Thursday, April 23, 2009

Library: Contingent on Waterfront Redevelopment?

'First, get all the facts. Then, you can always distort them later.'
- attributed to Mark Twain


Hard times do call for some hard measures, but the difference between hard-headed austerity and just plain hard-headedness ought to be clear!
So it is with the latest round of rhetoric around the idea of a larger and more modern Bellingham Public Library.

Over two years ago, the City Council passed a unanimous Resolution -with the, then, Mayor's enthusiastic support- to accept recommendations from its Library Board -which had deliberated 7 years or more- on building a new Central Library adjacent to the current aging and woefully inadequate library, a building that would require significant public expense to even extend its useful life significantly.

Of course, this property is already owned by the City and has been in used as a favorite destination for many years and is an established public meeting place, including the grassy depression that serves as a park.
Additionally, it is right across the street from both City Hall and the County Court House, plus within a block or two of the Mt Baker Theater and Whatcom Museum-including the soon to be opened Children's Museum.
This so-called 'cultural district' was conceived years ago to be a vital link between the Civic Center and the downtown business community, a concept that continues to have much appeal as a people-friendly plan.

All of this also means the area is often congested, but you know, that isn't always a bad thing because 'eyes on the street' are comforting.
Also, there are bus lines that access the area and public hiking & biking trails along Whatcom Creek that can lead in several directions, including the waterfront and toward Lake Whatcom.
Sometimes -maybe most times- folks prefer for things like Libraries to be familiar and popular with other people; maybe that's why such places are called 'public places' and are well used.

Of course, there were/are some challenges to be overcome if any new Library idea were to come to fruition.
You know, little things like paying for it; deciding what 'it' would be; providing adequate parking; addressing how library services can be extended to other locations; how many patrons can be accommodated; what architecture and furnishings would be employed; what the level of service would be, and with what staff.
Just little things like that.
But, don't we always need to think about such things before we jump into some important venture?

The point is, a new Library has been considered a 'top priority' for Bellingham for several years, at least since the Capital Improvements Advisory Committee convened in 1999 thru 2001.
But, this particular 'priority' has been repeatedly elbowed aside by other projects, like the Public Facilities District idea, Civic Field Improvements, and now the ambitious Waterfront Redevelopment effort.
When the new Library's turn finally arrived, the necessary resources had already been spoken for, and hard times were well on the way.

So, of course, another delay is prudent, as long as it is not used as a time to forget about all the good work that has gone into Library planning!
Unfortunately, some of that 'forgetfulness' has already begun to happen.
More troubling is the somewhat arrogant attempt to supplant all the good planning that has occurred with an entirely new concept that has not been exposed to the gauntlet of public process so essential to generate widespread support.
Here, I am referring to two statements that have appeared recently in print, one from our Mayor, the other from a new Council member.

First, the Mayor is touting the idea of locating the new Library on or adjacent to the Waterfront, largely as a justification for building new parking structures!
That seems more like the flea trying to wag the hair on the tail of a dog to me.
I can understand the need for jump-starting the WF infrastructure, and the scarcity of public funds available for such projects, but what happened to the years of thoughtful good work by the Library Board and other interested citizens?
It's not OK with me to just chunk that work product into the garbage in favor of another bright idea designed to achieve multiple ends!

Of course, the Mayor's idea has the potential to be the best potential solution available, but it needs some serious vetting in my view.
But, we're not there yet - not even close!
For starters, it just simply ignores the several criteria that were thought essential to good Library planning.
Second, it seems overly dismissive of the Library Board's hard work, not to mention the many caring citizens who turned out for work sessions, presentations and creative idea sharing about desirable features.
Why, I'd be tempted to just resign from the LIbrary Board myself, but the good folks who serve in that capacity are so naturally temperate and civic-minded, that idea would likely never cross their minds.

Then, the Council person's conviction that not a stone or brick from the old Library building ought to be removed, as frugal and green as that sounds, ignores the fact that major, costly renovations will be required to transform this edifice into a modern and reasonably useful structure.
And, that also excludes the need for a serious, costly expansion of existing space, plus a place in which to operate while these disruptions are going on, things the Library Board have grappled with for years -but what did they know?.
Even the argument for historic preservation has no legs with this nondescript, 1950's building.
It is basically an outdated building that has pretty well served its purpose, except for lasting until its replacement can be constructed.

More troubling than either of these expressed opinions, is the abject wishy-washy-ness of the entire Council, which simply acceded to them without bothering to check the history of its own action!
You know, I can understand and accept the reality of today's difficult financial situation, but is totally rescinding the idea of a new Library necessary?
How about just deferring it for continued study and public process?
Isn't that the way Council often acts?
Thank goodness young Sam Taylor had the gumption to look up those pesky minutes from January 2007, and remind the Council of its own action!
Of course the Council can always reverse itself, but shouldn't that at least take another Resolution voted upon at a public meeting?
Surely, the Council wouldn't allow itself to be so easily jawboned into a position they haven't duly deliberated - or would they?

Our Library Board is a 5-person advisory body on which responsible citizens can volunteer their service.
And, uniquely, the Library Board is also responsible for hiring and overseeing the duties of the Library Director.
Bet that may surprise a few people, possibly including our current Mayor and maybe even a newer Council member or two.
Point is, we need to treat these folks better, and while we're at it, the good folks of Bellingham, who have loved their Library for many years.
It's not right to act so authoritarian and knee-jerk about such important issues, and most people probably know that.

If a new Library is planned with children in mind, it will certainly work for the rest of us, too.
There is no reason why the excellent work already done can't be pared down into a new facility that is more affordable and will be enthusiastically supported at the ballot, one day to come.
If that is not sufficient, the project could also be phased and/or partly paid for in other ways.
But, to hitch the new Library to Waterfront Redevelopment just guarantees nothing will be accomplished for the next 10 years or more!
That seems irresponsible, despite the current hard times.
But, then there might be some advantages to that sort of delay; few, if any, of the current elected officials will likely still be around!
Of course, by that time even more dire circumstances could prevail.
Who knows?

The Bellingham Public Library shares the power of information, encourages the discovery of ideas, and promotes the joy of reading with all members of the Bellingham Community.

Excerpt from the minutes of the Jan. 22, 2007 City Council meeting:



Dave Edelstein, representing the Bellingham Public Library Board of Trustees recognized current and former board members and the Friends of the Library, who have been tireless in their efforts in planning for this project.

Pam Kiesner, Library Director delivered a PowerPoint presentation of Library Board activity leading up to a recommendation for building a new Central Library on the current library block. Ms. Kiesner reviewed current Library service delivery and how it is present in the community. She described the Condition Assessment of the 102-year old Fairhaven Branch Library; how computers have changed the way we access information; and how self-services are accessed at the Library.

She continued with considerations of the City budget; population growth and areas of the City that are not covered; a brief review of the Citywide Library Services Study - a copy of which was provided to Council at the Joint City Council/Library Board Meeting held at the Library on January 17, 2007. Ms. Kiesner then reviewed the community's access to the City's libraries and for the immediate future, said they are actively working on partnership opportunities to provide more convenience to residents of neighborhoods that are currently underserved.

Ms. Kiesner responded to the common questions of “Why do we need a Central Library ?” and “Why do we need a NEW Central Library?” The Central Library services the growing downtown population as well as the entire city and it serves as a central location to the Bellingham community; provides a central hub: housing for materials ordering; processing and distribution; provides full service, primary materials and a resource center from which the community draws and it serves as the support services facility for all of the outreach services. The current Central Library serves as a strong central collection and an efficient centralized hub for materials handling citywide. The City has outgrown the Library's size, structure and function.

Ms. Kiesner reviewed the completed key steps and noted key findings: another floor cannot be added to the existing library, the building does not meet seismic codes, working with a building built in 1951 would be programmatically and structurally difficult with all the electronic resources used today. She also noted that underground parking on this site is possible.

Visions for a Central Library include:

· housing a materials collection;
· meeting citywide library needs at least 50 years into the future;
· a library that is beautiful, functional and cost-effective;
· invites the community in;
· reflects the unique character of the community;
· designed with public input;
· using at least silver LEED standards;
· an educational institution;
· easy to find;
· parking;
· accessible to all ages and abilities;
· spaces that are busy every hour of every day;
· flexible to meet the needs of a growing community and
· that the library remains and becomes stronger as a cornerstone of the community.

Faye Hill, Library Board Member reviewed the site selection process that began in 2001. To date, working with the Site Evaluation Committee, the Library Board has reviewed 20 properties and in 2006 the Board issued a Request for Proposal for available property in the downtown core with no responses received. In July 2006 the sites were narrowed down to the former ReStore site, Maritime Heritage Park site, Bellingham Municipal Court site and current Library block. A primary reason for focusing on these four sites is that they are city-owned, thus saving the taxpayers the expense of purchasing a site. In August 2006 a walkabout of the four sites was done, where valuable feedback was received. With it's adjacencies to civic arts and cultural endeavors in the downtown area including the new Children's and Art Museum, which is across the street, the current Library block has been a natural site to consider. The Board believes it has spent the necessary time to become well informed about each one of the sites and unanimously agree that the current Library block, minus the existing building, provides the best option for the new Central Library.

Ms. Kiesner outlined the next steps and said a timeline is in draft format. The Board wants to make sure that the community is as informed as possible and the Board would like to invite their input in a variety of ways. In the first half of 2007 the Board will be seeking a Bond Campaign Chair and committee and determine which is more likely to succeed – a General, Off-year or Special election. It is too early to know potential costs and they want to be as accurate as possible. This year, the Board will be looking at preliminary designs in order to more accurately estimate potential costs for the entire project and operating costs into the future. They will also be exploring funding mechanisms – most likely, a voter approved bond and they will be offering to the community, groups and individuals, opportunities for donating to the project.

BARBARA RYAN / KNUTSON moved to approve that a replacement Central Library be constructed on the current “library block” and further, that the existing library building be taken down prior to construction of the new facility in order to provide the best design and site development possible.