As the cost of renovating and redoing three of our libraries in Palo Alto keeps rising, my enthusiasm for the project keeps falling.
Once proposed as a $45 million endeavor for one library, the current estimate to rebuild Mitchell Park Library, add a community center, and renovate the Main and Downtown libraries is now priced at a whopping $81 million.
If residents agree to fund a bond measure, the estimated property-tax increase for the average Palo Alto homeowner is $180. During the 30-year duration of the measure, a homeowner will spend $5,400 in library property taxes. I could buy a lot of books with that amount.
Yet I am in favor of renovating our libraries and want the library bond measure to pass. But I worry that residents will not support a project with an $81 million price tag.
Remember that just four years ago Palo Altans turned down a $49 million Measure D that called for 63,000 square feet of new space — rebuilding Mitchell and the Community Center and renovating Children's Library.
So how did we get to $81 million and what can we do about the cost, since so many of us love libraries?
Well, building costs have gone up — 10 percent a year for the past two years, and the price of steel and cement is spiraling. That alone can't account for this giant escalation.
Another factor: residents were once again asked what they wanted in these libraries and their ideas were incorporated into the library design work. Palo Alto residents have a plethora of ideas.
Council member Yoriko Kishimoto said the cost also went up because polls
indicated there would be more support if the Main and Downtown libraries
were included in the bond-measure package. These two renovations account
for $31 million of the $81 million. Perhaps, but I wonder if people were told the amount of additional money involved with these inclusions.
What would we get for $81 million? At Mitchell, plans call for a new expanded library, up from 9,500 square feet to 36,000, and a 15,000-square-foot Community Center (up from 10,000). Total project cost: about $56 million.
At the Main Library, the proposal calls spending $26.5 million for a 3,700-square-foot addition (from 26,300 to 30,000 square feet), most of which consists of a group-study area, a community meeting room that seats 100, more bathrooms and a new vestibule so the meeting room can be accessed when the library is closed.
The $26.5 million also includes new heating, lighting and a facelift.
The Downtown renovation would cost $4.5 million with no additional space. Technical Services would move to Mitchell, so Downtown would have more room for public space and would get back its small community meeting room.
But my calculator adds $56 million, $26.5 million and $4.5 million and comes up with $87 million — creating an unexplained $6 million gap above the $81 million bond measure.
I know design plans are in place, but it was just a couple of weeks ago that we were hit with the revised $81 million cost estimate.
Might I suggest our council gain resident confidence by scrutinizing the proposed facilities to decide whether all the features in the library plans are really needed — and also ask if we should even renovate the Downtown branch.
For example, the Mitchell Library plans call for a dedicated children's area, an acoustically separated teen area, a technology-training room, group-study rooms and a program room. Other than the training room, is there much here for adults?
If we worry about places for our children to study after school, why not open more after-hours school libraries? Not as much fun as Mitchell, but they would cost a lot less.
Do we need group-study areas at Main, or a teen area? Could the community meeting room be entered without having a new vestibule? Could the money be better spent on, say, books?
I realize that our libraries have not been renovated for 50 years, and I absolutely believe they need redoing. Mitchell and Main are ragged around not only the edges but the insides.
I also understand that what we do now to the libraries will last decades. And I want libraries that we are proud of because they look and feel so good.
Nevertheless, a couple of questions keep nagging at me:
• Why is it that San Jose seems keep its library costs way down? Two years ago San Jose opened a 28,000-square-foot facility that cost $18 million — at the same time Palo Alto's cost estimates for a 30,000-square-foot facility were coming in at $45 million. San Jose recently opened another similar-sized library that cost $21 million.
• I wonder if our Public Works Department sets any limits when asking for bids for the library project. In some communities, when projects go out for bid, developers are told the city can only afford to spend $XX million, and architects submit designs that are within those financial constraints.
Council members were recently told by staff that any changes to the existing design plans would be expensive and cause delays. Council members want a November ballot measure because of escalating construction costs. So they are in a bind.
I don't agree with the staff analysis that changes would be too costly to consider. The goal is to get the measure passed, and if modifications would save residents money, let's modify — so we can get the bonds approved.