Originally published Dec. 20, 2021
BY DAVE PRICE
Daily Post Editor
This is the time of year for gift-giving — and the city of Palo Alto got a big one the other day.
As the Post reported last week, an anonymous donor has pledged up to $35 million toward a public gym in Palo Alto.
Not to sound ungrateful, but whenever the city or school district gets a gift, some serious questions need to be asked and answered before taking the money. Here’s my short list of questions:
1. Why would the city go into competition with the privately-owned gyms in town?
If I owned a widget shop and the city decided to open its own widget shop next door to mine, I’d be pretty angry. The city has a seemingly endless supply of money, and it could cut prices and take over the widget market in town.
Ironically, the city is landlord to a privately-owned gym, Form Fitness, at 445 Bryant St. Is the city really going to go into competition with its own tenant?
2. How did a gym become a priority for the city government?
The city’s list of 83 infrastructure projects doesn’t mention a gym. The donor is expecting the city will contribute money and land. But if the city accepts this money, the gym will move to the top of the list, possibly delaying important projects like the renovation of fire stations.
3. Operating and maintaining a gym will have ongoing operational costs that won’t be covered by the donation. In a city that laid off police officers and firefighters in the past two years, is it a good idea to expand the city payroll for employees to run a new gym?
4. The donor is anonymous for now, but his name will come out. What if the donor is clearly unacceptable in today’s woke world?
Would the city take money from Harvey Weinstein? Or James Franco? The Palo Alto school board removed the names of Lewis Terman and David Starr Jordan from two middle schools because they approved of eugenics in the early 1900s, when that was a commonly-held belief. What if we discover that the donor misused a pronoun in a social media posting? In that case, should his name adorn the gym? However, name recognition might be the reason why he’s donating so much money.
Just because somebody dangles money in front of city officials, it doesn’t mean they should take it. As the Post reported on Dec. 10, the city accepted a grant from a foundation funded in part by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg that required the city to embrace certain pro-tenant, anti-landlord policies. Taking the money locked the city into policies that hadn’t yet gone to City Council for approval, short-circuting the public process.
Menlo Park’s experience
In 2017, local real estate developer John Arrillaga offered Menlo Park $25 million to rebuild the city’s main library at 800 Alma St. The total project was estimated to cost $45 million, leaving the city on the hook for $20 million.
Residents said the main library didn’t need to be renovated but the branch in the Belle Haven neighborhood certainly needed work. The city hired a pollster to find out if residents favored a bond measure to fund the city’s share of the downtown library and build a new Belle Haven library. The poll showed only 61% were in support, short of the two-thirds needed for passage. After a year of debate, Arrillaga withdrew his offer.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that donors have funded many valuable things in the community. Arrillaga generously donated the money for the Menlo Park gym that bears his name. Arrillaga’s business partner, Richard Peery, donated $25 million toward the construction of the athletic center at Palo Alto High School. Of course, the Stanford campus abounds with the buildings named after donors. And Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital started with the money from the wife of HP co-founder David Packard.
I could name many more donations the community has enjoyed. I’m not recommending the city reject this donation. But city leaders should go into this with eyes wide open.
Editor Dave Price’s column appears on Mondays. His email address is email@example.com.