Chris Ardis

For years, people in and around McAllen grew accustomed to shopping at the Walmart on 23rd Street and Nolana Avenue. When the store re-located a block west on Nolana, many wondered what would become of the former site. Would it be torn down or left abandoned? Was there any hope of breathing new life into it?

Then the local media reported the City of McAllen purchased the property, and people wondered about the city’s plans. Speculation ended when the city announced it would house McAllen’s new main library. At the end of the interview process, they chose Boultinghouse Simpson Architects of McAllen, in conjunction with Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Ltd. (MS &R) of Minneapolis, and the team got down to business.

One question the architects and city leaders had to address was whether it was more cost effective to tear down the former Walmart building and build an entirely new structure or to gut the building and give it an extensive face-lift. Following a national trend, the city decided to pursue the idea of creative re-use of an exiting building, thus lessening the number of abandoned structures within the city.

Once this decision was made, the architects began the schematic design phase. In October, they held a workshop with the library board to discuss their progress. They discussed landscaping, a critical element of the project because, if done correctly, it adds color and life to what would otherwise be merely brick and mortar. They discussed possible exterior features, such as sculptures and a beautiful array of grass and trees to break up the concrete monotony of the current parking lot.

During the meeting, the architects also discussed incorporating a McAllen Express Transit (MET) transfer station in the library and designing a drop-off and pick up lane for the convenience of library patrons.

The discussion then turned to the interior of the building, with public meeting rooms, a computer lab and a 200-seat auditorium stealing the show. Things grew more technical when the library board and the architects deliberated on the new Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) system the new library will have so the process from book check-in to book re-shelving will be drastically reduced.

At the end of the meeting, Jack Poling, principal with MS&R explained that time is of the essence as construction costs continue to rise. The next step involved meeting with the mayor and city commission to present their schematic designs.

When the workshop with the mayor and city commission convened, a lengthy conversation ensued regarding the proposed interior and exterior of the main library. Bob Simpson, partner in Boultinghouse Simpson, discussed the proposed exterior at length, including recent changes the architects made to the parking lot to make the flow of bus traffic smoother.

The exterior highlight for one of the architects’ schematic designs is a landscaped mall, reminiscent of the Washington mall in D.C., but on a much smaller scale. The focal point of the mall will be a circular pool with a water wall, part of which lights up at night, creating colorful dancing light in the water.

The mayor and commission particularly liked schematic design number one. In this design, the 150-computer lab is just inside the main entrance. During the day, patrons can easily move from computer lab into other areas of the library. After hours, when the library is closed but the computer lab is being used for classes and other functions, a moveable wall will prohibit entrance to the library. Simpson also explained to the mayor and city commissioners the idea of adding skylights to the building in order to allow natural light into the library. These skylights would serve a dual purpose: providing another “wow” factor while reducing energy costs for the city.

The new library will house a comprehensive genealogical section and an expanded area for the Friends of the Library. The Friends will also have a work area where they can process book donations before placing them out for sale. The main library recently created a “New Arrivals” area, which will be expanded and prominently featured in the new library, according to McAllen Library Director Jose Gamez.

“We are also planning to add significantly to the Spanih collection to make it more relevant to our Spanish readers,” Gamez said. “The DVD collection is growing and will continue to do so to meet the demand. But public libraries remain book-oriented, and our professional librarians are diligently selecting the best book titles.”

In the past two years, Gamez and his staff have weeded out thousands of obsolete and worn-out titles from the library’s collection.

Currently, plans call for the city to solicit bids for a vendor-run coffee shop and a vendor-run copy center inside the library. Space for both has been alloted in the library’s design.

Boultinghouse Simpson and MS&R have an entire team of professionals working on the interior and exterior design of McAllen’s new main library, including its furnishings, artwork and shelving. The city also has another important team working on the library’s design, the Teen Advisory Council. The TAC, established nearly two years ago by Gamez, is providing valuable input as to what they want the teen section of the library to look and feel like, from colors and seating to the types of programs that will be available once the library opens.

The TAC welcomes all local middle school and high school students to join them in their efforts. Interested teens may contact Gamez or Palmview Branch Manager Kate Horan.

The design process has proven to be both a busy and exciting time for Gamez.

“It’s good to see we are receiving support from the mayor and city commission,” he said. “I’m especially enjoying working with the design team. The architects are good listeners and empathize with the needs of a changing library world. I’m also receiving tremendous support from the city architect and her staff, the Information Technology Department, the Grants Department, the Planning Department and, of course, the city manager and his staff. It is truly a team effort.”

The greatest challenge is also the thing that creates the greatest thrill for the architects. They are charged with the duty of erasing any indication that the building ever housed Walmart.

“The new exterior elements, new material and colors and extensive landscaping changes in the parking lot and along Nolana should forever change the appearance of the building,” said Simpson. “In addition to the exterior modifications, there will be significant alterations to the interior, which will remove all vestiges of Walmart.” But Simpson is quick to add that the new library will still have one thing in common with this box store. “This new building will be where people can come for the best bargain in town…the public library.”

At the conclusion of the schematic design phase, the group will begin the design development process. At this time, the architects will produce additional renderings and documents to illustrate the portions of the design that have been approved by the mayor and city commission. A schedule for completion will be established.

Countless hours of research, planning, designing and problem solving have been spent, but the team knows they will see the old and dreary disappear and their creation appear by 2010.

It’s an exciting time for library lovers who have anticipated the new main library for years. Keep your eyes on the future home of the McAllen Memorial Library. Within approximately 10 months, the metamorphosis should begin.