Friday, March 06, 2009

Wheaton Library: What's the 411? Part Three

By Holly Olson.

In Part Three of my series, I discuss the benefits of relocating the library to downtown Wheaton, both in terms of the redevelopment effort as well as the community. But first, some background information on how we got to this point.

In 2008, the International Downtown Association put together an advisory panel of redevelopment experts to assess redevelopment prospects in Wheaton. The focus of their review was to identify how County assets might be used as an impetus for Wheaton’s redevelopment.

One of the key recommendations of the report was to relocate the library to Wheaton’s Central Business District (CBD). The report states:

Building an outstanding library in a signature building located in the heart of the business district will signal to potential investors that downtown Wheaton is moving in the right direction. This is particularly important in terms of office tenants, as the County seeks to expand the tax base in downtown Wheaton through the construction of new office buildings.
Furthermore, the panel recommended that the library should be relocated to the southern end of Lot 13 (currently the site of the Mid-County Services Center) and would be part of a mixed-use facility that would also include an arts and cultural center, offices, residential, retail, restaurants, and parking. This facility, combined with Lot 13 (designated for open space) and the Bozzuto and Metro air rights sites, would create a sizable area for the start of a “town square” environment.

So of all the County facilities, why is a library so important to jumpstarting redevelopment? First, the libraries of today are not your grandmother’s library. Libraries are no longer just a place to check out books. They serve as anchors - creating a sense of place and strengthening our community. They function as community centers, providing meeting space and the opportunity for any number of cultural activities and community programming.

Second, libraries can help to stimulate local economic activity. In a report by the Urban Libraries Council entitled, “Making Cities Stronger: Public Library Contributions to Local Economic Development,” they note that Center City library developments have “created vibrant public spaces that attract a steady stream of visitors to areas that often lie dormant after business hours and during weekends.” One of the big issues in Wheaton is a lack of foot traffic during the weekday. Many of the restaurants are dead during this period, and some have stopped serving lunch during the week. The report tells the story of how a Memphis library relocated from a quiet residential neighborhood on the Southside to a retail strip in an economically depressed industrial section of the town. (Sound familiar?) Initially, six of eight storefronts in the retail strip were vacant. After 4 years, there were no longer any vacancies.

Third, the increase in foot traffic generated by a downtown library has the benefit of adding “eyes on the street.” As I mentioned in Part Two, this is an important concept in urban planning popularized by Jane Jacobs. The idea is that increased activity deters crime and enhances the public’s perception of safety. It is a simple, but powerful concept. Given that many members of the community feel that Wheaton is an unsafe place to be, a well-used public library could go along way in helping to combat this image.

Fourth, relocating a library to the CBD would send a powerful message to developers that the County is serious about investing in Wheaton. If the library does move to the CBD, it will likely be part of a mixed-use development. Because libraries are long-term tenants, this reduces the financial risk associated with building such a development. In addition, as anchor tenants, libraries bring in foot traffic without competing directly for commercial sales - another benefit to potential tenants that might consider leasing space in such a development.

OK, but what about the community? How does it help us? First, relocating the library to the CBD will improve accessibility. At its current location, the primary way to get to the library is by auto (unless you live in the immediate neighborhood). By positioning itself in the heart of the downtown, the community can now access the library by metro, bus, foot, and auto. And given that libraries are built for the people, by the people (with our tax dollars), one of the main priorities of a library should be making itself as accessible as possible.

Second, relocating the library to the downtown would minimize the time the library is closed. If the library is renovated at its current site, the library would be closed for up to two years. If the library is relocated, the closure time would be limited to a matter of weeks to allow for the transport of books and equipment.

Third, moving the library to the CBD enhances the urban experience. Many County residents enjoy being able to park their car and do multiple things in one trip. If the library moves to downtown, it would mean that individuals could combine a trip to the library with other things in the downtown - a lunch, a shopping trip, a coffee break etc. At its current location, the library is almost an out of the way destination - something that deserves its own trip. By moving it to a more central location, individuals may be more likely to patronize both the library and the businesses of Wheaton. In short, the CBD becomes a destination location — and this helps not only consumers, but many of our small business owners who are also part of the Wheaton community.

The times that we currently live in aren’t so good. As a result, I think our natural instinct is to close in on things that feel safe and familiar. We are less likely to take risks and to think outside of the box. So for many, it can be hard to see how the library fits in to the big picture of redevelopment in Wheaton, particularly when Wheaton isn’t looking so hot these days. But it is important to remember that the library is only one part of the redevelopment vision. There are lots of other pieces - and together, they form a beautiful mosaic of a new and vibrant downtown.

So if you will indulge me for a moment, I would to share with you my vision for the future. Picture a Wheaton that looks like this:

It is a beautiful, sunny Saturday afternoon in early June. Adam and I take our young son out to one of Wheaton’s great restaurants - maybe some Vietnamese, Thai, or Salvadoran, and dine at one of the outdoor tables. After we finish with lunch, we head over to the library, which is known throughout the County for its children’s section. After our son picks out a few books, we head over to Marchone’s Italian Deli to buy a cookie or two. We finish out the afternoon by enjoying our cookies on the new public plaza while we watch a pick-up game of soccer on the grassy area.

I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a pretty nice day to me.

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