The nearly 40-year-old Palo Alto Art Center will be getting a mid-life revamp -- a long-awaited $7 million facility upgrade slated to begin next April.
Plans, conditionally approved by the city's Architectural Review Board Thursday, include the creation of a children's wing and new courtyard, air-circulation and building-code upgrades, plus exhibition-hall and aesthetic improvements.
Art Center Director Karen Kienzle is especially looking forward to the new children's wing.
"When it opened in 1971, the Art Center was intended to be primarily a place for adults, but now more than half our visitors are kids," she said.
"We serve around 7,000 children a year and we're really bursting at the seams," she added, describing long lines of paint-covered kids patiently waiting for the sole sink (installed much higher than is easily reachable for children) in one of the rooms used for classes. She said new sinks would be kid-friendly and foot-operated.
Louise Carroll, a Palo Alto Art Center Foundation board member, gestured around the cramped, windowless room on a recent summer day near closing time. "It's like a cave; it's kind of stifling. They're really cramped in here. Storage is an issue, everything's an issue," she said.
The new plans call for a doubling of classroom space (from two rooms to four), plus the addition of a courtyard where summer camps and outdoor classes can gather, including a room designed for preschoolers.
The artwork itself will be better served by the renovation, too, Kienzle said. The building is the former home of the city hall and was not designed for the needs of a modern art gallery.
"It's very claustrophobic in here," she said, referring to the exhibit hall, which formerly housed the secretarial office. "The low ceiling even limits which sculptures we're able to house."
Though new lights were installed when the building became the Art Center, that was so long ago that replacements are no longer available. Plans to install museum-quality lighting will put the center on the road to accreditation from the American Association of Museums. Removing the existing false ceiling, exposing the beams, ripping out the carpet and restoring the concrete floor will also go a long way toward making the space better-suited for exhibiting artwork, Kienzle said.
Currently the building has no air conditioning, forcing it to close on hot days due to health hazards and making for unbearably stuffy conditions at events such as exhibit receptions, she said.
"Gallery shows on a hot spring night are incredibly uncomfortable. For years people have been asking, 'Can't you do something?'" Kienzle said. A new HVAC system will take care of heating and cooling, which will also better protect the artwork housed there.
The center will also be brought up to code with the Americans with Disabilities Act, complying with doorway and restroom regulations, making all entrances more accessible to those in wheelchairs.
The electrical system is also slated for an update.
"We blow fuses when just using standard equipment, even a coffee maker," Carroll said, laughing, as Kienzle maneuvered around a blackboard and chairs to access the antiquated circuit panel used to control the overhead lights.
San Francisco-based architect Mark Cavagnero, who also designed the Community School for Music and Arts in Mountain View, is handling the project.
"He's really an inspiring individual and specializes in public buildings," Kienzle said, adding that his design plans are meant to integrate smoothly into the existing "old ranch" style of the building. Renderings are available at the city's website.
Landscape-architecture firm SWA, which designed the green "living roof" at the California Academy of Sciences, has been hired for the outdoor improvements.
The renovation, which is aiming for the environmental "LEED silver" certification, will include many eco-friendly features, including wraparound decks made of recycled woods, rubber and cork, and counters incorporating recycled paper.
It will require the removal of 15 trees, including two dying magnolias, though Kienzle said the city is committed to replacing trees at a 2:1 ratio.
"Any that we don't have room to plant here we will donate to the Main Library next door," she said. Several public and neighborhood meetings and an arborist walk-through were held regarding the tree-removal plans.
Original renovation plans called for an expansion of the sculpture garden and a new fence, but those aspects were removed in order to focus on more immediate needs, Kienzle said.
However, the lobby will be redesigned to be more welcoming to visitors, and an enclosure will be built to hide the "unsightly" Dumpsters and trash bins. A new entrance from Newell Road, including 20-minute parking spaces for parents dropping off students, will be created.
The art center will be closed for a year starting in April, with staff members performing outreach and holding classes and events at alternative locations, such as Cubberley and Lucie Stern community centers during the closure.
The estimated cost for the project is $7 million, with the city paying for the electrical, mechanical and building-code upgrades and nonprofit group the Palo Alto Art Center Foundation funding the children's wing and improvements to the exhibition gallery.
"The public-private partnership between the city and the foundation is really wonderful and indicative of how well the city can work with individuals," Kienzle said.
"These upgrades will greatly enhance the community's experience."