Sunday, August 08, 2010

Rebuilding Main Street With a New Library

Should a new library be built downtown?  I believe it should.  A new library near Main Street will bring more people to Main Street, providing a solid anchor for increasing retail sales in our shopping district.  I also believe that a new library would become the foundation to revitalize downtown while enhancing recreational and cultural opportunities along Riverfront Park.

Building a new library near Main Street will also require unusual cooperation and collaboration from both our county and city governments.  Before I explain, let me summarize the situation.
  • Prince George's County wants to rebuild the Laurel Library at its current location at Seventh and Talbot.
  • However, the current location has challenges.  The property is not large enough to support a new building along with all the necessary parking spaces.
  • The county would need to acquire additional land from the city to support the new building project.
  • The need for a larger parcel opens up the opportunity to consider other building locations.  
  • The City of Laurel has the old Police Station property at 350 Municipal Square.  It's one block off  Main Street and right along the river. The city would like to sell this 1.8 acre property and 19,000 square foot building for 2.5 million dollars.
"Bring Our Library Downtown," or BOLD, is a grassroots group advocating for building the new library downtown at the old Police Station location.  They have a slide show highlighting many of the benefits of moving the library downtown.

I agree with BOLD but I would like to go a bit further and suggest that the city simply give, not sell, the old Police Station property to the county for the new library.  The city has the most to gain from moving the library downtown.  While 2.5 million dollars is a lot of money that could be used for many other city projects, I believe that this is a small price to pay to help revitalize Main Street. 

This 2.5 million dollar gift should come with three conditions.  First, that the city and county would jointly appoint a dedicated planning commission to design the building and grounds of the new library.  Second, the city would get final approval of the county's site and building plan.  Third, the county would agree to buy the property on the northwest corner that sits between the old Police Station and the river, highlighted in red below.

By removing all of the existing buildings on the site, we will have a large parcel that opens north to the river.  With an open lot, we can build a large, innovative library and learning center that fully incorporates both the river and adjacent park land into its design.  This approach also opens options for increased parking for Main Street visitors.

This is obviously an aggressive plan.  It will cost both the city and county significant resources, not just money, but also time and attention.  The city has a long history of augmenting county services with city tax dollars.  For example, the city has contributed over $250,000 per year towards the county's fire and ambulance services.  I think it is entirely reasonable for the city to contribute funding that will lead directly to augmenting Main Street's revitalization.

This plan also requires that both county and city governments to work together on the project in good faith and for the benefit of all.  It will be difficult because governments rarely share the same priorities or have business and planning processes that are compatible.  But the enhanced library and learning center that could result from this cooperation will be so much better than what either government could possible accomplish alone.

Please see the sidebar to take our poll, "Should the Laurel Library Move Downtown?"

17 comments:

Anonymous said...

Excellent column. In addition to the property Rick identified, several other adjoining properties could likely be available for parking. An added benefit of the downtown library would be that the current library structure, which has nothing wrong with it except being too small, could be repurposed as an educational and heritage resource -- leaving us with two good, community-oriented buildings instead of one.
Karen Lubieniecki/BOLD

Tom Dernoga said...

Rick:

Thank you for the thoughtful recommendation. I think you suggest one of the more likely ways that the Library will move downtown.

I would slightly object to the statement that the County wants the library to stay at 7th Street. Perhaps the Office of Central Services does, but i am at least open-minded (for whatever that is worth at this time). In reality, the ultimate decision will be made by a new County Council member working with a new County Executive.

I think it would require the City to either give the land to the County or for there to be a swap with the current library property. I have added extra money into the budget for land acquisition, but if the City sticks with its asking price, there is little chance of the library moving downtown.

I agree that any such plan requires the accumulation of additional land, and opening up the river is a great opportunity. I still doubt that there will be sufficient parking, but that is an issue that will need to be worked out for Main Street or for 7th Street.

I also agree that there will need to be a very collaborative/cooperative working arrangement with the County and City. I really hope that occurs. I doubt that the County would give total design and site plan approval to the City, but I would expect that there could be an agreement to have a consensus on the design and site plan. Don't forget, the library serves more than just City residents and their voices need to be heard, too.

The point that I like to make is that the goal should be to have the best state-of-the-art library for Laurel area citizens, and that can be achieved at either site if everyone cooperates and keeps the focus on what more so than where. Both sites have positive attributes. Both sites come with a few negative attributes. Let's work together to get the best possible result.

Thanks again, Rick.

Tom Dernoga

Anonymous said...

I agree with Tom Dernoga, that it seems the city is asking too much (money & control). While the existing location is more convenient for me, I can live with the new location.

One advantage of having a new location is that library service can continue with minimal interruption during construction. The idea of having no library in Laurel from the time the old site is closed for construction until the new library ready IMO is unacceptable.

I’m not sure I agree with BOLD’s proposed use for the existing location if the new site is used. I would like to see something that offers facilities that will be of on-going interest to all area residents. A museum/cultural center is a onetime visit for most and a once or twice a year visit for diehards. A teen, senior, or fitness center would probably get more use.

Rush Kester
long time Laurel resident

Mike McLaughlin said...

I think you should add a fourth condition to the "$2.5 million dollar gift." As a riverside community, we simply have to be better stewards of the river. Reducing impervious surfaces and adding stormwater retention and filtration should be as integral to any Main St. plan as the number of parking spaces. If the nearby town of Edmonston, MD can do it for a whole street (http://www.gazette.net/stories/12032009/collnew181421_32537.php), we can do it for a site plan.

For the greater part of the early 20th century, our city used the river for its sewer. We look back on that in disgust. How late into this century do we want people to look back on us in disgust for what we are still putting into the river?

Mike

Rick Wilson said...

I appreciate the comments from each of you. It's wonderful that so many voices are being heard on this issue.

Anonymous said...

What would be the impact on the 7th street area if the library were to move? As I understand it, the park adjacent to the library is a crime problem.

If the library were to move, what would take its place?

Or, if the library were to be expanded in its current location, how would that affect Emancipation Park?

Greg

Rick Wilson said...

Greg: I'm not sure that the LPD would agree that Emancipation Park is a crime problem. There have been issues there in the past but I'm not aware of any current problems.

It would be up to the county to decide what to do with the old Library.

The library cannot be expanded in its current footprint. The way I understand it, there would need to be some land acquisition to accommodate the new parking and larger building.

Elizabeth Root said...

I am chairing the task force that Tom Dernoga assembles to discuss the future library. We are still in the middle of our discussions, so I can't give you an outcome yet, but there will be a report. I am a long-time member of the Friends of Laurel library.

First I would like to reassure Rush Kester and other readers that even if the library remains between 7th and 8th streets, it will remain open during construction. The current feasibility studies place the new building in a different spot.

Secondly, the problem with the lot that Rick suggests that we buy to build on is that it, and part of the old police station, are in a flood plain. Not a great place for a library. In order to make room for a downtown library, it would be necessary to acquire land south from the old police station toward Tolson Alley.

I see the possible advantage to Main Street, but I think we also need to consider what is best for the library, an issue not addressed in your column.

The new library was supposed to open in 2010. We in the Friends of the Library has been talking to city and county officials for years. We'd certainly have been happy any time for them to agree to work together. I'd hate to see more delays in starting construction.

Anonymous said...

Rick,
I know this post wasn’t about Main Street – but the connection between a “downtown” library and a revitalized Main street seems tenuous. Here are the things I’ve heard from my peer group about Main Street, in no particular order:
1. Everyone knows about Main Street and how to get there - branding isn’t a problem.
2. Many buildings and the street have a run-down, tired appearance
3. People like RH&B, the post office, and to some degree – the Laurel Meat Market
4. Too much chotstky and not enough stores “I would go to.”
5. The place shuts down at 5pm.

Not sure if a Laurel-area survey about Main Street has been conducted, but a nice new library hidden behind Tolson Alley won’t change any of those complaints. The Post Office is a government building already on Main Street that generates a lot of traffic – both drivers and pedestrians, but hasn’t revitalized it any. Same with the Marc Station. Bottom line: the people traffic is already there. They just don’t see enough worth stopping for.

Two things have historically turned around a stagnant suburban downtown – 1) a large scale investment in streetscaping/building façade; and 2) bringing in a big a white-collar professional firm – like an architectural or consulting firm. That’s the playbook that every small urban area has used – the latest example being Silver Spring (which has had a library right on Ellsworth Ave for decades). That area turned around when the County pumped in tens of millions of dollars into the downtown core and also when it lured the Discovery Channel and plopped it down right in the middle of downtown. The reason that streetscaping works is because it makes visitors think that a City or property-owners care about their appearance and put in the effort to maintain it – if it looks nice, it must be nice. We pick up on these subtle clues all the time – particularly when house-hunting, for example. The other item – luring a professional service – works, because with it, comes a captive audience: workers who want coffee and Danish in the morning; lunch in the middle of the day; happy hour or dinner after work, not to mention stuff like dry-cleaning or entertaining potential clients or recruits.

There may be other merits to moving the library downtown, but banking on downtown revitalization seems to be a high risk gamble, particularly if the City were to just give away a prime piece of land. I also think $2.5M for the old police station is too low. This is a large plot of land in a historic commercial area, with riverfront access – a parcel like that comes around once in a generation. I hope the City holds out for something truly game-changing. For example, give the property to a developer on the condition that within 2 years they bring in an attractive vertical building with a 100+ person professional services firm and ground-floor retail to include a coffee shop, chain store lunch options, and an Irish Pub. Then you will see nearby businesses step up to the plate to fight for that captive audience – which is really the very essence of revitalization.

It’s an ultra-competitive environment out there with jurisdictions competing for residents and businesses. Cities are perceived to be either growing or dying. People and business owners that care and are civic-minded are the backbone of any City. If those people begin to think the City is dying, and they leave, history shows that it’s a slow bleed-out, and a rebirth can’t even begin for at least a generation. That is why it is so critical for Laurel to continually improve and beautify its infrastructure – parks, buildings, and streets to present its best face to current and future residents. These investments have a way of coercing revitalization. I just don’t see how building a parking lot, with a library in the middle, behind the Meat Market, would spur on any similar activity.

Rick Wilson said...

Anonymous - you make some good arguments. Thanks.

What do others think? Can Main Street be saved? Do we need something grander than a library? What will it take to bring new investment and redevelopment to downtown Laurel?

Anonymous said...

To briefly chime in, I am curious about the traffic flow the library receives and whether a relocation would somehow negatively impact the amount of people continuing to rely on the library in an age of amazon kindles, fox book chains and cyberspace.

Or whether these repeat library patrons could really be expected to impact the main street commerce significantly. The current location affords the library to be both in plain view, and within a residential neighborhood. This proposal tucks the library behind Main Street, pins it against the river and has it severed by Route One. I am not convinced that is in the library's interest, or in the interest of the county/city who would really need to improve the facilities of the branch tenfold to truly make it worth visiting.

Anonymous said...

Lots of great comments. I would like to point out for those interested concerned about the impact of a library on downtown revitalization an article on the BOLD Facebook page: http://www.slideshare.net/kalpr/libraries-at-theheartofourcommunities.
Also, while some of the police property is on the flood plain, any area where the library would be build is not. BOLD's powerpoint presentation (also posted on slideshare) discusses some of the possible uses of the repurposed library -- a museum in fact is not one of the proposed uses, but rather a place for study rooms, computers, classrooms, with information on the heritage of the area. http://www.slideshare.net/kalpr/bold-bring-our-library-downtown

An added benefit is that building downtown preserves the current (sound building), and gives us two good structures instead of one - certainly greener.

I personally believe that we can build a great library that not only serves library patrons, but which can also help the community in which it resides.

Karen Lubieniecki/BOLD

Mark said...

I like the idea of the Library being downtown. My image of a vital community/neighborhood involves the interweaving of residential, business, public service, and recreational resources all conveniently located within walking distance of one another. Historic Laurel possesses more of these advantages than any other town I've had the good fortune to live in; in fact it's the reason I choose to move my family here. Another town I lived in for many years was Boulder, Colorado, which itself represents a tremendous success in downtown revitalization. Boulder also has its public library situated between its downtown district and a river. It's functional, it's convenient, and it's beautiful. I believe that there is no revitalization silver-bullet; it's a consequence of smart planning that brings together many conveniences while still retaining the authentic "feel" of a historic community. Bringing the Library downtown adds a significant public service benefit to the district. I believe it's a wise investment in the long term future of this historic community.

Rick Wilson said...

Again, I would like to thank everyone who has taken a moment to comment. All of you present articulate and well reasoned arguments for and against moving the library downtown. I hope that this discussion continues.

Anonymous said...

Great discussion, very intriguing.

I think we are recognizing that the library location is connected to multiple other themes, even if only tangentially. Obviously, some of these themes are overlapping and contributing to the complexity of the library issue.

I would propose that the long term health of Main Street is linked to the Mall revitalization project.

A large scale revitalization (like Silver Spring, MD or Boulder, CO) involves looking at multiple local areas, their connections, and how to provide and link the services that local citizens want (both City and County citizens).

As an educational service, certainly the Library plays a role in this equation, even when framed in larger themes.

An economic or urban geographer might view the long term economic success of the City of Laurel as being defined by the successes of the three clustered retail areas linked by 4th Street (and of course Rte 1): the Mall, the Laurel/ Giant Shopping Center, and Main Street.

We walk to all of these locations for various businesses, and it could be valuable to regard them as the spine of the local Laurel community and consider the relationships therein.

To look at this equation at a 'Silver Spring/Boulder scale' is of course filled with large challenges, issues of overlapping jurisdiction, and significant financial investment.

However, Silver Spring and Boulder are fantastic examples of how this type of urban thought can produce wonderfully functional, economically successful, and aesthetically pleasing urban landscapes.

There are many medium to large scale development projects slated for Laurel in the coming years.

I hope that wise, researched, strategic thinking will preserve and enhance what we love so much about Laurel.

I hope too that I can still walk to the library, wherever its next incarnation is located.

(...an exercise in scalar thinking, recognizing connections, and food for thought, I hope)


Andy Vernor

ps- I also agree with Mike M. that we should keep sound environmental stewardship in mind for all lands along the river.

Elizabeth Root said...

The library provides a significant, and well-beloved public service in being a library, and its chief responsibility is to be the best library that it can be.   The present site is the one that people have been familiar with for more than 40 years, with its high visibility, easy access off 198, and central location between West and South Laurel,

There are significant downsides to moving to Main Street, and no off-setting advantages.    I believe that the traffic situation would be much worse, for example.   Also, there is no guaranteed outcome. Perhaps it would help revive Main Street if it moved there, but that's quite a gamble. A longtime Laurel resident recently commented skeptically that there have been schemes to renovate Main Street since she moved here in the 1950s.   The popularity of the library might attract more people downtown, but the inconvenience of traveling to Main Street might lose the library some, perhaps many, customers.   

If the library were moved, the neighborhoods around the present library would lose its huge asset. Perhaps, the building could be used in another way, but I haven't heard any proposals that come close to matching the enrichment offered by the library.   The proposed center in the old building doesn't appear to offer much of anything that the Library doesn't already provide, and they lose the rest of  the library's resources.   As far as I know, no one has committed to fund this proposed center.   What is to say that the city or the county, whoever ends up owning the property, won't simply put it up for sale?   The building could be promptly torn down to build the Parkside Townhouses, or used as a commercial site.

A really good deal leaves everyone feeling that they have benefited. The success of moving the library to Main Street is conjecture. What we do know is that librarians are currently serving about 100 patrons per hour at the present location and that a larger, up-to-date facility has been needed for many years now.

Keith said...

I'm very late to the party, but I give a big "Meh" to both of the options being considered. People aren't thinking widely enough. The police station site isn't going to do enough for Main Street to make the cost worthwhile. The current location can't be satisfactorily expanded without consuming Emancipation Park.

How about moving closer to the center of the city? (Can't get further from the center than the police station site.) How about working with Laurel Commons to make it part of version #32 of their redev project? How about looking at empty space like the unused-for-years Toys R Us store in the shopping center? How about some of the underutilized space on the east side of Route 1, opposite the Mall and shopping center? How about the backside of the Laurel Lakes Shopping Center with its hundreds of never-been-used parking spots?

If I gave it a few more minutes, I'm sure I could find even more.

Maybe I missed earlier discussions when other options were discounted, but if you really need an upgraded library then you may as well do it right. I can't see how either of these locations is going to be right.

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