Lisa Sorg: Farewell, BCR. It's been a great ride.

Making (dollars and) sense of the downtown library renovation bond

Durham has seen an outstanding turnout in early voting -- just short of 120,000 souls made it to early voting, just over half of the county's registered voter base. And given our bluer-than-blue shade on political maps, it seems nearly a fait accompli that all four bond issues will pass, including that for the main downtown library renovation.

Still, we noticed with some interest discussion on local neighborhood listservs wondering about the library's cost -- a $44.3 million project, about three quarters of which is allocated to construction. 

That is four times the cost projected in 2008 -- then, an $8 million construction budget out of a total project cost of approximately $11 million. (For background, see BCR's extensive July 2008 and September 2008 coverage, and Lisa Sorg's March 2016 update.)

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Of course, when the project was first under discussion back in '08, there was plenty of grousing from residents and elected officials alike about whether that number was sufficient to develop a first-class library for Durham, given that the renovation cost was only a bit more than the new-build cost of two of Durham's final new-build regional libraries.

The project team at the time put their best foot forward, pontificating on the building's panel/curtainwall exterior, and noting that communities with strong regional libraries (like Durham) needed less space than others.

Then that renovation project went away, only the resurface in the past couple of years with a new project team, a new library director, the departure of the former county engineer -- and, a budget that is a multiple of its old self.

Over the past few weeks, BCR has been taking a look at other library projects in the US and talking with Durham County Library (DCL) staff and project team members to try to figure out what's driving the cost.

Our take? While it's a steep rise in cost and a larger library than was proposed in 2008, it also is at least commensurate with other projects in smaller/mid-sized cities, and likely reflects a more realistic project than was initially proposed a few years back.

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Our first question: how does Durham's project compare in scope with what other communities have been doing in recent years?

The good news? The industry trade publication Library Journal keeps statistics on these projects. The bad news? It can be hard to get comparables, for a few reasons:

  • Where new libraries are being constructed, most are branch libraries, not new main libraries.
  • Data are available on renovations, but the scope of renovation can vary drastically -- from cosmetic changes to major additions and reconstructions.
  • To do a true, apples-to-apples comparison, you need to control for differences in scope, including spending on furnishings, fixtures, equipment and technology.
  • Finally, there's a wide range in the sizes of communities building new libraries.  

So how do we assess the Durham project?

Based on conversations with project architecture lead Victor Vines, we're going to compare this project to new construction -- since, unlike the 2008 plans, this project essentially reuses just the foundation and structural steel, a fixed remnant of about $2 million remaining on what will otherwise be a brand new building. We will include, though, Norfolk's main library project, which essentially bolted a concrete-and-steel seven story building onto an historic library, making it more akin to Durham's dramatic planned reboot of the downtown library. (For source data, see Library Journal's data for 2013, 2014 and 2015.)

For our analysis, we're looking only at communities of significant size -- a population of 60,000 or more, since the numbers aren't very comparable for St. Francisville, La. or Tiverton, R.I.

On a pure square footage basis, Durham's library is right on par with other communities in a couple of dimensions, if not a bit smaller than other communities:

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While project proposers in 2008 used the size and scope of Durham's marvelous East, North, Southwest and South branch libraries to discourage what they seemed to frame as overbuilding of any enlarged downtown main library, cities comparable to Durham have allocated more square feet to their libraries on a per-capita basis, even including the additional square footage downtown.

And except for Billings, Mt., all of these cities have branch libraries along with their main library sites.

Durham County Library director Tammy Baggett noted that library planning guidelines issues by the state library directors' association suggested the size need for Durham's main location.

"For example, Forsyth County Public Library, they have an 85,000 square foot main library, and ten other locations," Baggett said. "Forsyth County is actually in the process of renovation now, and theirs will go up to 103,000 square feet," she added. All of North Carolina's comparative urban systems, except Wake (with 22 total locations), all have core main libraries and branch areas.

Comparative analysis aside, there may be another driver for increasing Durham's main downtown library size -- growth in utilization. 

Statistics kept by the state suggest nearly 1.6 million visitors systemwide in the 2014 fiscal year, versus 1.3 million in FY 2008. And that reflects more than simply Durham's fast population growth -- per capita visits are up 10%.

(Side note on the data -- while the '08-'14 data make sense, the state's FY'15 data on Durham library usage don't make any logical sense, leaping to 2.4 million visits, a number that's way out of whack on a per capita and a comparative circulation basis vs. systems like Mecklenburg and Wake. Maybe somebody needs to clean the infrared lenses on those patron count sensors? Or maybe if the Indy is done with its anti-Mike Woodard polemics, it could look into this, hmm?)

Anyway, Baggett adds that demand for programming and especially for the downtown library's large meeting room are very high, and expansion will help support those programs.

"We're looking at having meeting rooms -- one room in particular that can accommodate 300 people," Baggett said. "We have a great number of people attending our programs, and we're often having to have programs off-site. We want to bring some bigger-name people here, that will attract bigger crowds," she added, noting a 26,000 person attendance at the downtown main library's location alone.

The revised main library plans also include a much more intensive set of spaces for technology, ranging from public computing workstations of the type currently familiar to patrons up to more intensive spaces for STEM learning including maker-space programming, among others.

The DCL director added that the latest project plans were driven by a review that didn't forget the Great Recession-era analysis, but also tried to take a fresh look at project needs.

The project team for the latest renovation round started with the 2008 plans, Baggett said, "but then we also needed to look at what the mission and vision of what the library is now," looking at the mission and vision as well as the library's strategic plan.

And, Baggett said, there was good support from elected county leaders -- and, a desire to make sure that the project will stand the test of time.

"I can't think of one Commissioner that hasn't given support for the renovation and the things we're seeing in it," Baggett said. "I've never sensed any tension with that, and I feel like there has been strong support."

"They of course want to make sure, [since] we're looking at a $44.3 million project. They want to make sure that the taxpayers are getting a great deal for that dollar amount, and that it is going to last, and we're not going to be coming back and saying we need to do this, and we need to do that," Baggett noted.

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Which brings us to the second point: how does the project compare on a per square foot basis to others around the country?

That turns out to be a harder issue to calculate, for a variety of reasons.

First, the projects tracked by Library Journal are complete and incorporate actual cost. Yet as project lead architect Victor Vines of Vines Architecture tells BCR, in the current planning/analysis scope, the true cost isn't pinned down, and some conservatism is warranted.

"It doesn't do anyone any good to tell someone during the design phase that something is going to cost x, and you know very well that that's probably not the case, and then you go and bid the project and it comes in plus, and then everyone sits around and goes, 'What happened?" Vines said.

"We're trying to stay within an area, a range, a cost," he added, noting ongoing work even during the bond campaign, "looking at opportunities to do things in a cost-effective way -- I call it at this phase, constructability."

Besides the inevitable sharpening-of-the-pencils, Vines noted other challenges that make it challenging to get a real like-to-like comparison on the project cost at this phase.

While the project is 84,804 sq. ft., the numbers used for estimating are slightly different, given everything from assumed floor plate in areas that are actually open-floor, to inclusion/exclusion of plazas and balconies, to other arcana in how estimating software analyzes construction costs at this still in-process design phase.

Vines also noted that there could be as much as $3 million in site work required, a number baked into the current construction cost but not necessarily included in the comparative construction projects in Library Journal.

All of which is to say -- we have to take a swag at what a like-to-like per square foot construction cost is for this project. Based on our conversation with Vines, BCR's estimate is this number is somewhere in the $325 to $350 per square foot range.

How does that number compare to other libraries tracked by Library Journal? It's on the higher end of the scale, but still on the scale, especially when overall footprint and urbanization is taken into account:

Screen Shot 2016-11-06 at 8.21.46 PMBy comparison, Baton Rouge and Norfolk both are cheaper per square foot -- but both cities also had larger square footage to work with, which BCR assumes allows some fixed costs to be amortized over a larger area.

At the same time, Cedar Rapids and Billings' costs were lower for similar-sized facilities -- but both are also lower-population and less-urbanized areas than downtown Durham, which we'd reckon is likely a higher cost of construction area.

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As an amusing aside, it strikes me there's one other way to look at this project -- if we're being brutally mercenary, then by annual visitors against the construction cost.

Take the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), which had a similar total project cost (in the roughly $40 million range), a figure that was in fact a tremendous value compared to other similar U.S. theaters -- and yet which sees attendance levels of over 400,000 guests per year, making it among the top four or five venues in the U.S.

The main downtown library, interestingly enough, had 423,542 visits by the public according to DCL's renovations web site, and an almost identical capital cost.

Our community gets plenty of entertainment value out of DPAC, to say nothing of positive externalities on downtown restaurants, hotels and the like.

Yet certainly the populations that depend on the main library -- a group which includes everyone from families and children, to citizens who rely on the facility for broadband access, to the neediest among us for whom it may be the only cooled or heated space they see during the daytime -- justifies a similar public investment, no?



Dave Neill

Welcome back, good sir.


"Anti-Mike Woodard polemics"? I now they didn't endorse him, but I think I missed this. Got a link?

David Stein

Great to have you back!


What both Davids said: welcome back!

Paolo Shirazi

This is probably the right time to be undertaking a construction project like this. Completely apart from the improvement in library services that will be provided after construction is complete, the exterior presentation of the building will help sustain the momentum of interest in the aesthetics of physical space downtown, hopefully encouraging more adventurous and ambitious architecture.

Joyce Chapman

The data you found referenced at is part of an annual census of all public libraries in America (The Public Library Survey) conducted since 1988 and administered by the government's Institute for Museum and Library Services via each state's SLAA -- the State Library of North Carolina in our case. Unlikely deviations in data from year to year must be explained or corrected. I contacted the State Library to ask about this particular instance. The sharp rise in visitor count from FY14 to FY15 had two explanations according to the library. First, automated door counters were replaced with new counters in every library location in the county, which would have both eliminated downtime from older counters and increased accuracy of the count. Additionally (and of smaller impact, given the numbers), many of the public libraries were polling sites during early voting for the presidential primary in the spring of FY15. The first explanation would be the main cause of the large increase in entrance data. So I would say that instead of discounting the FY15 data as incorrect, the installation of new counters might mean that the FY15 data is a more accurate representation of visitors than seen in previous years. We'll soon be able to see if the trend continues with the FY16 numbers -- preliminary data is often released on the site in December.

Joyce Chapman

Actually, that wouldn't have been the presidential primary it would have been some other primary they are referencing -- sorry, I inserted that word automatically, too much on my mind today :)

Kevin Davis

Thanks all for the kind words. Other commitments have made posting far more challenging than I'd like, but I've got some other story ideas in the hopper.

@Joyce -- very informative, thank you! I still do wonder at the relative deltas with Wake and Mecklenburg, which due to size alone should have been far higher than they were relative to Durham, right? Still, will look forward to seeing the FY16 data.

Todd Patton

Welcome back Kevin.

I appreciate the analysis of the library project. The BOCC has been bullish when it comes to spending downtown - $44 million on the library, $43 million on the old/new courthouse, $80+ million on the new/new courthouse, the $80+ million on the new social services building, DPAC, parking decks, etc.

But when it comes to capital requests for DPS, they have chosen to go frugal. DPS has 53 schools spread across the city and county, and said they needed $200+ million for renovations and expansions. The BOCC would only agree to $90 million in the 2016 bond, with the majority of that going to replace Northern HS for $51 million.

So while we end up with a lot of really nice buildings delivering valuable services downtown, thousands of DPS students will continue to go to class in the 100+ trailers permanently anchored at DPS schools, go to schools where shorts and a jacket are required year-round because HVAC operates so poorly, attend classes where there are not enough desks if everyone is there, and play on athletic fields with no grass because irrigation systems are broken and field maintenance is poor.

All that made my vote for the $44 million library hard to swallow. Hopefully the new BOCC will be more accommodating toward DPS capital needs.

Paolo Shirazi

@Todd Patton

Good points all. Trailers should never be more than a short term solution. There ought to be some kind of rule that if a trailer has been in place for more than three years, it's time to build at that school.

Joyce Chapman

@Kevin, yes, it seems more likely that there was a counting error for the year in question that was so abnormally high. At this point if they realized the number had been wrong, they could change it locally on the NC website but it is too late for it to be corrected in the real data set (the IMLS national public library census, which is a great data set that can be downloaded as a SAS or CSV files here, there's also geospatial files and APIs to access the data at admin entity or outlet level, for anyone interested in comparing public libraries around the country!).


Hey Kevin,
Thinking about the Durham Public Schools... is it time for a Durham wide redistricting effort? Schools haven't had their base zones changed since the merger. Think of all of the changes to Durham since then.

It's also why downtown neighborhoods are zoned to far flung schools - not to desegregate, but because 'kids don't live downtown'. TP, OND, C+H, GB, DP, OWD, WHH, etc neighbors might beg to disagree.

Todd Patton


Redistricting the schools would be one solution to overcrowding in certain schools - there are 98 "mobile classrooms' in use at 18 schools across the county. The DPS Long Range Facilities Plan is here: and includes nice color-coded maps showing which schools are over capacity.

For example, Githens (5 trailers) is the only middle school over capacity, although both Carrington & Neal have trailers as well. Riverside (11 trailers) , Jordan (7 trailers), and Hillside (5 trailers) are over capacity, but Northern & Southern have space. 11 elementary schools have trailers.

Redrawing the lines would help to shift some kids from overcrowded schools to ones with space, but would not solve the capacity issues in fast growing areas. Wake County redraws their attendance lines seemingly every year. Durham County could try it once a decade or so.

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