The Los Altos City Council last month granted the ad hoc committee charged with finding space for Friends of the Library of Los Altos more time to come up with a solution that will allow the nonprofit group to continue operations while the new community center is under construction.
Friends – whose volunteers sort, store and sponsor used-book sales to raise funds for the libraries – worked out of 1,000 square feet of classroom space at Hillview Community Center for 44 years, before the center was razed in October to make way for the new Los Altos Community Center, expected to be completed in December.
City officials informed Friends of the Library in 2018 that there would be no space for the group at the new center.
The ad hoc committee – comprising two city staff members, two council members, librarian Marlene Iwamoto, two Friends representatives and a representative of the Los Altos History Museum – found a short-term solution for the nonprofit group, which contributes approximately $150,000 annually in books and gifts to the Los Altos main and Woodland Branch libraries.
Friends volunteers and board members proposed two sheds on approximately 500 square feet of land at the Los Altos Civic Center between the police station and the History Museum, but city staff, led by City Manager Chris Jordan, recommended that Friends be allowed to place only one portable approximately 330 square feet in size near the Hillview Soccer Field. After the Los Altos City Council approved Jordan’s proposal, Friends appealed to the Santa Clara County Library District, which operates the Los Altos Library, for extra storage and sorting space. County administrators approved the temporary setup.
City officials asked the ad hoc committee to return to the council by the end of 2019 with a long-term solution for Friends, a group that has been around for more than 60 years. Since July, the committee has met five times and failed to reach a consensus. Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins wondered why.
Mayor Jan Pepper and Councilwoman Lynette Lee Eng, who both serve on the ad hoc committee, differed in their opinions on the state of the committee’s progress.
Lee Eng said the committee agreed that Friends could change its business model by considering space that is not at the civic center for a new, permanent location. Pepper took issue with Lee Eng’s assertion, denying all members shared that perspective and noting that Friends members have consistently lamented that moving from the civic center campus would require overhauling the way the group operates.
A major part of the discussion, Pepper said, centered on how to fairly assign space at the civic center given competing interests, as well as how to encourage the entities represented on the committee to continue to do good work.
“Or how to pick our favorite child?” Bruins summarized, acknowledging that Friends’ request for civic center space conflicted with the museum’s interest in placing a garage with glass doors to showcase three historical cars.
A committee divided
Pepper and Lee Eng represented two opposing camps on the committee, according to a committee member affiliated with Friends who asked not to be named. He told the Town Crier that Pepper favored a committee vote on a recommendation, but Lee Eng was nervous that her plan to advise Friends to change its business model would not garner a majority vote and therefore “would not win.”
“To put that in the context of winning, who’s winning in (this situation)?” he said.
To break the impasse, Pepper requested that the committee make a chart outlining the Friends operation: preprocessing, pricing and sorting, warehousing and sales. Red lines with arrows showed the tasks Friends believed would be difficult to complete offsite, such as transporting books from the Woodland Branch to the donation closet – approximately 5,000 books are received a week, the unidentified Friends member said. The majority of Friends volunteers are retired, and many active members are seniors. Moving operations across town would necessitate hiring employees and purchasing a truck to haul materials from location to location – costs that, including preparation of the new site, could add up to $450,000.
Friends has money, the committee member said, but if the group were hit with such fees, it would not be able to contribute to the library at all, which would mean no funding for speakers, workshops and stocking the best-seller shelves.
“We offered many times to have them come on over, we’ll show you what we do, but no (staff or council) ever picked us up on that,” he said.
At the ad hoc committee’s December meeting, members debated four options: two on-site spots (leaving Friends where it is near the soccer field or placing a portable on the Los Altos Youth Center patio) and two off-site spots (Rosita Park or the Woodland Branch).
Hoping for the best, planning for the worst
Suzanne Epstein, director of the Friends executive board, is looking ahead at finding a permanent home for the organization, but she can’t help but look back at decisions made last year in preparation for Hillview’s closure.
She alleged that Jordan and his staff asked Friends not to request classroom space in the new community center, assuring members that space would be allocated somewhere else on the civic center campus. In an effort to be supportive, Friends didn’t challenge Jordan’s plan, Epstein said, but members began to worry when they heard nothing from him and meetings with his office were postponed.
A few months before the center was demolished, Jordan met with Friends and told members that after more than four decades at the civic center, they were out of luck.
When reached by the Town Crier, Jordan said he never made Friends any promises.
That argument aside, Friends is struggling in its current space. The portable is not heated – most volunteers wear gloves to protect them from the winter cold – and it’s crowded. The allotted space inside the main library is also small, and losing that space would mean approximately $1,500 less in ongoing book-sale revenue each week, according to Friends members.
“By doing all this, it’s kind of creating kind of ill feelings amongst some people working there,” Epstein said of Friends volunteers. “We are driving away some really dedicated people.”
A handful of longtime Friends volunteers have already walked away, Epstein said, feeling betrayed by the city for not providing on-site space like every other city in Santa Clara County. Jordan contested that, noting that the Friends of the Saratoga Libraries is housed in a different building (the Saratoga Historical Park, a six-minute drive from the main library).
The ad hoc committee is slated to meet again Jan. 17, but Friends has scheduled its own meeting Jan. 8 in the Orchard Room of the main library, open to all, to solicit feedback on how to prepare for relocation, whether off-site or on the civic center campus.
“I believe we could make it work off-site, but it would not be nearly as enjoyable,” said Margaret Brooks, president of the Friends executive board. “It’s a hell of a lot more work for a lot less money.”
In advance of the meeting, Friends sent the Town Crier an embargoed letter that will go out to members Thursday weighing the pros and cons of courses of action to take if the council votes to place the group off-site. The possibilities range from accepting the new location, investing in facilities and equipment, and continuing operations by hiring employees to transport books to transferring all funds to the Los Altos Library Endowment and terminating the Friends.
“We are doing preparatory work to (determine) if we fold, if we try to have a smaller operation or what,” Epstein said. “There’s a serious question of, ‘Wow, is this the end of the Friends of the Library?’”
Friends members formed a communications team to help educate members and encourage an informed dialogue. All hope is not lost, Brooks said.