Palo Alto puts finishing touches on new flagship library

After years of delays, city prepares to unveil Mitchell Park Library and Community Center

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.

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2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 31, 2014 at 12:09 pm

Just looking forward to having a functional library again. Last couple of weeks everytime I looked at the catalog to reserve a book, all the books seem to be in storage with nothing I want available to reserve.

4 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 31, 2014 at 12:25 pm

I started using the Mountain View Library. It's really nice and has a better collection of books.

7 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 2, 2014 at 12:02 am

Library management has scheduled 10 weeks (Sept 26th to Dec 6th) to move from the temporary Mitchell Park Library to the new facility, although, as Garcia says in the article, the collection is fewer than 140,000 volumes. It shouldn't take more than a couple of weeks to move that many volumes! And materials that have been in storage for the past 2-3 years could have been moved well before the temporary MP library closing. In effect, there's been no public library in PA for over a month now and there won't be until the not-to-be-revealed secret "soft opening" date. Heaven forbid that the library be held to a specific date. The incompetence of the staff responsible for this poor planning (in the library director's office and city manager's office) is stunning.

6 people like this
Posted by Rant Rant Rant
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 2, 2014 at 10:15 am

Ok, the library is finally opening.

Who Hoo!

The best part of the opening it will finally bring to an end the litany of haters out there ranting about (in no particular order):'

* Horrible architecture
* Incompetent project management
* Fire the City Manager (or any other, fill in the blank, City employee)
* Why did the City hire an incompetent contractor
* Who can we blame, blame again then blame some more
* Kick out everyone associated with the project
* Government is the problem...we don't need it
* Government is the answer...we don't know what is good for us
* Cell site (and aluminum foil hats)
* Librarians (because we all know they hate books and libraries)

At long last, I'm just looking forward to checking out and reading a great book.

Like this comment
Posted by More rants deserved
a resident of South of Midtown
on Nov 2, 2014 at 12:24 pm

Thanks for the list, Ranter. But you left out a few.
Add: the predictable request for more staff because the library is so big.
Add: close for more holidays and the days that surround them.
Add: shorter hours.
Add: close more branch days.

The evidence is pretty compelling.

4 people like this
Posted by JS
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 2, 2014 at 6:49 pm

$10 Million Bust and no apparent effort by the City to identify the underlying causes and responsibilities. The City owes this to its citizens. Bring in the independent auditor.

2 people like this
Posted by Reader
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 2, 2014 at 7:17 pm

Nice to have lots of bike racks, but why are there no curb cutouts to get to them?

7 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 2, 2014 at 7:19 pm

There is justifiable criticism about the library fiasco. Ranting may well be, but that doesn't mean that the underlying problems should not be mentioned.

It does appear to be ugly, certainly from the road approaching from the south. Purple rear entrance should be hidden from view, not what is first seen. The plants on the side of the building remain to be seen what happens as it ages. The yellow trim looks plastic and ready to break. There is no symmetry to the building at all. The one word banners remind me of the banners on the JCC building, but I suppose they are not advertising anything and could be classed as inclusive for all.

As to the fact that we were hoodwinked into this by library do gooders and made to feel guilty by the PTA if we tried to reduce the scale, is still a bone of contention to many people. A small remodel along the style of Main library, keeping the charm of the old library and center, would have been a much more attractive and simpler alternative. To think we could have had that done in a quarter of the time this behemoth has taken.

So yes, let us wait patiently for the return of a library service. Let us hope that we have the library open at the times we expect to be able to visit a modern facility. Let us hope that it will be all worth it in the long run.

Somehow I have my doubts.

9 people like this
Posted by boscoli
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 3, 2014 at 9:39 am

We, the residents who financed the very expensive project of remodeling the two largest library branches in Palo Alto, must demand that there will be no more nonsense such as short library days during the week and days when either of these libraries isn't even open. 10-9 Monday through Friday, 10-6 on Saturday and 1-5 on Sundays should be the hours for both Mitchell and Main, once they are reopened.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Nov 3, 2014 at 12:23 pm

The Mitchell Park library/community center still has some corrections to make. Every neighborhood in South Palo Alto has been honored with a room named after their neighborhood except "Charleston Gardens." A neighbor suggested they name the toilets after Charleston Gardens!!!!

Also, there is a Matadero Room presumably named after the creek. However, they forgot to list it on the pillar by the entrance into the courtyard.

I hope these errors can be fixed before the grand opening in December.

5 people like this
Posted by really
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 3, 2014 at 1:13 pm

Rant Rant Rant,

So the fact that levi stadium was built in less time than a simple 2 story structure, does not bother you.
I want to have the contract to remodel your house.

4 people like this
Posted by Was there at the beginning
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 3, 2014 at 2:19 pm

Resident makes a good point about the scale of the new MP. It's a very large structure, but library supporters were told before the bond was proposed that the only way any improvements at Mitchell Park Library would be done would be to include a new community center in the bond measure. It wasn't clear who (other than the Community Services director at the time (Paul Thiltgen who had both the library and community services reporting to him)demanded this, but that's what happened.
Boscoli makes a good point about library hours--it's always been frustrating that the library is open when it's convenient for staff, not when residents need it to be open. I just saw on the Library website that it will be closed not only on Veterans Days (Nov 11th), but also on Nov 13th for "staff development." This is in addition to the "staff development" day that closed libraries last month.

Like this comment
Posted by MadamPresident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 3, 2014 at 2:30 pm

"In effect, there's been no public library in PA for over a month now" - not true - Downtown Library has been open

ww will certainly take this lesson & not re-elect uncompetent people to the City administration, but let's stay positive & say Cheers to the new Library

1 person likes this
Posted by Gethin
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 3, 2014 at 2:41 pm

Living in the past tense of the library is not going to make anyone happy and I am sure the legal battle will drag on. However, as a result of seeing the inside of the library I think it is very beautifully done, I am very impressed with the result. I also like the overall architecture of the buildings, and the use of the space around a magnificent tree has been done extremely tastefully. Once any teething troubles are dealt with and the library is running smoothly it will an enormous asset to the community. I am very optimistic about the library's future.

Like this comment
Posted by Mike
a resident of Mountain View
on Nov 3, 2014 at 3:19 pm

I hope the new library will have subscription for historical and genealogical research.

2 people like this
Posted by Anciana
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 3, 2014 at 4:23 pm

I sure hope that all the non-library bells and whistles will really be worth it for people who love books and are trying to borrow them. Certainly, the new building is one of the two or three ugliest in the city.

2 people like this
Posted by Robert Smith
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 3, 2014 at 5:00 pm

With a three-year delay during which buildings were closed and many resources unavailable, it will be decades before we will have made up for the losses incurred in usage. In fact, we may never make it up at all.

While I voted for the bond issue, I would not do so again. We would have been better off to have kept the money for our own educational uses and continued with the previous buildings.

From the point of view of rational governance, we may never get a clear accounting of what actually happened. Perhaps the Flintco lawsuit will bring some things into public view that the city has been hiding from us.

Like this comment
Posted by Sylvia
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 3, 2014 at 6:38 pm

I attended the "Come Together" event in September and was thrilled about the design of the interior and the spacious community rooms. While I am more for lots of space for books rather than meeting rooms, I understand the inclusion of these things to get the bond passed. I can hardly wait to have breakfast at Ada's.

I like the exterior and don't find it ugly at all.

And thanks Rant Rant Rant for calling out the constant boring and repetitive criticisms on this site. OK, the wrong contractor was selected. Let's put it behind us and enjoy the result!

3 people like this
Posted by Candide
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 3, 2014 at 6:47 pm

Funny how the wrong contractors are always selected and the city has to sue each amd every one of them and we have to pay for all the lawsuits, cost over-runs and delays.

2 people like this
Posted by Monstrosity
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 3, 2014 at 8:37 pm

The new library is a monstrosity. Can you just imagine how other cities are laughing at us when they talk about libraries in various cities. When is City Manager Keene going to get the boot? He is has been an utter failure. Why isn't the city council firing him? Well, I guess we know the answer to that question. The current city council is incompetent, too.

1 person likes this
Posted by Ikea-ish
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 3, 2014 at 8:54 pm

The new Mitchell Park Library looks like an Ikea store gone awry. Ugly monstrosity.

I understand why it is a community center as well as a library though. Do people remember that the old library had a companion building next to it that was a community center?

I voted "no" on the Library bond measure because, somehow, I knew it would be a bungled boondoggle. And that's just what it has been. Please, people, remember this when the next bond measure comes up, and you are about to tax yourself again. More often than not, in this town and school district, these bond measure projects are bungled, or a boondoggle, or both.

7 people like this
Posted by Driver
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 3, 2014 at 10:03 pm

All these wonderful amenities...and no one thought that a drive through drop box to return materials could be included? Any chance it can still be added in? For all those times when you just need to drop off a book without actually wanting to park, and get into the library

3 people like this
Posted by Anonymous
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 4, 2014 at 9:23 am

I agree that there's no point in complaining about the construction fiasco at MP, although it'll be interesting to follow the lawsuit! And once Rinconada opens (in January?) we'll have all of the construction completed. But I have to disagree with MadamPresident. Yes, Downtown has been open, as have College Terrace, Children's and Temporary Main. But, the hours are inadequate (no evening open hours anywhere on Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday and only 4 open hours at 2 branches--Childrens and Temporary Main-- on Sunday). This means that people who work full-time have had very little access to the libraries period and also that students have no afternoon study places (unless they want to stay at school) until MP opens. A good point was made that the libraries should be open when residents/taxpayers need and want them, not when it's convenient for the library staff. Isn't this something that the Library Commission should be looking at?

Like this comment
Posted by Susan
a resident of another community
on Nov 4, 2014 at 9:29 am

The Living Wall along Middlefield is astounding. The Garden Roof also. The architecture is stunning! I look forward to being able to tour the facility that includes so many zones. This magnificent structure may be the singular compelling building in Palo Alto. The whiners are sounding pretty pathetic. It's built at last. Get used to being in the 21st Century. If you really can't stand it, the Mountain View Library will still welcome you.

5 people like this
Posted by Driver 2
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Nov 4, 2014 at 9:32 am

Not having a drop box is absolutely absurd, especially since the parking lots are full and the library hasn't even opened.

Also full is the lot near the soccer field and Mitchell Park dog park.

And shame on the bad drivers who illegally enter that parking lot from the eastbound E. Charleston lane and ignore cars legally turning in AND signalling. I almost put my poor dog through the window yesterday when I had to jam on my brakes because of some fool who either can't read the NO ENTRY sign or doesn't care.

Like this comment
Posted by So Many Zones!
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 4, 2014 at 11:20 am

I had no idea there would be so many zones! It's fantastic.

3 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 4, 2014 at 12:02 pm

One thing that was never thought of when planning the library was the configuration of the roads through Mitchell Park. It is now quicker to turn right into the parking lot of Mitchell Park drive though and continue on down the road in front of the library. Drivers are discovering, as I have, that driving through Mitchell Park avoids the stop light at East Meadow and Middlefield and also avoids having to stop on Middlefield at Mayview. I stood by the owls in front of Mitchell library and counted six cars using the road as a throughway.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 4, 2014 at 12:59 pm

Downtown, College Terrace and Childrens library may be open, but there is no library service and won't be for some time. If you access the catalog to reserve a book, the system tells you that the book is unable for reservation.

This translates as no library service unless you count sitting at a computer in a room with a few books a library service.

I think the parking lot is full and will continue to be a problem due to lack of space at our schools and in our parks for people to park. I use the library as part of an errand run or on my way home from somewhere I need to drive. Therefore I need to park at the library. When the post office, my shopping needs and the library are in 3 different directions from my home, I consolidate my errands and do them on one run, usually timed with a meeting, not 3 separate bicycle trips.

1 person likes this
Posted by Just saying
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 5, 2014 at 9:31 am

The Weekly's YouTube video is nice (link is in the article), showing a facility with books on all of the library shelves and furniture in place in both the library and community center--plus Ada's staff already making cookies! Why isn't it open to the public yet?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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