When the Mitchell Park Library opens its glassy doors to the public in a "soft" opening next month and the first stream of residents makes its way past the six silver owls standing sentry at the entrance, Palo Alto's librarians hope the construction nightmare that has plagued this site will give way to a storybook ending.
It's been a tough slog. The opening will be more than two-and-a-half years after the initial deadline. The budget is more than $10 million above what Palo Alto was hoping to pay when it signed the construction contract in 2009, though it remains well within the bounds of the library bond voters approved in 2008. And the slog isn't completely over, given that the city remains locked in a legal battle with Flintco Pacific, the contractor that Palo Alto fired in January after months of disagreements about rising costs, poor work quality and insufficient manpower at the Middlefield Road site.
This week, all these details receded to the background as staff from the Library and Community Services departments put the finishing touches on the library and its adjoining community center. Even with the Dec. 6 grand opening more than a month away, the new branch's first patrons arrived Monday to slide their books into the return slot on the library's exterior -- the first feature to go public. From there the books are conveyed to a room where they are automatically sent into trays, each labeled according to the branch where the book is to be delivered.
The long wait notwithstanding, librarians have reason to think residents will be very pleased with the $46 million project, which includes the library and the new community center next door. In late September, more than a thousand patrons attended the city's "Come Together" event, which offered the public an initial peek at the building's interior. Residents quickly filled up every slot in the guided tours, prompting the addition of more tours.
In terms of space, design and sheer volume of rooms and materials, the south Palo Alto library has no rivals in the city's five-branch system. Even the bollards protecting the building from out-of-control vehicles are works of art. Titled "Wise & Whimsy," the shiny owls were created by artist Brad Oldham to both provide physical protection and physically reflect the environment around them.
Other features are equally ambitious and, in most cases, eye-catching. Everything from the library's garden roof to the furnished patios on both floors of the two-story building to the various technology rooms, lounging areas, and the "Storytime Corner" in the sprawling children's area call out for attention. The corner has the ambiance of a dimly illuminated spaceship, with colorful spotlights beaming red light over dozens of tiny chairs with backs shaped like animals.
There's also its size. At more than 40,000 square feet, the library is far bigger than any other branch and about four times the size of the old Mitchell Park Library. The first floor includes a program room capable of accommodating 100 people, smaller rooms for teens to study in and a huge "Kids Place" that includes a patio, a kitchenette and the glowing storytime nook. The Kids Place area was funded largely by a major grant from Friends of Becky Morgan and the Palo Alto Library Foundation, a citizens group that includes some of the leaders of the 2008 library-bond campaign and that has raised about $4 million for furniture and equipment. Kids Place alone, which takes up just a portion of the first floor, covers as much space as the city's entire Children's Library. There is also a computer lab where young residents will be able to reserve a machine on a first-come, first-served basis.
Two more computer labs are available upstairs, though these are not limited to youth. The rooms were funded by local Google employees. One was sponsored by a group called Palo Alto Googlers. The other bears the name of Larry Page, the company's co-founder and himself a local resident. Otherwise, the upstairs area looks more like a standard modern library, with an open layout, study areas, magazine racks and bookshelves galore.
In recent weeks, librarians have been gradually filling the shelves with material from the temporary Mitchell Park branch (which was housed at Cubberley Community Center), from the city's storage area and from new materials purchased just for this branch.
"The capacity can hold up to 140,000 materials," RuthAnn Garcia, library services manager, said. "We don't have that obviously just yet, but we have lots of room to grow."
Next to the library stands the city's new community center, a 16,180-square-foot compound built around a spacious courtyard with a California Coastal Live Oak tree in the middle. The center is envisioned as south Palo Alto's primary hive for community gatherings and classes, ranging from karate and yoga to art, graphic design and cooking. Visitors can also shoot hoops at an outdoor half-court that was christened last year by Paly basketball phenom Jeremy Lin.
The new Teen Center includes tables for Foosball, pool and air hockey, as well as four large TVs. Once open, it will host Open Mic nights, include an after-school program for middle school students and have an evening drop-in program for high school students twice a week.
Of the center's four community rooms, the bright and polished El Palo Alto Room stands out. The 4,000-square-foot ballroom can accommodate between 250 and 500 guests (depending on whether they sit or stand) and is connected to a commercial kitchen. The sliding glass doors along the courtyard are removable, in case occupants want fresh air and even more natural light. Though it has yet to officially open, the room has already been booked for a few weddings and parties, Community Services Manager Lacee Korsten said. Outside of these events, the city plans to devote this room to after-school classes, fitness programs and activities like dancing.
Another feature of the community center is the Adobe North Tech Lab, which includes 24 laptop stations and advanced audio-visual equipment. This room can also be connected with the adjoining Adobe South room to accommodate more people. Lastly, there is the Matadero Room, future site of art classes.
Though the two buildings are overseen by different departments and have different missions, there's plenty of overlap. Each includes program rooms, computer labs, lounging areas and plenty of art and natural light. This is not a coincidence.
"The line between libraries and community centers is being a little more blurred," Korsten said. "It's nice being right next door because we can collaborate and not duplicate service and work efficiently."
In addition to the two main facilities, Ada's Cafe, which will serve patrons of both, similarly aims to provide both people with enrichment and enjoyment. The brainchild of Kathleen Foley-Hughes, the new cafe will offer jobs and ongoing training for adults with disabilities. For visitors, it will provide breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. Currently a catering business, Ada's is preparing to debut as a shop once the complex opens -- a milestone that is finally just a month away.
Employees in the two buildings are eagerly awaiting the openings. Garcia lauded new library features that make the branch easier to use for staff and patrons alike, including the new automated book-return machine. After all the construction snafus, Garcia is looking forward to patrons returning to the library and seeing the finished product.
"There's been so much disappointment with it taking so long, but hopefully they'll be very pleased with the results," she said.
To see a video tour of Mitchell Park Library and Community Center, visit the Weekly's YouTube.