Town And County To Look For Smaller Library Sites Downtown

CHAPEL HILL- Orange County Commissioners weren’t favorably impressed with any of the possible library locations they reviewed Tuesday night, and they say they want to rethink the criteria used to select them.

“It seems to me that we need to think into the future and not build yesterday’s library,” said Commissioner Penny Rich. “That’s why I’m concerned about some of these studies that were done years ago. We know that libraries have changed drastically.”

In December, Carrboro Aldermen put forward three potential sites for the southern branch of the Orange County Public Library: one at Town Hall, one adjacent to the Westwood Cemetery, and one next to a park on Hillsborough Road.

But county staffers rejected the Town Hall location, saying the building is difficult to renovate and the site is already used for many different purposes.

“You have a fire station, you have the government services at Town Hall, also parking and the famer’s market complex,” said Director of Asset Management Services Jeff Thompson. “It would, in fact, be a very complicated development. It would be expensive as well.”

Orange County staff favored the Hillsborough Road site, suggesting the county could collaborate with Carrboro on a land swap that would put the library near the entrance to the Martin Luther King Jr Park.

“There is an enhanced opportunity for synergy between a park and a library facility that includes shared programming, infrastructure and the like,” said Thompson.

But that idea rankled some who say Carrboro doesn’t need to try to duplicate Chapel Hill’s newly expanded library, which is just down the road, also located in a park.

Chair Barry Jacobs urged the board to rethink the design guidelines that call for a 20,000 square foot, free-standing library.

“I do think it is critical to consider the relationship of this library to the Chapel Hill library. If you have an excellent, comprehensive library less than four miles away, we don’t need a 20,000 square foot library in Carrboro,” said Jacobs. “And the more you say that, the more you set up the expectation among people for something I don’t think the county should provide.”

Commissioners and aldermen had previously agreed upon those guidelines, but last night both groups said they would like to broaden the criteria to explore more options.

Carrboro Alderman Randee Haven-O’Donnell told the board that town leaders want to look for new sites, with an eye towards to bringing a smaller library downtown. County commissioners agreed.

“Well, since we have been asked by the Board of Aldermen to consider other sites, I think we need to tell them we are quite willing to wait and see what other possibilities there might be,” said Commissioner Bernadette Pelissier. “I have felt with these three sites that surely there must be more options.”

But while both boards prepared to go back to the drawing board, Commissioner Earl McKee reminded the his peers that the new facility is not a town library, rather, it is meant to serve all residents in the southern half of the county.

“Parking is a major issue for me in siting this library, because there are a great number of people who will need to use this library that will not be on bus routes, will not be close enough to walk, and will not be close enough to bike,” said McKee. “So I have a real concern with placing a library downtown where I know there are parking issues.”

In the end, commissioners agreed to wait for feedback from Carrboro officials and invited the aldermen to join them for a presentation on the Orange County Library’s strategic plan.

The Board of Aldermen will discuss the library locations on April 9. The strategic plan will be presented in early May.

Construction Is Almost Done, But New Library Services May Have To Wait

CHAPEL HILL-The new and improved Chapel Hill Public Library will reopen in the spring, but it’s not clear if the town can afford the full cost of operating the expanded facility.

Interim Library Director Mark Bayles told the town council on Wednesday that when the library reopens in April, it will be more than twice as large as before, spanning an acre and a half with nearly four miles worth of book shelves.

“The new building is, in essence, two libraries under one roof: the main library and a mini-branch,” said Bayles.

To run the 63,000 square foot facility at full capacity will cost an extra $433,000 this year and an additional three quarters of a million each year thereafter.

But the town budget is tight. Council members warned Bayles that the operational costs might be too high to open the library at its full potential.

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the community is prepared for the fact that the library will likely have to operate at a reduced level of service.

“I don’t like the idea of saying, ‘Oh the town’s going to cut the library hours,’ but I think there’s a tolerance out there in the community for it,” said Kleinschmidt. “There’s a likelihood in the minds of many people in the community that we would roll out this operation rather than funding it in its entirety on the initial day.”

Though the library will no doubt feature in this spring’s budget negotiations, administrators are looking to the council for guidance now on whether to hire more personnel for the April opening.

The two level structure of the new library adds significantly to the cost of operation, because both floors and entrances will need to be staffed. Although closing the ground level entrance would save $70,000 a year, administrators warn it would leave the lower level understaffed and potentially unsafe. Town Manager Roger Stancil agreed.

“The second exit is a fact,” said Stancil. “If we could go back and redesign it, we might not have that second opening, we might not operate it as two libraries, but those are the facts that we’ve got.”

Nonetheless, council members told Bayles to look for ways to keep costs down, either by cutting hours or reducing circulation. Lee Storrow said the full roll-out of expanded services could take years to fund.

“We know we might have to make some tough decisions about the library that mean growing into the space over the course of months or even years,” said Storrow. “So I’m very comfortable not giving as big of an expansion to the budget as we’re seeing here tonight. I think the community is prepared for that to happen.”

Chapel Hill has been waiting a long time for its new library. The $16 million dollar expansion project was first approved by voters in 2003, but the council delayed it during the economic downturn. Though the building will reopen in just a few months time, it may take longer for the town to fully realize its dream.