Editorial: Heartening unanimity in library direction | November 29, 2006 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - November 29, 2006

Editorial: Heartening unanimity in library direction

Palo Alto's decades-long struggle to upgrade its aging library system moves from near-hopeless to hopeful as issue comes before City Council Monday

It's been a grueling two years since Palo Alto's Library Advisory Commission (LAC) took on the assignment of reporting back to the City Council with a cohesive plan to fix up the city's aging library system.

Next Monday night the results of the extended but intensive process -- featuring periods of weekly meetings and sometimes heated online debates, the abrupt departure of one library director and the naming of a new one -- will be officially presented to the City Council. The architectural consulting firm, Group 4 of South San Francisco, will present alternatives at a 6 p.m. study session, followed by the presentation of the official LAC report by commissioners and city staff.

The big recommendations have been reported: (1) to try again on rebuilding the heavily used Mitchell Park Library and the Mitchell Park Community Center, now separate but adjacent buildings, each showing their age and inadequacy, and (2) to do some serious refurbishing of College Terrace and the Downtown branch libraries and refurbishing and modest (add meeting rooms) expansion at the Main Library.

The LAC also will present its recommendations on staffing levels, translating to hours open and services available.

New information Monday will be refined cost estimates for the Mitchell branch and community center, plus a couple of lesser-cost alternatives. A combined facility could cost as much as $52 million to $62 million, depending on size alternatives chosen -- but those estimates include substantial furnishings and equipment (including computers) as opposed to building costs alone.

Just replacing the Mitchell Park Library, with no expansion, would cost an estimated $38.5 million. Mitchell is the city's busiest branch, with more than 300,000 visitors annually to the 9,500-square-foot, 50-year-old building.

Architects and city staff members are scrambling this week to compile more precise cost estimates, particularly in light of apparent lower-cost library buildings recently opened in San Jose.

City Librarian Diane Jennings said she has been in contact with the San Jose library director to discuss the differences, and construction estimators from the city's Public Works Department met with architects on Monday. Jennings said the architects' estimate of 10 percent per year construction-cost inflation may in fact be on the low side, with some experts suggesting 15 percent as more realistic.

It would indeed be helpful -- even essential -- to have apples-to-apples cost comparisons, but just factoring in one-third for inflation over two or three years could go a long way in explaining cost differences between Palo Alto and San Jose libraries.

While the focus understandably will be on the Mitchell facility, the rest of the package should not be ignored.

"We're trying to lift the whole system," Jennings notes, with some optimism that this round might be the one that succeeds.

It just might be. After a decade of stalled progress during the 1990s, with the community and staff split over keeping branch libraries versus developing a large full-service library, there was an intense push for library improvements after 2000.

In 2002, a joint library/community center proposal for Mitchell (with renovation of Children's Library thrown in) fell six percentage points short of winning the two-thirds approval needed for the $49.1 million bond measure. But Children's renovation/expansion is now a separate project, and out of the way. Also, a vague plan in 2002 for expansion or rebuilding of the Main Library is no longer an alternative. And the council has affirmed the branch-library system, moving that contentious issue aside.

There were odd political forces at work in 2002 that no longer exist at the City Council level. And, perhaps most important, many pro-library persons involved now seem to realize that continued bickering over fine points or dissension about process will certainly kill any plan that is proposed. Finally, there is no dedicated parkland involved in any of the Mitchell expansion alternatives -- a small but important side concern for some in 2002.

The council last April targeted June 2008 to present a new bond proposal to voters. This seems much closer today than in May. There is a huge amount of work to be done, both technical and in terms of getting information out to the public. The slow but deliberate process now underway seems the best way to get there.


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