Library may aid core of Raleigh
An artist's rendering illustrates a new building proposed to house a downtown Raleigh library.
By JOHN ZEBROWSKI
The News & Observer
RALEIGH- It is not in the "5 in 5," the guiding plan for revitalizing downtown Raleigh. There's no mention of it in the Wake County Library System's long-term capital plan. It's not even hidden in fine print as a Wouldn't it be great? item.
Returning a full-service public library to downtown Raleigh for the first time since the 1980s wasn't something anyone was considering. Yet it's coming. In less than two years, people could be strolling into a library on a reopened Fayetteville Street.
Through the drive of Progress Energy chief executive Bill Cavanaugh, Raleigh will fill a conspicuous hole. The reasoning is simple: Go to any sizable city, including Durham and Chapel Hill, and you're certain to find a public lending library at, or near, its center.
Cavanaugh came to this conclusion while traveling, noticing that vibrant downtowns had vibrant libraries. And when he informed Wake County commissioners that he would raise the money to build one if they would operate it, the idea quickly became a deal.
"You don't get opportunities like this very often," County Manager David Cooke said.
The process is under way to figure out what to put in the $10 million space that will sit on the corner of Fayetteville and Davie streets. Brainstorming sessions have begun with "thought leaders," prominent residents such as Bill Shore of GlaxoSmithKline, Capitol Broadcasting President and chief executive Jim Goodmon, local university presidents and The News & Observer Publisher Orage Quarles III. Next month, public forums will be held to solicit ideas.
Since 1990, scores of cities have opened new or dramatically refurbished central libraries. The list is varied: Los Angeles; Phoenix; Denver; Chicago; Nashville, Tenn.; Seattle; Kansas City, Mo.; San Francisco; Minneapolis; Columbia, S.C.; Norfolk, Va.
"It says that a city cares about learning, that it's a city that's proud of what it provides to its people," said Joey Rodger, president of the Chicago-based industry group Urban Libraries Council. "That's something a new stadium or convention center can't do."
Today, libraries are viewed as tools to inject life into downtowns. Downtrodden areas have bloomed around them. Hard data is scarce, but Rodger insists she cannot think of an instance where the idea didn't succeed.
Raleigh's library, approved unanimously by Wake commissioners last month, will be considerably smaller than many others. At 30,000 square feet, it would be no bigger than the regional library to be built in Cary. The expanded Cameron Village branch will be 20 percent larger.
By comparison, Columbia's main library, which is smaller than many, is eight times the size of the one planned for Raleigh.
For 100 years, the Olivia Raney and Richard B. Harrison libraries served downtown. But by 1996, when Thomas Moore, Wake County's library director, abandoned the idea of a downtown lending library, its demise was hardly noticed.
"The people were gone," he said.
When Nashville's 300,000-square-foot library opened in 2001, the city reacted as if it had won a collective lottery.
In Columbia, a library is credited with helping overhaul the city's Vista section. Fred Delk, who oversees development of the area, said that when the Richland County central library opened in 1993, the modern four-story building was a sign that things in the Vista, a 12-square-block of rail yards and industrial buildings, were changing.
The district now boasts more than 100 bars and restaurants and the new locations for the state art museum and the University of South Carolina arena. Delk said the library, which was named the 2001 National Library of the Year, got the shift started.
"It's a signature building that draws thousands of people into the area," he said. "Alone by itself has it been a panacea? No. But it let people know it was safe down here. It was a public commitment that told people things were going to be better."
In Minneapolis, a planetarium is being planned in a huge new building. Kansas City's library, built in an old bank, has a 50-seat movie theater in the vault. Los Angeles has a courtyard gourmet restaurant; Phoenix has a teen center, where adolescents can eat, listen to music and hang out.
Margaret Mullen, executive director of the Downtown Raleigh Alliance, said a teen center and a coffee shop probably will be in the downtown library. Aside from that, details are fuzzy. No blueprint will emerge until after next month's public forums.
"It's important to get input and have it be a library people see as theirs," said Brenda Castonguay, a senior vice president of Progress Energy.
Phil Kirk, president of N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry, a former state Board of Education chairman and "thought leader," has a few ideas.
"It doesn't need to be staid," Kirk said. "It needs a coffee shop; if it doesn't run afoul of alcohol laws, a wine bar. It needs to be exciting. People should let their imaginations go."
Progress Energy and the project's developer, Lichtin Corp., which will build the 10-story office tower beside it, will help finance the building and lead a campaign to raise the rest. The county, though, will stock it, at a cost of $3.4 million for a space its size, and run it, which Cooke said will cost $1.4 million a year.
The branch probably will push back construction of one library in the county's $35 million library capital plan, passed in November. Kenn Gardner, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said the financial situation will be worked out. He said the board saw a chance to make a splash in the city's core.
"Sometimes cost shouldn't be the only factor," he said.
Doors could open in September 2005.