Palo Alto's Junior Museum & Zoo would be demolished and rebuilt at twice its current size as part of an ambitious makeover that the city is now launching at the popular Rinconada Park attraction.
The plan, which was unveiled to the Architectural Review Board on Thursday, calls for a significant expansion in both the size of the Middlefield Road facility -- to 18,250 square feet -- and its educational offerings. The small campus would also include an entrance plaza with a drop-off zone and pathways connecting parking areas to the education wing.
The first floor of the main building would include a lobby, exhibit galleries, visitor amenities, an educational classroom and collection storage, according to a report from John Aikin, program manager at the Junior Museum & Zoo. The second floor would feature overlooks into the exhibit galleries, office space for staff and outdoor decks with gathering spaces.
The goal of the project, according to Aikin, is to meet a growing demand for the museum's educational services and to update the aging 1941 facility that has a "cumbersome layout." He noted that the Junior Museum & Zoo has been steadily increasing the education programs delivered outside the museum, while its offerings in the museum itself have remained flat because of the site's constraints.
"The JMZ can currently serve just over 40 percent of overall requests for some classes and camps," Aikin wrote. "As a result, the JMZ must upgrade the facilities in order to meet the demand and maintain the quality of the JMZ experience."
In addition to increasing the number of students served annually by the museum from 16,700 to 21,000, the project would revamp the facility's storage and curation spaces and allow the museum to better house its rescued animals. In addition to the new museum building, the zoo will now include an additional 18,600-square-foot landscape referred to as "loose-in-the-zoo," featuring existing and new animal exhibits, including a meerkat colony and a butterfly gallery. It would be enclosed under a large protective net, allowing birds to fly about.
"We're giving new life to this jewel in Palo Alto, which is seated in a community park that has a lot of children assets," Aikin said at Thursday's meeting.
The new zoo would also include a separate one-story structure with rooms for animal care and feeding. This 4,300-square-foot building would come with a 3,500-square-foot yard.
Though the renovation plan is still in its early phases, it is already generating buzz and plaudits from city officials. Last November, the City Council unanimously approved a new letter of intent with the Friends of the Junior Museum & Zoo, a volunteer group that is supplying most of the funds for the renovation project. The letter expressed the two sides' mutual interest in coming up with development agreements that would allow for the museum's reconstruction and lay out the conditions of its operation.
On Thursday, the Architectural Review Board also waxed enthusiastic about the plan to enhance the beloved institution, which is well-known locally for its butterflies, ferrets and bobcats. Members were less ecstatic, however, about the actual architecture. Several board members criticized the proposed two-story building for having too much mass and not enough whimsy. Vice Chair Robert Gooyer suggested the proposed building just "looks like an office building that can fit anywhere."
Chair Randy Popp, who noted the Junior Museum & Zoo was one of the first places his family visited when it moved to Palo Alto more than four decades ago, said he was excited about the project, even though the main building in its current iteration "isn't as exciting as we want it to be." He said that he would like to see "how playful, fun and inventive this can be."
"Building a new building gives us an opportunity to do something that is of today and of now and sets the tone for what's to come and doesn't need to be reflective or repetitive of what's existing," Popp said during the board's preliminary review, a type of hearing during which no action is taken.
The renovation of the Junior Museum & Zoo is the latest in a crop of ambitious capital projects that the city has undertaken around the Rinconada Park area, including the Palo Alto Art Center renovation completed in 2012 and the recently opened Rinconada Library.