The Pleasanton City Council waived the first reading of an ordinance to begin the process of consolidating the number of newspaper racks in the downtown area from five locations down to three at last week's meeting.
City staff will now have to bring it back for a second reading after council amended the original recommendation after the item was pulled off the consent calendar for a roughly 30-minute discussion Nov. 7. The changes were for staff to explore the possibility of adding a Little Free Library and see how the city can paint or add artwork to the new newsracks so that they fit in with the historic charm of downtown.
"I think those boxes ... they're massive in their footprint. I just don't think they look like Pleasanton," Mayor Karla Brown said during the hearing.
Currently, there are five freestanding newsracks located along Main Street -- they are at 201 Main St., 300 Main St., 624 Main St., 855 Main St. and 900 Main St. The city owns each of the concrete "newsracks" while individual media organizations own, manage and service the metal boxes within the newsracks, including the Pleasanton Weekly.
City staff said these newsracks, which have been in place for decades, have not been maintained, kept in good condition and are riddled with "clutter, debris, dust and broken windows."
"You can see that by the pictures that we're showing you this evening ... they're in pretty sad condition these days," assistant city manager Pamela Ott said during the Nov. 7 meeting. "There's been a lot of neglect, many of the boxes do not have publications in them."
That's why Ott said staff recommended the ordinance that would consolidate the newsracks into three that would be owned by the city. Those new racks would be located at 201 Main St., 624 Main St. and 400 Old Bernal Ave., which is right next to the Pleasanton Public Library. With the three new locations all being on city-owned property, it would give the city the ability to maintain them and keep them clean, Ott said.
She added that the newsracks are a way of distributing speech that is protected under the First Amendment and that while the city can impose reasonable restrictions on the time, place or manner of the placement of the newsracks, the city cannot eliminate them in their entirety.
But getting rid of the newsracks or the consolidation of them weren't really the main focus of the council's discussion of the ordinance.
Councilmember Julie Testa, who was the only member of the council who voted No on the proposed ordinance, had originally pulled the item from the consent calendar because she said the newsracks that staff are recommending to replace the existing ones do not fit with the downtown aesthetic. Items on the consent calendar are routine in nature and are typically voted on with a single vote with little to no discussion.
"I certainly agree that the current structures and the boxes are unmaintained and in poor condition and that we need to do something," Testa said. "My concern is the box ... doesn't look like it belongs in downtown."
She said that the four compartment, metal boxes were too industrial-looking and should not replace the existing concrete newsrack that are more aligned to the city's historic look. She had suggested that staff look at keeping the concrete and instead replace the existing compartment boxes or simply remove the ones that are not being used and fill in the gap with some sort of mural or art.
She said she would have supported that, instead of spending $16,000 on the new racks -- a total that doesn't include the amount it would cost the Public Works Department to remove the existing concrete racks and restore those areas.
Ott, however, had explained during her presentation that the city didn't have much to choose from as it had previously tried going to one newsrack vendor, which shortly after went out of business. She said staff were able to find the vendor it is currently suggesting for the manufacturing of the new racks and that the city can -- and now with council recommendation will -- look at painting the metal racks to match the city's unofficial green color.
"We do have the ability to customize that color and make it feel like it's going to complement all of the other landscape in downtown," Ott said.
The rest of the council agreed with the idea of customizing the new racks and went further to suggest the possibility of getting local artists, possibly even children, to paint the racks so that they could act as pieces of public art.
Vice Mayor Jack Balch voiced the idea of adding Little Free Library, which are volunteer-led book exchange boxes that offer free books for everyone in the community, next to each of the newsracks.
While the rest of the council did entertain other ideas of removing some of the existing compartment boxes and adding murals or little library boxes to the current concrete newsracks, the majority ended up settling on the staff's recommendation with the amendments to explore painting the new racks and adding the free library boxes to the side.