Outdoor children’s area nearing completion in library makeover

Jim Zola (left), head of the childrens' section, and Library Director Mary Sizemore look over the outdoor children's area. (photo by Jordan Green)

An outdoor children’s area at High Point Library is expected to open in about a month — the first installment in a makeover that has been hotly contested by city leaders over the past two years.

The undulating stone wall at the northeast corner of the High Point Library gives way to metal fencing that affords a glimpse into a sort of enchanted compound adjacent to the children’s wing.

The outdoor children’s area, part of Phase 1 of the Library Plaza project, is anticipated to be completed in the next 30 says, according to Deputy City Manager Randy McCaslin.

Already, an amphitheater with seating for about 100 people descends to a small stage, fitting into a cutaway in the building that’s viewable through a large plate-glass window from the children’s section inside. A Humpty Dumpty sculpture by Eric Isbianoly occupies a corner. Outdoor musical instruments — tuned drums, a xylophone and chimes — fill the space. A modest plaza flows from the back of the amphitheater past a shelter with open sides towards a cluster of café-style tables shaded under parasols.

On a recent Monday, a construction supervisor sat on the back row of the amphitheater discussing plans with a colleague, and a man wearing a hardhat worked together plumbing components in a concrete compartment that will eventually be covered with dirt and landscaping plantings. The lighting is yet to be installed and the concrete still needs to be stained. The landscaping will wait until October after the summer heat breaks.

The courtyard evolved from strictly a children’s area in conception, but Library Director Mary Sizemore said that as the plans took shape staff concluded that the space could accommodate programming for adults, too. The initiative grew out of wishes harbored by staff — children’s division head Jim Zola, in particular — and input from community members during charrettes held during the 2013 visit of acclaimed urban planner Andrés Duany.

“Jim already had some ideas ideas about musical instruments and plants,” Sizemore said. “What came out of the community meetings is they wanted it to be greener and they wanted it to be more attractive.”

The Library Plaza project has moved forward in fits and starts since the Ignite High Point master plan — completed by Duany and local architect Peter Freeman in 2014 — identified the project as a priority for the city’s overall revitalization due to high marks for urgency, importance and cost effectiveness. The conservative city council that held sway through the November 2014 election voted largely to sideline the effort by opting for a limited parking lot renovation project, but the new council, including Mayor Bill Bencini and council members Latimer Alexander and Alyce Hill, reversed course and approved a more ambitious project with $1.4 million in municipal bonds and $1.5 million in state funding.

The project also includes a clocktower at the southeast corner of the library. Designed by Freeman, the clocktower features cardinal directions to emphasize the axis of North Main Street, which runs at an angle to the north-facing library. The clock will cast a shadow on a sundial, providing an educational opportunity. It also features a 26-foot marker, which is the difference between the elevation at the clocktower and the highest point in the city — near the intersection of North Main Street and the rail line.

McCaslin said the city is preparing to solicit bids for construction of Phase 2, a hybrid public plaza and parking lot redesign in front of the library, and could bring a recommendation to council in October. Renderings for the project show a semicircle plaza at the entrance of the library with strips of green space and farmers-market stalls radiating out into the parking lot. The plan calls for equipping the space with electricity to power food trucks, amplified performances and an electric-car charging station.

Much of the activity in the outdoor children’s area will be programmed, including performances in the amphitheater, story time and art projects, but Sizemore said she can imagine parents drinking coffee at the café tables while their children play.

Although the walled compound features gates leading to the parking lot, Sizemore said access will be limited to a doorway leading from the children’s section inside the library.

“There is a real safety issue,” she said. “When the public’s here, there needs to be a staff person.”

While the amphitheater is viewable from inside, a wall obscures the southern portion of the courtyard anchored by the café tables. As a result the library will need to assign staff to the courtyard, and Sizemore indicated the exact hours remains to be seen. She said it wouldn’t be an option to allow parents to bring their children into the courtyard without staff presence under the assumption that the parents would take responsibility for the children.

“There’s always a possibility of someone falling and hitting their head,” she said. “It’s important to have a line of sight. If you notice, inside there’s a desk with a line of sight to virtually every part of the library.”