An effort to demolish and replace the beloved Junior Museum and Zoo on Middlefield Road overcame its biggest obstacle Thursday, when Palo Alto's Architectural Review Board voted to approve the project.
By a 4-0 vote, with board member Wynne Furth absent, the previously skeptical board gave the project the green light, paving the way for a final approval by the City Council in November. The endorsement came after several "preliminary" hearings and a formal hearing in Aug. 3. At that meeting, board members raised concerns about the building's compatibility with the surrounding area, particularly the nearby residential neighborhoods, and the massing along Middlefield.
In response, Brent McClure, architect with Cody Anderson Wasney Architects, submitted new plans showing lighter materials, additional eaves on the building's exterior walls and greater contrast between the roof and the building's wood siding.
Though the board's decision isn't the final approval, in many ways it's the most critical. The council has overwhelmingly supported the project, which is funded through private donations after a successful campaign by Friends of the Palo Alto Junior Museum and Zoo. The group raised about $10 million from the community, making the project eligible for a $15 million matching grant from the Peery family.
The project calls for demolishing the 1941 building at 1451 Middlefield Road and constructing a modern facility that will include classrooms, additional exhibits, enclosures for popular residents such as bobcats and meerkats and a "loose in the zoo" area where visitors can mingle with birds and small mammals.
The new Junior Museum is part of a broader wave of changes in the Rinconada Park area. The city recently renovated the Palo Alto Art Center and reconstructed the Rinconada Library (formerly known as the Main Library). Officials are also in the process of putting together a new master plan for Rinconada Park, which will likely include new recreational amenities, wayfinding signs and a road reconfiguration.
But while the museum project has enjoyed broad support from local boards, commissioners and council members, members of the Architectural Review Board have been continuously pushing for design revisions that would make the project more respectful of its surroundings. On Thursday, the board agreed that the architect has responded to their feedback and voted to move the project forward.
Board member Peter Baltay, who has been particularly critical of prior designs, said the new building still has a "vague reminiscence" of an industrial building but conceded that the design has "moved in the right direction sufficiently." He noted that unlike the prior versions, the new design fits in well with the neighborhood.
His board colleagues, Robert Gooyer and Kyu Kim, agreed and both said the design has "come a long way." Board Chair Alex Lew went even further and said he can't wait to see construction commence.
"It's going to be very exciting," Lew said.