to absurdity.

Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 8, 2022 at 4:10 pm

Anonymous is a registered user.

My objection is part of the funding from a federal grant!? You’ve got to be kidding me. I never heard of anything so ridiculous.

Posted by Jeremy Erman
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 8, 2022 at 8:29 pm

Jeremy Erman is a registered user.

The main problem here is that staff--and perhaps council as well--having spent millions to build a much bigger and elaborate Junior Museum and Zoo, have decided that the city shouldn't have to spend any money to operate the facility. Its bizarre that they should take this stance after the city happily funded the operation of the old museum and zoo for decades and decades. Somehow, the city staff just thought that the new facility would instantly bring in millions and millions of dollars, despite the fact that people were used to the old place being free.

Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 9, 2022 at 5:13 am

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

My grandson is a recurrent and delighted patron who has adored in the staff and museum. I lift but one tiny delighted voice to celebrate the magic and vision of the museum’s proponents. I imagine his going to bed saying “I rode a dinosaur”.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 9, 2022 at 7:21 am

Online Name is a registered user.

And how often is your grandson going to go back to visit that dinosaur, to see how it's grown and if it recognizes him each time he comes back?

Posted by Palo Alto Res
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 9, 2022 at 9:25 pm

Palo Alto Res is a registered user.

Dear City Councilors,
Have you forgotten it was only a few years ago, you were lamenting how little money was left in reserves as we headed into a pandemic? The topic came up how about almost a million dollars was spent in the atrocious art work in front of the fire station (in the good times), only to find out as we faced the pandemic, only about 1 million were left in reserves and the City was about to go into deficit.

This led to excruciating meetings talking about which programs to shut down. It seems like just yesterday you were voting on closing community libraries and shuttering their doors. Talks were had about getting rid of programs for children and teenagers in the middle of a pandemic when you needed those wellness programs.

The City manager said everyone should take a hit all across the board, and that included amazing library hours, libraries and everything else.

Now we are talking about half a million dollars in art work yet again as we emerge from the pandemic?

You've got to be kidding me. Instead of learning from past lessons and building up a new reserve, you're debating on dinosaur art work? What a farce!


Posted by Palo Alto Res
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 9, 2022 at 9:31 pm

Palo Alto Res is a registered user.

[Post removed; successive comments by same poster are not permitted.]

Posted by MyFeelz
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Nov 10, 2022 at 3:28 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

Nothing more apropos (or ridiculous) than spending money on an homage to the dinosaur while people are living on the streets, wondering where the next meal will come from. I guess that's pretty much what happened to the dinosaurs, too. Until the last one died.

Posted by Mary Pat O’Connell
a resident of Monroe Park
on Nov 12, 2022 at 9:24 am

Mary Pat O’Connell is a registered user.

I encourage those of you who feel strongly, but have not yet visited to find a young child and go together to the new museum. The beautifully designed exhibits succeed in engaging children in learning while having lots of fun. I offer great appreciation to those who made this new museum possible. We waited to visit until both of my grandchildren were old enough to be vaccinated for Covid. Others may have done the same, and that may be part of the reason that attendance fell short during the first year of operation.

I have no doubt that my grandchildren would be delighted by an additional dinosaur exhibit. That said, I understand the hesitance of the council members to approve the expenditure of allocated funds before knowing the fate of Measures K and L. Now that these measures have resoundingly been approved by the community, I hope the dinosaur exhibit can be competed.

Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 12, 2022 at 10:04 am

Annette is a registered user.

True, recent story: a colleague had family coming to town and was collecting ideas about what to do. I suggested the 5 of them visit the Junior Museum. She replied that she had looked into it but decided against it because it was too expensive. Each time this happens the museum (and the city) lose both ticket revenue and the free marketing that follows enjoyable visits to unique and pleasurable places.

Here's an idea: how about thanking the voters of Palo Alto for passing K and L by making admission FREE during the upcoming holiday periods? Consider it a marketing expense. And if crowds of people don't come when admission is free, you will have learned something valuable.

Posted by Online Name
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 12, 2022 at 10:23 am

Online Name is a registered user.

@Annette, excellent idea about making it free again. Maybe the old crowd of 40 people outside the old JMZ will return if for no other reason than to use the bathrooms. Maybe tben they'll get to see the exhibits.

Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 13, 2022 at 4:45 pm

eileen is a registered user.

Annette, as usual, a brilliant idea! Let's make the Junior Museum free for a few weeks and see how many local residents flock back! Somehow, I think this renovation was done for outside tourists rather than local residents.

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