Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Wheaton Library: What's the 411? Part One

By Holly Olson.

The crowd was angry and the mood was dark. If you got there late, and didn’t snag one of the 80 seats, tough luck - they didn’t care if you were old, sick, or pregnant (as yours truly was at 24 weeks). And if you disagreed with the masses, well, then consider yourself lucky if you weren’t lynched on the spot.

Was this some medieval gathering to watch a beheading? Or perhaps a Salem witch trial? Hardly. It was a meeting about a library - specifically, whether the Wheaton library should be renovated at its existing site or moved to a new location in the center of downtown Wheaton.

Since the meeting was held on February 9th, there has been a lot of discussion about this topic. Just Up the Pike has had several posts about the issue and the Gazette ran an article and several Letters to the Editor about the topic. So of course, I couldn’t stay out of this for long (albeit somewhat belated - blame it on pregnancy fatigue) because I truly care about what happens to Wheaton.

In Part One of this series, I will provide some basic background information on the library and the renovation process. In Part Two, I will summarize the community concerns expressed at the library meeting and assess the validity of each argument. In Part Three, I will lay out the benefits for relocating the library to the Wheaton Central Business District (CBD).

So before I get into the nitty gritty, let’s talk about the library’s history. The Wheaton library was erected at its current site at Georgia Avenue and Arcola in 1960. Interestingly enough, prior to its current location, the library was situated in downtown Wheaton, roughly where Ferdinand’s restaurant currently is.

As a general rule, the County likes to renovate libraries every 20 years. However, the actual period between renovations is now running about 23 to 25 years. The Wheaton library last went through a full renovation in 1983 and a minor renovation about 7-10 years ago. This minor renovation was cosmetic in nature and involved things like sprucing up the paint, changing the shelving, and creating space for the computer room. So, at 26 years since the last major overhaul, the library is definitely due.

During a major library renovation, the County upgrades the building and its systems. In addition, the library may also be redesigned to accommodate changes in service needs. For example, older libraries are often upgraded to account for technological changes such as the increased use of computers and the internet. If a library is renovated at its existing location, it is typically shut down for a period of 1.5 to 2 years. If a library is moved to a different site, the shut down period is temporary; typically only weeks while the content of the building such as books and equipment are moved.

In 2008, the International Downtown Association issued a report examining Wheaton’s prospects for redevelopment. In particular, the report focused on the use of County assets for jumpstarting redevelopment. One of the primary findings of the report was that the library should be relocated to serve as an anchor for a town square in the center of the Central Business District (CBD).

The Wheaton Library was initially scheduled to be in the 2005-2010 CIP. However, it was removed from the CIP when the County Council requested the County further study the issue of relocation versus renovation. One of the ways that the County solicited input was through the community meeting on 2/9. There was also a public comment period (which ended on 3/2) during which the community could provide input online. After input has been received, the County will decide how to move forward and whether the library should be placed in the 2009-2014 CIP in September.

It is worthwhile to mention here that the County has recently shifted its strategy in terms of redeveloping Wheaton. The County is now looking at the approach used in Silver Spring, which would entail using a master developer to develop the area around Lot 13 (the parking lot in the center of the CBD). If the library was relocated, it would likely be part of a mixed-use development that would be executed by the Master Developer. This process would take some time, and therefore, the library would continue to exist on its current site until the redevelopment project was complete. In order for the library to continue operations at its current site during redevelopment, some minor renovation work would be required - such as addressing HVAC issues, upgrading indoor and outdoor lighting, and fixing the entry doors.

In Part Two of this series, I will address some of the concerns raised by the community at the meeting on February 9th.

Holly Olson is a former Chair of the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Committee.