Quick Takes: Last night's downtown library renovations forum presented a concept for renovating the current 1970s structure with some minimal but important site changes that don't significantly increase the library's size but tries to make more efficient use of the space:
- Moving core public services (adult fiction/non-fiction, children's, teens) to the second and third floor, with special collections, staff offices and meeting spaces on the lower level
- A reorientation of the entrance to the Liberty St. side straight into the second floor of the building, providing a more visible entry to improve the perception of security and to align the entry with downtown
- Regrading the eastern side of the site to replace the two long, sometimes distant parking "strips" with a parking lot closer to the building itself
- Interior renovations to recapture space lost to inefficient mechanical systems and stairs, with a net addition of possibly 9,000 sq. ft. in a 65,000 sq. ft. shell
Much of the public comment period centered on concerns that the library program and patrons' needs were having to be backed into a $10.8 million construction budget that the County had already set for the building.
County officials and the design/architecture team countered that the regional library strategy had effectively set the stage for creating strong library facilities throughout the county, and that the main library should be conceptualized as a downtown super-branch that marries the services of a regional library with special one-off features like the history collection.
Assuming funding is found for the project in a Nov. 2009 county bond referendum, construction could start on the year-and-a-half project in 2010.
In Depth: Thursday evening's library renovation forum drew a smaller crowd than the July event to hear an interim update from the design team of architects and library program planners hired to put together a plan for the downtown library's renovation.
The team -- including architects Chris Brasier and Bill Ash and library consultant Jeff Scherer -- described a range of physical changes to the library, and its site design, to address some of the concerns that came out of the July public meeting and subsequent focus groups.
Safety and security (real or perceived) had been one of those issues. Patrons and staff liked the easily-accessible surface parking, but felt the current library site design, which has two long strips of parking on an axis moving away from the facility, decentered too much of the parking from the facility itself.
Similarly, the east entrance to the library nearest the parking was criticized for its grade change, requiring patrons to walk through a fairly isolated-feeling area -- "walking the gauntlet" was the term one architect used, given the number of persons who appear homeless or destitute who linger outside that entrance.
The presence of two entrances, one on Roxboro and one on the lower level, was also seen as confusing and distracting of staff efforts to manage the facility.
The new idea? A single entrance to the library's second floor located on the Liberty Street side, facing downtown and allowing for a form of new "entry plaza." With the planned reconfiguration of library space, this would make the second and third floors to be the core collections and public services areas, creating a more compact, inviting access to library resources.
An art gallery and other features would be feasible within the new entrance to the library.
Meanwhile, the site design would be changed on the east side of the facility to bring a parking lot closer to the library itself along the east side, using the eastern side of the lot for more public space and eliminating the hardscape plaza that separates today's two parking strips.
Scherer spoke of a number of programmatic ideas coming out of earlier focus groups, including:
- A desire to provide a more browsing-friendly "bookstore" feel to the space
- Increasing the number of computers, in lab/classroom and public workstation form
- Adding group study rooms and meeting spaces
- Redesigned and re-imagined new, separate areas for children's and teen services
- Comfortable seating areas
- Possible new multimedia computing facility
Glen Whisler, the County's chief engineer, noted that the design process at this point would drill down into creating a defined roadmap to support the more detailed phases of design to come; the Board of County Commissioners would have an intermediate chance, likely in a November work session, to review the plan as more detailed design work begins.
At the public comment period began, the meeting discussion turned to the overall renovation strategy for and investment in the library facility.
In response to a question on the building's footprint, Whisler noted that the plan was for "a renovation project. We're going to be looking at how we can accommodate these features in the existing building."
This led to some concern from a former historic collections librarian, who noted that collection had long outgrown its space and needed a significantly larger home. The project team noted that the mechanical system redesign should make the lower level space less basement-like and that adding windows to the east side of the basement was a distinct possibility.
Rob Lamme, a resident who spoke passionately last time about the need for a significant investment in the downtown library, expressed concern at hearing Whisler note that one of the assumptions that the design team had to work from was the County's starting capital improvement budget of $10.8 million.
"It’s hard to know whether we’re getting a great library if we don’t know what we’re missing if the budget were to be that much bigger," Lamme said.
The design team countered that this had been a figure they were given to work with and that their planning focused on how to meet the needs expressed for the library within that dollar figure. "That's a decision that was made, and is made, and we can't change that," said one team member.
During the ensuing discussion, County Commission chair Ellen Reckhow raised some eyebrows on the design team when she noted that the county's feet "weren't set in stone" and that a higher number could be explored. One design team member, looking slightly confused, asked Reckhow whether the team should be exploring options above the set budget.
Reckhow clarified that the first priority was understanding the programming needs and seeing whether a more efficiently-utilized building with improved circulation and mechanical systems would meet those needs; if it could not, she said, County leaders would want to know what programming couldn't fit into the space.
As the discussion continued, the design team presented a number of thoughts as to the economic benefits of renovating the existing facility -- and about the amount of space actually needed for the downtown library.
One team member noted a per-square-foot (PSF) construction cost of $132 for the downtown library's renovation.
The total bill for new library construction in the U.S. in 2007, he added, was $290 million, with a median cost of $265 per square foot for brand new construction -- ranging from the low $100s to $480 PSF.
Yet Scherer noted that many local governments were creatively renovating existing shell spaces to get excellent libraries without spending the dollars needed for new construction. He pointed to two projects underway in Texas cities to re-use old big box/grocery stores as libraries, noting they would each get "a really good building" for $85-100 PSF.
"The problem here is no different than anywhere else. Budgets are set sometimes before the questions are asked. And that’s just the way it is," he added.
But Scherer also noted that it was by no means clear that the current library isn't large enough to meet the community's needs.
Peer communities of a similar size to Durham might have a library 30-40% larger than the main downtown facility, he said, but that would apply to communities that hadn't invested in large regional branch libraries the way Durham had.
With Durham soon to have five brand-new or newly-renovated branch libraries, some topping out at over 25,000 sq. ft. a piece -- in a building program much more expensive than downtown's renovation -- the needs and demand for a downtown library are much different than they might otherwise be.
“The regionals [in Durham] are quite large, and the mothership that is downtown wants to be two things at once: it's a downtown branch [as justified by the visitor and circulation numbers]," Scherer said. "Emotionally and intellectually, though, it wants to be bigger, and that’s where the rub is coming.”
Given the regional strategy and the traffic demands, Scherer said,
if the downtown library were being completely rebuilt, it would need
about 70% of its current size to handle the core adult and children's
services by themselves.
Though that doesn't include the space demanded for other special collections and the like, it seems reasonable that a more efficient and attractive use of the current space could allowall the needs to fit, he added.
"We think, depending on the economics [of construction] the building can be made bigger within the definition of renovation, without overstepping that line," he said, and called the current square footage "a really responsible number" for a building this size in light of Durham's library strategy.
Library director Skip Auld echoed Scherer's comments, calling Durham's strategy a "regional plus" approach to library design and planning.
Of course, one distant option that can always be explored is that of adding another floor -- something the building was initially designed to support, but a factor not yet figuring into today's plans.
Learn more at the Herald-Sun's update.