Workers put finishing touches on the new West Branch Library this week, getting the building ready for the grand opening celebration on Saturday. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Workers put finishing touches on the new West Branch Library this week, getting the building ready for the grand opening celebration on Saturday. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

When the new West Branch of the Berkeley Public Library opens on Saturday Dec. 14, officials hope that it not only becomes a place for people to take out books, but a community center that allows people to collaborate and build their businesses.

The new 9,300 square foot, $7.5 million structure at 1125 University Ave. (at San Pablo) — first net-zero library in California — will have the largest community meeting room in the branch system. It can hold up to 100 people and it can be configured for video conferences and computer coding, as well as for meetings. There are numerous electrical outlets near the tables to accommodate laptops (which are also available for use) and a long counter that faces out onto the small garden holding a newly planted cork oak tree.

“It’s really not a traditional community reading room but an extension of the library,” said Library Director Donna Corbeil as she pointed to the glass wall that separates the meeting room from the rest of the building.

The adult seating area has comfortable furniture and tables made by Berkeley-based Swerve. There is an abundance of natural light, too. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Right nearby is a small study/meeting room that groups can use for up to two hours a day on a first-come, first-serve basis. There are no chairs; instead patrons will sit on a brightly colored L-shaped banquette that surrounds a table.

“The furniture has a mid-century feel to it, a diner look” said Amanda Myers, who was brought in from Baltimore a year ago to serve as branch supervisor.

Berkeley residents will have a chance to start using the new West Branch on Saturday, after a 10 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony lead by Vice-Mayor Linda Maio. Once the building is open, there will be a full day of festivities, including story time with Nora at 11 a.m., a make- a-bookmark activity in the children’s room from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., face painting, and a family event with the musical group, Octopretzel, at 2 p.m. in the community meeting room.

And as one indication of its desire to position the West Branch as a place for creative types, the kind of people who congregate at the nearby Local 123 Café and Café Yesterday, the organizers are bringing in Brazil Café’s food truck for the festivities.

Regular hours will start on Monday.

Amanda Myers, the supervisor of the West Branch, in the new study room. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The completion of the West Branch Library completes a five-year, $26 million Branch Improvement Program funded by the 2008 passage of Measure FF.  The Berkeley Public Library Foundation raised an additional $3 million to furnish the new branches with furniture, fixtures, and other improvements. The combined funds paid for the renovation of the South and Claremont branches and reconstruction of two new branches at South and West. Now all the libraries are seismically sound and ADA compliant. They all have automated book-sorting systems, sophisticated AV heating and cooling systems, flat screen monitors, separate teen rooms, and comfortable furniture.

The West Branch is opening six months later than library officials had originally estimated. Contractors found contaminated soil on the site which had to be remediated, said Corbeil. The contractor also inadvertently damaged the roots of the 70-foot high redwood tree that was supposed to be the centerpiece of the rear garden. The tree had to be cut down (at the contractor’s expense). The Berkeley Library Board of Trustees then selected a cork oak, which can grow 40 feet high and 40 feet wide, as the signature tree for the garden.

Berkeley Library Director Donna Corbeil in the space that will be used for Berkeley Reads, the library’s adult literacy program. In the old building, the program had a room the size of a closet. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

A group of citizens also sued the city of Berkeley, claiming that Measure FF funds could not be used to tear down and rebuild either the South or West branches, but must be used to remodel them. The group were preservationists who admired the architecture of both structures. The group and the city settled the lawsuit. It did not delay construction.

The new West Branch replaces a building constructed in 1923 and repeatedly remodeled to accommodate higher demand and changes in technology. The old West Branch building was 3,000 square feet smaller than the new structure, dark, and crammed with books. Space was at such a premium that  Berkeley’s well-regarded adult literacy program, Berkeley Reads, headquartered at the West Branch, was delegated to a closet-sized room.

That’s not the case in the airy, light filled building with its soaring windows, skylights, and an abundance of natural light. Berkeley Reads, which has three staff members, 100 clients, and dozens of volunteers, now has an entire glassed-off section to itself. There is a computer lab for the clients, as well as a large room with comfortable furniture, a staff office, and an office for the supervisor.

“They wanted this (Berkeley Reads) to feel really welcoming, not like an office where you are going to get grilled on your literary skills,” said Corbeil.

Most of the library is in one large room, with spaces set off to differentiate different age groups. There is an area for young children with a padded bench and low tables, and a nearby area with slightly larger furniture for older children. There is a separate glassed off teen area, and tables and upholstered furniture at the front for adults.

Warren Middleton, who has worked for the library for 45 years, sorts children’s books to prepare for the opening of the West Branch. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The computer tables and chairs, as well as other tables, were made by Swerve, a Berkeley furniture company owned by Steven and Michael Goldin.

Warren Middleton, who has been working for the Berkeley Public Library on and off for 45 years (he started after high school and then took a leave to fight in the war) said the neighborhood really deserves the new, modern building.

“It’s great. This is very thrilling,” said Middleton, a supervising library assistant. “I’ve seen the old West Branch. I’ve seen it when they remodeled it. I’ve seen it now. I think the citizens of West Berkeley needed a new library.”

Ene Osteraas-Constable, part of the Wowhaus group, designed etched glass art panels that will be displayed throughout the library.

The new West Branch will be the first net-zero library in California, according to the architect, Harley Ellis Devereaux. That means that the solar panels on the roof will produce more energy than the building will use.

To minimize energy consumption, the architects installed banks of south facing windows which will allow the sun to naturally heat the building. The building will be ventilated by using negative pressure to pull in fresh air. Windows will open and shut automatically to regulate the temperature. The floor contains a radiant heating system fueled by the photo voltaic cells on the roof.

The West Branch is stocked with many new books, including bestsellers and those on many Best Books of 2013 lists. No reserves are permitted on these books for the next three weeks so they are available on a first-come, first served basis. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

PG&E granted the project a large grant during the design phase as part of its Savings by Design program.

Corbeil said the final numbers are not in, but it looks like the renovation of the four branch libraries will come in under the $26 million budget. City officials will decide how to use the extra funds, but they must go to building construction or to pay down the debt, she said.

The completion of the program does not mean Corbeil will have a lot of spare time. Up next:  some non-structural renovations to the Central Library (think more study rooms) and a new five-year strategic plan.

Berkeley Public Library South Branch: The Opening (05.13.2013)
City will replace destroyed 70-foot redwood with oak tree (12.19.12)
Contractor mistake damages lone redwood tree at library (10.11.12)
Renovated Claremont library branch opens Saturday (05.03.12)
Never let it be said that Berkeley doesn’t love its libraries (04.09.12)
A peek at the renovations at Berkeley’s branch libraries (08.16.11)
Berkeleyans rally to move forward on library renovations (04.27.11)

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...