By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jul 16, 2014 at 3:10 PM

You remember last winter, right? Those well-below-zero-temps days. The insane wind chill readings. New snowfall on what seemed like most every day.

Five days a week, at about 7:30 a.m., I’d drive past the construction site on Cramer and North, and the Stevens Construction crew was out there. Every day. Days on which I was bundled up with the heat on in the car, these guys were on the roof of the five-story building, up in cherry-pickers, working on floors that still didn’t even have walls yet.

So, when the new 16,000-square foot East Library, 2620 N. Cramer St., opens on the ground floor of The Standard, which will have 99 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments above, more or less on time, in November, you’ll have those guys to thank.  (It bears noting, however, that the extreme winter weather did still slow the project somewhat, pushing back the planned opening from October.)

On Tuesday, Milwaukee Public Library hosted a media walk-through of the library space -- the third largest MPL branch (not counting the Central Library) -- and developer HSI Properties took everyone upstairs to see one of the apartments, too.

The project was designed by Engberg Anderson and HGA did the design work on the library space.

Library director Paula Kiely called it a "new, modern library structure ... which is really state of the art when it comes to public libraries."

At this point, in the library, the bones and the skin are there, but the details are still to come. The apartment we saw -- the one with the most exciting view -- is basically finished and serving as a model.

"If you’re like me, you’re real pumped to see this building," said Mayor Tom Barrett. "As I walked in, I thought, ‘This is phenomenal.’"

Barrett praised Kiely and the library board for efforts to build new libraries as part of mixed-use developments. He point to the success of the Villard Square branch and the new East Library.

"We’re all aware that the city’s under financial pressure," Barrett said. "Paula and some activists came forth with a plan for a new Villard Square Library that has been extremely successful. And it was a mix-used model just like this is and it is something that we thought was so successful, we wanted to try it right here. This is not where it’s going to end. We have more on the books.

"So you’ll see more of these over the next six years, but it’s a recognition that the libraries are still very, very relevant and very, very important. We’re very excited about this. We think things are coming along very, very well."

The entrance to the library will be on Cramer Street. Out front will be a bike rack and public art created by Ray Chi, who collaborated with students on an awesome work installed at nearby Maryland Avenue Montessori School.

Just inside and to the left will be a work by artist Kathryn Martin that, like other aspects of the library, uses wood reclaimed from street trees removed as part of The Standard / East Library construction.

Directly inside the entrance will be an automated book return to help get books reshelved more quickly and efficiently, but the first thing users will likely notice is the open aspect of the space. Windows line the entire south and west facades. Automated shades will help temper the heat and glare.

Though offices and other staff space occupy the whole north end of the library, there are also windows -- albeit smaller ones -- in about half the east wall. Along the top of another section of the east wall, users will see the stained glass that was a feature of the old East Library. It will be backlit, making the dark-ish panels even more readily visible than they were in their old location.

Along the windows overlooking North Avenue, there is a "living room" space with soft seating that encourages quiet reading but is also set up to spur collaboration. A fireplace in this area was added with the help of a private donor.

On the Cramer side, a laptop bar -- also constructed from reclaimed wood -- will add more seating.

In the center of the space is a meeting room with an open feel and a Santiago Cucullu mural on the ceiling, created from photographs submitted by Milwaukee residents.

"It's what we're calling the iconic piece of this library," said Library Deputy Director of Public Services, Joan Johnson. "It will truly be like a jewel. Placed right in the center of the space and glowing, it will be like a beacon after dark, beckoning people in."

This space will always be open, either for meetings or as a reading room.

Ald. Nik Kovac said he hopes the library’s open and flexible plan will help keep it relevant for decades to come.

"There was a time when books were really exclusive and you had to be rich to get access to a book ... Then books were cheap for a while, and now we’re saying that, ‘books don’t matter.’ I disagree that books don’t matter, but I agree there’s other kinds of ways we get information," Kovac told the group.

"It’s the internet today, and the useful life of this library, which I hope is 50 to 100 if not more years, there’s probably going to be some completely different technology through which people are getting information. We hope we have designed this library in a flexible enough way. You pretty much see all of the walls. We’re not adding any more walls. It’s a very open space, so it’s a very adaptable space that can adapt from bookshelves to laptop bars to who knows what because we’re going to be here for the long haul."

Further to the north will be the library’s main service point, but the library will use a roaming reference model that encourages staffers to stay on the move seeking out users who appear to have questions or need assistance.

In the southeast corner will be study rooms and a copier center.

Surface parking will be created for library users, while an underground lot will serve apartment dwellers. The first floor will also house a small retail space.

Upstairs, HSI’s Ryan Schultz -- a graduate of nearby UW-Milwaukee -- said the apartment complex will have a range of amenities, in addition to the parking, including a deck overlooking Beans ‘n’ Barley and Vitucci’s, meeting rooms and a fitness center.

We got to see a model, fifth-floor apartment that appears complete. The space has a full bath and a single bedroom, along with a kitchen open to the living room and stellar views, especially from the balcony.

Though it doesn’t have a lake view right now, when the trees to the east shed their leaves this autumn, the lucky renter of this apartment will most certainly get a long view out over the water. And it'll surely be more comfortable up there then than it was for workers last winter.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.