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Library costs are not adding up

Original post made by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Dec 2, 2006

Last Sunday I spoke to Palo Alto Library Director Diane Jennings to ask about the preliminary cost estimates of a new Mitchell Park Library, because the cost figures were not adding up for me.

San Jose two weeks earlier had opened up its 28,000-square-foot Cambrian Branch library that cost $11.7 million to design and build, minus furniture and computers.

Group 4, the South San Francisco architectural firm hired by Palo Alto as a consultant, had estimated preliminary costs running between $52 and $62 million, as reported by the Weekly, depending on the size and configuration of Mitchell Library. Guestimates, as I recall, were between 30,000 and 40,000-square feet.

Group 4’s figures are at least four times the cost of building the Cambrian Library. In both San Jose and Palo Alto, the library land is owned by the city.

Why the difference, I asked Jennings. She said last Sunday that Group 4’s figures included furniture and computers, and also a 10 percent increase per year in construction. She went on to say that the estimates were “very preliminary” and would be reviewed by the city’s Public Works Department. “We are trying to include everything in our cost estimate,” she said, adding the firm was working on a “very tight time frame.” The estimates did not include staffing costs, nor purchase of new books and materials, she added.

I talked to Richard Desmond, director of branch library development for San Jose, and he said the furniture and computer costs for the Cambrian Branch were about $1 million. Okay, so now we are up to $12.7 million for this library, which is serving 60,000 people (Palo Alto’s population). He couldn’t speculate why the price tag was so much higher in Palo Alto. Construction costs are going up 15 percent a year since 2005, he said, mostly due to the greater global demand for building materials.

The new Cambrian Branch Library features a community living room with a fireplace, a tech center, group and quiet study areas, a storytelling area for 30 children, a community meeting room for 100 persons, and 89 parking spaces. And yes, there is space for a collection of 125,000 items.

The San Jose $11.7 million figure covered design, project management, construction and other related management costs, plus an 80-foot public art stairway project depicting the natural and social histories of the site.

“Did you scrimp on the cost or use cheap building materials?” I asked Desmond. “Not at all,” he replied.

This week Jennings revamped her figures, as the Weekly reported Friday, saying the library would cost $20 million less. As the Weekly said, “The price of the most popular proposal -- constructing a new community center/library -- is now $42.8 million, down from a high estimate of $62 million Jennings said. Building just a new library (without including the community center) is now expected to cost $22.5 million, not the $38.5 million previously estimated.”

The reason for the “savings,” Jennings told the Weekly, is that the estimates had included 10 percent inflation a year which she eliminated, plus she had tightened up the amount added for unknown costs, and reduced the estimated cost of relocating a traffic light and utilities.

The matter is going before the Palo Alto City Council Monday, Dec. 4.

I am still uncomfortable with the numbers.

In 2002, Palo Alto voters turned down a library bond measure for a $49.1 million (cost estimates supplied by Group 4), in large part because of the price tag.

We’ve had a Library Advisory Commission studying the “what to do about our libraries” question for the past two years, and other library supporters have been tangentially involved.

I credit Jennings for looking into the cost figures this week, and suggesting $20 million could be shaved, but I wonder why the commission had not looked into the cost during the past two years. We can’t talk about new libraries without knowing how much they would cost!

It would be like my saying I want a new 4,000-square-foot house with five bedrooms, a large kitchen and a big back yard, without even asking the architect in advance how much something like that would cost.

And even with this new $20 million “savings,” I am unclear whether construction cost increases should or should not be built into the estimates.

The Almaden Community Center and Library in San Jose that opened this year is a 64,000-square-foot facility, costing $24 million, Desmond said. And the Bascom Avenue Branch is in the design phase, and will be a 40,0000-square-foot facility costing $30 million -- including increased construction costs.

The time is right for a new library in Palo Alto. Mitchell is definitely old and crowded, and the Main Library is dingy and run down. I would love a new library.

However, we need to spend our money wisely. If other communities can build great libraries for half the cost, most other factors being equal, then we need to make sure we are not being taken for a ride. Remember, these millions for a library bond don’t include interest – with interest the price tag doubles.

Comments (15)

Posted by Chris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 2, 2006 at 10:17 pm

You mean it's costing us only twice as much as other cities spend to have a new library? Wow. Given the comparative governmental costs in Palo Alto for other amenities and services, that sounds like a real bargain to me.

Posted by freeda
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 2, 2006 at 11:10 pm

Why are we bothering to build a new library? With the internet, all of the reference material one could need is a keystroke away. I agree that libraries are important for kids -- and kids have libraries in their schools. But what's the purpose of a public library today other than a place to sleep for the homeless?

Instead of spending our hard-earned tax dollars on something that has little relevance in today's world, how about we eliminate tax-supported libraries and turn them over to private organizations? Friends of the Palo Alto libraries could form one. They could charge fees or membership dues. If there's enough interest in libraries, the money will flow in -- and the libraries will have money to provide all of the extras Jennings desires.

Plus, the city could cut taxes equivalent to the amount saved by not having libraries.

By the way, did anybody see those stories on Channel 7 last week about the disgusting behavior by the homeless and sex perverts in the libraries in San Francisco and San Jose? Web Link Wonder if that's going on here?

Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 3, 2006 at 1:13 am

Freeda, Perhaps you should also count the 10's-OF-THOUSANDS of Palo Alto (and other) citizens who visit and use our libraries. Most of the talk of "the Internet replacing libraries" is wishful thinking, and innccurate technology and library patron behavior projection. Please do some homework, and suggest something more plausible than replacing this essential public institution with the Internet.

Also, please do come up with something more accurate about the GENERAL demeanor of libraries, instead of the fraction of 1% of the population that causes problems in libraries. Should we eliminate public safety buildings because a fraction of 1% of cops are crooked? Please.

Your comments remind me of all the people in the latter part of the last decade who were claiming that books were going to disappear, now that we have distributed digital media. They were - and are - WRONG. W-R-O-N-G!

Guess what? The book business has GROWN. There are MORE books published than ever before. Someone must be reading and buying them, Libraries are serving them up to their patrons. You can check these FACTS out in any public library.

Posted by Mike
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 3, 2006 at 1:40 am

Diane, a few things...

The last library bond measure failed because it was poorly designed, period. In spite of that, more than 61% of Palo Altans voted for it. That's pretty rabid library support, if you ask me. The current library proposals are much more comprehensive, and well-thought-out. Our community WANTS a better library; they will vote to pay for that library.

As for the LAC, I've been watching that group closely. In fact, contrary to yuor claim, "other library supporters" have been FAR more than 'tangentially' involved. The LAC has held MANY public meetings (well over a dozen), at ALL libraries. In addition, all LAC meetings are public, with many, many citizens having input their ideas about what the library should be. Finally, a community survey was sponsored by the LAC and City Council. I have rarely seen such exhaustive public diligence performed for the planning stages of a public institution

About cost: Diane Jennings, the LAC, and Council are VERY concerned about cost, and have included cost considerations in their plan. Polling will be done to gain even more public input about cost. A library audit is being performed, the results of which will help gain insight into how further cost efficiencies will be derived. etc etc. The numbers are being reviewed with a fine toothed comb.

Last, your statements about cost, and the rationale for same, are somewhat premature, as the cost issues are being worked on as we speak. The Council and LAC have made it clear that the current stage of the recommendations are the first step in a process.

About construction cost increases: they're a reality. How much will it cost us NOT to build as soon as possible? Please run those numbers, and consider 10% annual increases as being on the conservative side; 15% is more like it. Also, interest on debt is also a fact of life. What's the interest rate charge on a larger construction amount that results from putting libraries off? Again, NOT building is what we should be focusing on, in terms of a cost debacle that we would have to face down the road. What's the opportunity cost of NOT building ASAP? If you're going to to weigh in on cost, the latter has to be one of the more compelling things cnosidered, because additional construction inflation cost will be the MOST significant cost of we wait.

Last, I think it's dangerous to presume that Palo Altans are "being taken for a ride". I've heard that old saw about dedicated library officials so many times that it's getting tiring, if not downright aggravating. The LAC, City Council, and library staff have been extraordinarily diligent in looking for ways to make this infrastructure build as cost-effective as possible.

Keep your critical eye honed, but do try to be aware that jumping the gun on criticism of this plan is premature at this point. We're where we need to be to get this done.

Posted by Carol
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 3, 2006 at 8:12 pm

I am not sure how relevant this may be to our discussions, but in particular to address Freeds's concerns, I was in the new downtown San Jose MLK library today. It is a wonderful building, very well laid out with plenty of space for laptops, research work and plenty of internet and library catalog computers. The coffee shop was busy and the children's area was full. I know it is not a fair comparison to Palo Alto, but it was far from being seedy and a hub of community (both city and university) activity. I mention this because in the heart of silicon valley this wonderful new library is a beacon to the way ahead, not to the way back. Books will not go out of fashion even in the advances of getting information from the internet. In fact to me it looks as if it is the opposite, with libraries teaching its patrons how to find what they need from the library catalog and websites just as much as any other internet website.

Posted by construction guy
a resident of another community
on Dec 4, 2006 at 5:00 am

your analysis of construction costs is hardly informative. You really need to be looking at $/ft2 of space if you want to compare prices with other libraries. According to your numbers, SJ spent $454/ft2 with equipment, and the 52-62M for 30-40k ft2 for P.A. works out to between $1300-2067/ft2, a factor of 2.9-4.6 what SJ paid! Even with the current high prices of building, $500/ft2 shoudld buy a pretty nice library. Anything more than that and you are paying way too much, or you have picked exorbitanly expensive materials that are a waste for a public library. You can still have a beautiful finish but use inexpensive materials. You should also be asking, how much is the architects fees? Are they getting a percentage of the project cost?

Posted by Wolf
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 4, 2006 at 12:38 pm

"Construction guy" pretty much said it. Whatever else is said and "explained away", it is not much more than arm waving. If we pay more than $500/sq.ft. someone is making off with a bundle, and someone else is grossly incompetent or worse. At $500 it is already about a double of what typical housing per sq.ft. cost is.

Further, the "instant savings" of $20M raise more questions. From the description it seems that nothing has changed in the construction, and only the calculation method has changed. If calculation method can affect the cost by 30% overnight, how safe should we feel when the bond will move forward that it indeed is for the right amount, and not for 30% too much or 30% too little? I know little about construction, but a simple googling of Calif. construction costs index:
Web Link
indicates that the average annual increase in the last 10 years was about 3% and the average increase in the last 2 years is about 6% annually. And this number is currently dropping with housing slowdown. So the glib 10% increase per year assumption seems grossly overstated.

Finally, how big of a library do we need in Mitchell Park? If 28,000 sq. ft. are plenty for 60,000 people in San Jose, do we even need 30,000 sq. ft. in Mitchell park, when Palo Alto also has a total population of 60,000, and with Mitchell Park being one of 2 main sites, in addition to another three more peripheral branches? We certainly don't seem to need more than that.

I hope these questions are asked and answered tonight at the council meeting.

Posted by DJ
a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 4, 2006 at 3:38 pm

Palo Alto is in Santa Clara county - why not get the county to maintain the library instead? Check out the Los Altos branch - its 100 times better than any library in Palo Alto!

And yes - we do need a library ! Finding/reading material on the internet has its own pros ( quick access, searching ) - but the charm of holding a printed book and reading it, is completely different !

Posted by John
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 5, 2006 at 11:44 am


The cost of the new library includes the following line items : 1. "Palo Alto Suckers"
2. "City Council Sleepy heads"

DD - Thanks for waking Palo Altans. But we need you to do more.

Posted by mr. kim
a resident of Midtown
on Dec 10, 2006 at 1:10 pm

As a design student studying architecture currently, the cost figures seem very high to me as well. I have done a case study on the Almaden Branch Library and Community Center in the City of San Jose and the cost was much less (finished earlier this year) and is 65,000 sq.ft. If this new dual facility offers a lavish gymnasium and multistory library that will make no need for the downtown library, I can see why the costs might be getting up there, but otherwise I think this is outrageous. Has anyone seen the conceptual designs for the proposed facilities? Does anyone know the South San Francisco architecture firm designing it? Sure, we are Palo Altans, but we are not to be taken advantage of when it comes to building costs!

Posted by Chris
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 10, 2006 at 2:05 pm

Mr. Kim, Palo Alto is an easy mark not only for building contractors and architects, but for consultants, suppliers, and most of all, even for its own employees. Anyone watching city government over the past decade or so can see that Palo Alto spends much more than neighboring cities for the same amenities. In the flush times, those in government got used to not having to pay attention to what things cost. Bad habits die hard, and now that our treasury is not so full, we're seeing the results of the profligacy of the last decade. So much of our budget is eaten up by employee costs and wastes that, unlike other cities, we have to consider special bonds for libraries, infrastructure and the police station. And even then, as you point out, our costs estimates are wildly our of line with what other cities spend.

Sure we're taken advantage of on the library. What else is new?

Posted by Diana Diamond
Palo Alto Online blogger
on Dec 10, 2006 at 5:56 pm

Diana Diamond is a registered user.

Mr. Kim and Chris --

I agree with both of you! I have long complained that anytime this city wants something new, a bond measure or parcel tax is the only answer -- despite a $129 million general fund, which is nearly double that (on a per capita basis) compared to our neighboring cities.

You both "get it!" in my humble opinion.


Posted by Mike
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 13, 2006 at 10:56 pm

Yes, the main library appears a bit dingy. I have no opinion on the others because I have mostly used the main library-I have only visited two of the others a couple of times.

Doesn't almost every building getting use over time get worn? In the 18 years I have lived in my home here we have repainted and recarpeted most rooms at least once, and made some more significant changes to others. But we have not decided to abandon the house for a new one, or tear it down and build again on the spot. Why can't the remodel or redecorate approach work for the library? I don't think library usage is much different than it has been for many years, so it should not be a matter of more capacity.

And most people don't go to the library because of its up-to-date appearance. They go for books.

Posted by bruce
a resident of Midtown
on May 20, 2007 at 8:37 am

The Palo Alto City Council should hire the architects and builders of the San Jose library to design and build one for Palo Alto.

Posted by bob
a resident of College Terrace
on May 20, 2007 at 8:41 am

Thank you Diana. Why can't our leaders and or staff do the leg work you do? I see us/them living in an ivory tower and ignoring the world outside our borders. I bet no one on the council is aware of the San Jose library efforts - if they were, we should have heard this issue addressed by the council or the library commission.

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