What to expect when Austin’s new Central Library opens in May

Walk in the front door of Austin’s under-construction new Central Library and you’ll be in an atrium looking up at six floors for books, meeting rooms and events. An angular staircase brings to mind M.C. Escher. Huge picture windows look out on Shoal Creek. A three-story red clock with birds came from an Austrian artist inspired by Austin’s grackles.

The library is in its last phase, set to open next May after four years of construction at 710 Cesar Chavez St. The $125 million project is six months behind schedule. At 200,000 square feet, it’s double the size of the library it’s replacing at Eighth and Guadalupe streets and is ambitious in its lists of new features.

“It’s the project of a lifetime,” said John Gillum, facilities process manager for Austin libraries. “We remind ourselves of that all the time.”

Gillum has been building libraries in Austin since the 1970s. He’s overseen the construction of 18 or 19 branch libraries for the city, plus a few in other cities where Austin has loaned him out. He reckons he’s visited every new central library built in major U.S. and European cities since 1995.

In other words, Gillum thought he knew what he was doing. But this project is different.

“I wondered why I had an emergency every 15 minutes,” he said. “Every central library is a prototype.”

Technology in new libraries is as new as possible, and their functions are constantly evolving. This one broke ground in 2013. On Mother’s Day of that year, workers spent 22 hours pouring 10,000 cubic yards of concrete for the building’s foundation.

It’s now set to be substantially complete in December and open to the public in May, after furniture is installed, books moved and staff trained. The library will replace the John Henry Faulk Central Library, which will become archival and display space for the nearby Austin History Center.

A bond approved in 2006 funded most of the project, with about $30 million from city property sales and other sources.

The new library is close to its $120 million cost estimate when the project was approved three years ago. It has had some cost increases, including $1.3 million in June to extend the architectural contract.

The site, an industrial brownfield that once housed part of the electric utility, created the biggest headaches. Workers found underground slabs of concrete as large as rooms, pipes down to Lady Bird Lake as tall as people and metal beams that broke five drills in a row before contractors could find and remove them, project representative Steve Holland said.

Heavy rain and nearby flooding last year contributed to delays. And designing a building intended to last 100 years meant that every issue or question had to go through a team of people, project coordinator Heidi Tse said.

The past two decades have seen a renaissance in the design and function of central libraries, Gillum said. This one aims to project Texas. Its floors are mesquite, its ceilings oak. Screened balconies facing Cesar Chavez Street and Lady Bird Lake pay homage to the southern front porch. A live oak tree survived a windy crane ride to be planted on a rooftop terrace.

Walk into the building from the Shoal Creek side and the first thing you’ll see will be a cooking demonstration space. (“Because we’re such a foodie town,” said Tse.) Walk into the Cesar Chavez entrance and you’ll be at the doors of an event center and performance room (a revenue generator for the library). Walk in from Second Street and you’ll be alongside a restaurant.

“Libraries have evolved to be that third space between work and home where we go to be with other people … the informal town hall,” Gillum said. “We try to be all things to all people.”

Visitors will swipe a stack of books over a kiosk to instantly check them out electronically. A technology “petting zoo” will let residents play with the newest electronic devices.

An underground garage will hold 360 cars and 200 bikes. A gallery space will display local and visiting artwork. The city is already booking private events to be held after the library opens, including a dozen weddings, Gillum said.

The build includes extensions of Second Street and West Avenue, with a bright new bridge for cars and pedestrians over Shoal Creek, and an amphitheater along the creek’s shores.

Giant windows on all sides of the building will pour sunlight into the building, and electronic shades will automatically raise and lower depending on the brightness and heat. Solar panels on the roof will power about a third of the building. Rainwater collected on-site will fill toilets and irrigate the landscaping.

Bookshelves will be able to be moved — or removed — overnight.

“Our motto is adaptable,” Gillum said. “It’s so hard to predict the future, so we made it something we could change as easily as possible.”

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