Ann Arbor District Library public forum (Saturday, June 9, 2012): At the first of three forums to gather input on the future of the library’s downtown building, AADL staff and board members outlined their goals and answered questions about a possible new facility.
The board faces an Aug. 14 deadline to put a millage on the November 2012 ballot, if they decide to seek tax funding for a bond that would support a new downtown library. The current structure, at the northeast corner of South Fifth and William, was built in the 1950s, with expansions and renovations in the mid-1970s and early 1990s. AADL director Josie Parker joked that one of the building’s boilers is “the same age as I am – I just hope it lasts as long as I plan to last.”
Several years ago, board members and library staff had worked on similar a building project, but suspended the effort in late 2008 because of declining economic conditions. Board members revisited the topic in 2010 as part of their strategic planning process. One of the strategic goals emerging from that process directly related to the downtown building: “Renovate or replace the downtown library with attention to the condition of the existing building, tax base, revenue stream, development of surrounding properties and demographics.”
In November 2011, the board voted to provide $45,000 in funding for consultants to help resume the process, and earlier this year a special facilities committee was appointed to oversee the effort and make a recommendation to the full board. That recommendation is expected to be presented at the board’s July 16 meeting.
At the Saturday morning forum, Parker told the group that the library had commissioned a survey by the Lansing firm EPIC-MRA, which she said “asked questions that we were afraid to ask.” [.pdf of survey results] The survey, conducted in March of 2012, showed that if a vote were taken now – on funding a $65 million renovation or new construction project with a property tax increase of 0.69 mills – 45% of survey respondents would vote yes, and another 15% would lean toward a yes vote. That compares with a total 37% who said they would either vote no or lean toward no. Results indicated even stronger support for a scaled-back project.
The forum provided an opportunity for questions. Topics covered the board’s decision-making process, financial considerations, design and operational issues, and whether the library was coordinating with efforts to develop surrounding properties – such as the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority’s Connecting William Street project.
In addition to library staff, about a dozen people attended the forum. Many of them – including former mayor Ingrid Sheldon and Ellie Serras of the Ann Arbor Main Street Business Improvement Zone – are already supporters of the library and will likely be part of a millage campaign, if the board decides to pursue that option. Four of the seven library board members also attended the forum: Rebecca Head, Margaret Leary, Barbara Murphy, Jan Barney Newman.
Two additional public forums will be held this month: on Tuesday, June 12 from 7-9 p.m.; and Wednesday, June 20 from 7-9 p.m. The June 20 forum will be held in the downtown library’s basement multi-purpose fourth-floor conference room at 343 S. Fifth Ave. in Ann Arbor. In addition, public commentary is open at the library board’s monthly meetings – upcoming meetings are on June 18 and July 16 starting at 7 p.m. in the fourth-floor conference room of the downtown building. Comments or questions can also be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. A video of the June 9 forum is posted on the AADL website, along with other information related to this effort.
Background and Overview
Board president Margaret Leary introduced the forum by highlighting the library’s strategic plan, which runs through 2015. The plan had been informed by the board’s vision and mission statements, which Leary read. Each word had been carefully selected by the board for its particular meaning, she noted.
Vision Statement: The Ann Arbor District Library provides collections, programs, and leadership to promote the development of literate and informed citizens through open and equal access to cultural, intellectual, recreational, and information resources.
Mission Statement: The existence of the Ann Arbor District Library assures public ownership of print collections, digital resources, and gathering spaces for the citizens of the library district. We are committed to sustaining the value of public library services for the greater Ann Arbor community through the use of traditional and innovative technologies.
Earlier this year, the board embarked on a “restarting” of a process that they had halted in 2008 because of the bad economy, Leary said. They’re following the part of the strategic plan that relates to physical facilities, which identifies two goals: (1) Renovate or replace the downtown library with attention to the condition of the existing building, tax base, revenue stream, development of surrounding properties and demographics; and (2) Maximize the efficiency and utilization of meeting rooms and other facilities.
The purpose of these forums, Leary said, is to find out what people think about the library, and to give people the chance to interact with key library staff.
There’s a timing issue to consider, Leary noted. If the board decides opts for a renovation or new building requiring more revenues than AADL’s existing millage would support, that would require a bond to be funded by an additional millage. August 14 is the deadline for putting such a proposal on the November ballot.
Leary also introduced the three other board members who attended the forum: Rebecca Head, Barbara Murphy, Jan Barney Newman.
AADL director Josie Parker also addressed the group, introducing some of the other people who had come to the forum. Parker noted that retired librarian Bette Thompson, who had worked at AADL for more than three decades, was in the room. Thompson is ”absolutely someone who can talk about change as a constant,” Parker said.
Two leaders of the Friends of the Ann Arbor District Library – FAADL president Pat McDonald and former treasurer Sally Allen – were also introduced. Parker described FAADL as a major player in the library’s success. The nonprofit runs a used bookstore in the lower level of the downtown library, and donates proceeds to AADL. Also attending the forum was Glenn Nelson, a trustee with the Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education. Parker said she appreciated the cross-interest of AAPS, even though the library was now a separate entity. [Until 1995, the library was part of the school system.]
[Others at the forum included former Ann Arbor mayor Ingrid Sheldon, Ellie Serras of the Ann Arbor Main Street Business Improvement Zone, and consultant Betsy Jackson. They are among an very informal group that's likely to work on a millage campaign, if the board votes to pursue that option. Others involved in the informal group, according to Sheldon, are local entrepreneur Dug Song, and Debbie and Norm Herbert.]
Parker explained that the library had commissioned a survey by the Lansing firm EPIC-MRA, which “asked questions that we were afraid to ask.” She said the hardest for her had been a question asking if the Internet had made the library irrelevant. The results – of 400 responses – indicated that 50% felt the library had the same importance, and 34% responded that the library was even more important now. [.pdf of survey results] She noted that technology is integrated into everything that the library does, “like water and light.”
In giving a brief history of the library system, Parker noted that it was formed in 1866 by the Ladies Library Association, located in private homes. The first public library opened in 1907, in a structure built with a Carnegie Foundation Grant. Part of that building’s facade is still visible on the University of Michigan’s North Quad, facing Huron Street. The city didn’t want responsibility for the library, Parker said, so it became part of the public school system.
The downtown building was constructed in 1957-58. Parker joked that “there’s a boiler down there that’s the same age as I am – I just hope it lasts as long as I plan to last.” Later additions were completed in the mid-1970s and in the early 1990s. The infrastructure won’t support additional levels on the current structure, she said.
Since 1866, the community has done a great job in supporting the kind of library services it needed, Parker said. Today, ”what we need is a 21st century library so we can deliver 21st century services.”
Feedback on Services, Programming, Finances
Part of the forum was devoted to gathering feedback on specific aspects of the library: Children’s services, quiet reading rooms, meeting/gathering spaces, research/archives, and finances. In addition, three staff members were on hand to give tours of the downtown facility, taking people behind the scenes to show the building’s condition.
The library staff had identified challenges and opportunities associated with each topic. Those were listed on signs positioned around the room, where staff members were on hand to answer questions, provide additional information, and gather input. After about 45 minutes, the forum reconvened and each staff member reported out regarding the feedback they’d received.
Feedback: Children’s Services
Challenges cited by library staff for the downtown children’s area include: (1) limited opportunities for interactive learning in the current space; (2) the existing story corner can accommodate events or play, but not both; and (3) size and capabilities of the space limit the ability to meet the needs of different ages.
Opportunities cited by library staff for a new or renovated facility include: (1) a room designed around flexible, upgradable interactive exhibits and play surfaces; (2) dedicated capacity for simultaneous play, events, and tours; and (3) a set of planned zones that support the varying developmental needs of kids at all ages.
Sherlonya Turner, manager of youth & adult services and collections, gave the report for this topic. Conversations she’d had with forum participants focused on the possibilities for serving the needs of children at different times of their lives, she said. Every kid needs different things at different times. Right now the downtown facility can’t accommodate all of those services and activities at the same time, because of the physical space constraints.
Feedback: Quiet Reading Room
Challenges in this category include the fact that there’s no room for dedicated, quiet work and reading space in the downtown building. There’s poor lighting, bad acoustics, and insufficient access to power and online connections. In contrast, new branch reading rooms are comfortable, useful, and welcoming – there’s a need for a similar destination downtown.
The goal would be to create a comfortable, quiet reading room with ample seating, working/reading space and a welcoming atmosphere, with energy-efficient lighting and natural daylight, and ample access to power and access to online services.
Diane Dahlem, AADL’s circulation manager, reported that most people she talked with agreed that a quiet space is needed at the downtown location. Suggestions included windows for natural lighting, as well as good lighting at night; digital connectivity; work tables; and a mix of seating, including comfortable chairs for reading or reflection.
Feedback: Meeting/Gathering Spaces
Several challenges were identified by the library in this category. Currently, there are insufficient individual and group study/meeting rooms to meet demand. Library events are limited by the availability and capacity of downtown rooms, and event attendees frequently have to tolerate cramped, uncomfortable rooms with poor sightlines.
A new or renovated facility would provide opportunities to develop a diverse set of meeting and study rooms with ample electrical, data, and equipment access. Event venues could be designed to support a broad range of library and public event needs. One possibility would be to create a space within the downtown library that could comfortably handle large turnouts.
Tim Grimes, AADL’s community relations and marketing manager, reported that his discussions with forum participants had centered on the different types of meeting spaces that are needed – from tutoring sessions to large events. Availability is also an issue, as people can only reserve rooms a limited number of times each year.
Grimes also pointed out that the number of events held at the downtown library is growing. For larger events, the lower level multi-purpose room often can’t accommodate the turnout, so some of the people have to watch a simulcast of the event from the fourth-floor conference room. It would also be nice to have a separate outside entrance, for events that end after the rest of the library has closed.
The main challenge in this area relates to the Ann Arbor News archives, which are currently housed in rented space in a Green Road office complex. There’s limited-to-no access for downtown patrons, researchers or staff, and it’s difficult to integrate the content of the archives into ongoing projects. [For additional background on the AADL newspaper archives, see Chronicle coverage: "Ann Arbor Library Set to Publish 'Old News'"]
With a renovated or new downtown facility, there could be space to appropriately house and display the archives collections. It would enable public access to the archives, possibly in conjunction with a new reading room. Another possibility would be to develop research stations that allow for the safe use of these collections.
Andrew MacLaren, a production librarian who’s been working on the archives, said his conversations at the forum had been about giving people access to these historical collections. The value would be for informational purposes, he said, but also for “cool purposes” – engaging an 8-year-old with a physical bound volume rather than a computer, for example. Providing more access would also allow librarians to have conversations with people while they’re looking at the material, which would help guide the staff in setting priorities for digitizing the collection.
The category of library finances was not framed as challenges. Instead, the library staff provided a brief description of the AADL’s financial position. It’s a taxing authority that is independent of the city of Ann Arbor or Ann Arbor Public Schools. Since July of 2009, the library has levied 1.55 mills – 81% of the voter-approved 1.92 mills. Property taxes account for over 90% of the library’s income. [The roughly $12 million annual budget for fiscal 2012-13, beginning on July 1, 2012, was approved by the board at its May 21, 2012 meeting.]
The staff noted that the three new branch libraries – Malletts Creek, Pittsfield and Traverwood – were opened on time and on budget, using a total of $24 million in revenues generated from the operating millage.
Regarding opportunities, a $65 million bond – funded with an 0.69 mill tax increases – would provide funds to improve the downtown library, while allowing AADL to continue to function within the existing operating millage. The library staff provided this chart to show how much a property tax increase of 0.69 mills would cost taxpayers, based on the value of their property:
Ken Nieman – AADL associate director of finance, HR and operations – reported that in addition to queries about how much money it would take to build or renovate, most of the questions he fielded had to do with process: When and how will be board decide what to do? He said he thought the financial issues were easy to understand.
Infrastructure challenges related to the age and design of the downtown building, starting with its construction in 1957, and subsequent additions and renovations in 1974 and 1991. The different parts of the building don’t work together efficiently – the heating and cooling systems are inefficient and expensive to operate, and require expensive service and maintenance, according to AADL. All three building phases pre-date the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). There is only one ADA-accessible restroom in the building, and on the third floor there are no public restrooms or drinking fountains. The building also poses challenges in safety and supervision of space.
A new or renovated structure could use advances in green building technology to deliver a sustainable, high-capacity downtown library with convenient, accessible restroom facilities throughout the building, according to AADL staff. Spaces could be designed with ceiling heights and column spacing to allow intuitive wayfinding and supervision.
Colin Simpson, an AADL circulation supervisor, had led a tour of the facility and gave some examples of the types of challenges that the tour had highlighted. The computer server room, for example, is a need that didn’t exist when the building was originally constructed and renovated. It isn’t very secure, he said, and has an outdated fire suppression system.
Questions & Answers
The forum included a Q&A facilitated by Sandra Greenstone of Enliven Consulting, who has worked with the board on strategic planning in the past. Questions were fielded primarily by AADL director Josie Parker. This report organizes the exchanges thematically.
Q&A: Other Branches
Parker was asked whether the AADL had considered making its new branches bigger, and whether it would be possible to expand those branches to accommodate some of the needs now served by the downtown building.
Parker replied that the branches are as big as they can be on their sites. That’s partly related to parking – you can’t have a neighborhood branch without adequate parking, relative to its size, she noted. A 1995 study commissioned by the library indicated that the AADL system needed a new central location and new branches in the system’s four quadrants, Parker said. Three new branches were subsequently built – Malletts Creek at 3090 East Eisenhower Parkway (opened in 2004), the Pittsfield branch at 2359 Oak Valley Drive (opened in 2006), and Traverwood at the intersection of Traverwood and Huron Parkway (opened in 2008). There’s no new branch on the northwest side – that area is served by the West branch at the Westgate Shopping Plaza.
The branch buildings can’t be enlarged, Parker said – because their structures won’t allow it, and because of parking constraints.
The woman who had posed the original question noted that she visits the Malletts Creek branch, and parking there is tight. She walks, but observed that this isn’t a society that walks everywhere.
Parker replied that the library has taken ownership of those issues. The branches are located in places that people can walk or bike to, and with the exception of the Pittsfield branch, all the branches are on bus routes. When the library bought the land for the Pittsfield branch, a bus ran past that location – the route was later eliminated, Parker said. The library had worked hard to select those locations, she added.
A follow-up query asked for more details about a branch in the northwest quadrant. Parker explained that Scio Township limits development to areas served by water and sewer. Land in those areas is very expensive, she said. At this point, the branch in Westgate serves the western part of the district, and people love it, she said.
Parker noted that when a new branch opens, library use goes up across the system. So even though the branch at Westgate isn’t new, its use has increased over the years. She said it’s interesting to think about what might happen if changes occur to the downtown site.
Q&A: Design, Operational Factors
One person in the audience observed that the downtown building seemed to have higher security needs. Parker agreed, saying that’s true with any library system that has an urban downtown. Ann Arbor isn’t a major urban city, she said, but it’s urban by Michigan standards. Keeping a building secure when it has multiple levels is challenging and expensive, she added. It’s far easier to handle security on a single level, with a clearer line-of-sight. There are also different user groups downtown compared to the branches, Parker noted.
Glenn Nelson, who serves on the Ann Arbor Public Schools board of education, referred to a comment that Parker had made earlier in the meeting – that technology is pervasive throughout the library’s operations. What are the implications of that for renovating the existing building?
It would be very difficult, Parker said. The walls are concrete and ceilings are low, making it difficult to lay cable. They’ve put all the cable they can into the current building, she said. Renovation might be possible, but to do right by the next generation, the type of technology and how to provide it are key questions. It would be difficult to address with a renovation, she said.
Q&A: Environmental Issues
Board member Rebecca Head noted that Ann Arbor is very supportive of environmentally sound policies, perspectives and direction. What savings might the library see from energy and water costs in a new building, compared to the existing one?
Parker replied that about five years ago, when the library first began looking into the future of its downtown building, energy savings factored into the decision greatly. And after building three branches that emphasize sustainability, it’s clear that there can be cost savings, she said.
The downtown building has a huge power bill each month – because the windows are single paned, and the building uses forced-air heating and cooling, she noted. The thermostat that regulates heating and cooling in the first-floor children’s section is located on the fourth floor. It can’t be changed easily, so the children’s area gets hot – and staff have to place fans strategically. Meanwhile, on the fourth floor it’s freezing, she said.
Related to operating costs, Parker noted that if the decision is made to rebuild, AADL won’t change its operating millage. More money won’t be needed in the future to operate the library system, she said. [The library could levy a voter-authorized millage of up to 1.92 mills, but for the past few years the board has voted to levy only 1.55 mills for operating costs.]
Board president Margaret Leary said she wanted to press Parker on the issue of renovating versus building a new structure. One of the principles of environmental sustainability is to reuse a building rather than tearing it down: What are Parker’s thoughts on that?
Parker said the staff knows how important it is to consider that question. When they embarked on the branch-building effort about a decade ago, the decision was made not only to meet the city’s code requirements, but to exceed them, she said. The three new branches – Malletts Creek, Pittsfield and Traverwood – were built with that in mind and achieved that goal, she said. The Traverwood branch in particular highlights sustainability building practices. Ash trees on the site were removed using draft horses to minimize impact on the land, for example, and wood from those trees was used for flooring, shelves and support beams.
As for the downtown building, original cost estimates from the previous plans to construct a new building were based on recycling and reusing as much as possible from the old building, Parker said. At that time, the decision to build a new structure was made in part because the cost difference between renovation and rebuilding was relatively small, and it was thought to be the most economically feasible to design and construct a new building. It was not a capricious decision, Parker stressed.
Q&A: Economic Considerations
Another question from the audience related to Parker’s comment about economic feasibility. Coming off of the Great Recession, how does the library sell a millage to the public?
“You can help me with that!” Parker quipped. The $24 million outlay to build the three new branches had come from revenues generated from the library’s existing millage, she noted. AADL incurred no debt for those projects, because the library board has discretion about how much of the voter-authorized 1.92 mills it will levy. To pay for those new branches, the board levied the highest amount – 1.92 mills. When the board realized that, because of the difficult economy, it wouldn’t move forward with a new downtown building, they lowered the millage to its current rate of 1.55 mills.
Today, the economic situation is different than it was when the library first considered a new downtown building, Parker said. It’s not possible for even the maximum rate of 1.92 mills to bring in sufficient funds for a new building, because property values have declined.
So the library commissioned a survey to gauge how voters would feel about supporting an additional millage at different levels, she said: On funding a $65 million renovation or new construction project with a property tax increase of 0.69 mills, or on funding scaled-back efforts with an 0.51 mill increase or an 0.25 mill increase. A mill is equal to $1 for each $1,000 of taxable value for a property. [.pdf of survey results]
For the $65 million option, 45% of survey respondents would vote yes, and another 15% would lean toward a yes vote. That compares with a total 37% who said they would either vote no or lean toward no. The scaled-back levels of an 0.51 mill increase or an 0.25 mill increase also received favorable support (yes or leaning to yes) of 61% and 72%, respectively.
The responses were positive enough to move forward, Parker said. Based on the survey, they have an indication of support, though “no guarantee,” she added. They would sell a millage based on how people respond at these meetings and on the board’s decision, Parker said. It’s why they’re holding these conversations.
Q&A: Coordination with Neighboring Sites?
Omari Rush, education manager for the University Musical Society, asked how the library is factoring in changes near its downtown location. For example, a new road will be opening adjacent to the existing building, running east/west between Fifth and Division. Called Library Lane, it’s being built as part of the new underground parking structure that’s expected to open in July. There are other changes in the area, he noted. The library can’t wait for promises to materialize, but how are those potential changes factored into the library’s plans?
By way of background, the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority – acting on direction from city council – has embarked on an effort to explore alternative uses of city-owned parcels now used for surface parking, in a limited area of downtown bounded by Ashley, Division, Liberty and William streets. This Connecting William Street project focuses on these sites: the Kline’s lot (on Ashley, north of William), Palio’s lot (at Main & William), the ground floor of the Fourth & William parking structure, the old Y lot (Fifth & William – across from the downtown library), and the top of the Fifth Avenue underground parking garage, adjacent to the downtown library building.
At the June 9 forum, Parker said there’s never been a library board vote on the question of coordinating with other efforts. She noted that the downtown library is what urban planners refer to as an anchor, because it attracts so many people to the area. The downtown library draws over 600,000 visits a year, she said. The only other place to do that is Michigan Stadium, and that happens only over the course of seven weekends. The library isn’t a retail anchor, but it brings people in.
The library can’t wait to see what else might happen in the area, Parker said. In fact, if the board decides to move ahead with a new building, that might be a catalyst for other things to occur around it. What those other things might be are not the library’s decisions, she added.
Parker noted that having the large parking structure nearby was a “huge positive” – especially because the library doesn’t have responsibility for maintaining it, or for security. [The city-owned structure is part of the parking system that's overseen by the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority and managed by Republic Parking, under contract with the DDA.]
Library Lane is also a positive thing, Parker said. The DDA has worked hard on the design to accommodate the needs of library users, she noted. Since the downtown library was renovated in the 1970s, there hasn’t been a way to pull up and drop off someone safely from the passenger side of a vehicle. [The building's main entrance is on the east side of South Fifth Avenue, a one-way southbound street.] Now, with Library Lane soon to open, that drop-off will be possible.
Parker also pointed out that the wall of the first underground level is designed so that it could accommodate an underground entrance from the library, if a new building is designed for that.
All of these things are positives, she concluded, but ”what happens [elsewhere] is not in our control.”
Q&A: Board Decision-Making Process
Margaret Leary explained how the board will go about making a decision on whether to renovate, build or do nothing. The board decided several months ago to take up the question again, she said – about what to do with the downtown building. A special facilities committee was created, with board members Nancy Kaplan, Prue Rosenthal, and Ed Surovell. That committee’s charge is to review AADL’s facilities, gather new information, and make a recommendation to the full board, Leary said. That recommendation is expected to be presented at the board’s July 16 meeting.
The committee is doing several things, Leary said, including holding these public forums. [None of the committee members attended the June 9 forum.] They are also reviewing previously gathered documents from the library’s initial plans to construct a new downtown building, from the 2006-2008 timeframe. At that time there were cost estimates for the project, she said, although that information is now dated. The library also knows more about what the public needs and wants at this point, she said.
There are a lot of variables, Leary said, and the board won’t have to make all of the decisions this summer. But they do need to decide what general action to take, she added – whether to do anything, renovate or build a new structure.
Q&A: Timeline for New Building
Board member Barbara Murphy asked for a timeline, assuming that the board decided to seek a millage in November for a new building, and that the millage won voter approval.
If a millage passed, Parker replied, then the board would need to make several decisions. They’d need to engage an architect and construction management firm, and start talking about what the building would look like, how big it would be, and what would go in it, she said. Developing a schematic design could take about 18 months.
During that time, the library would secure temporary locations at other sites to continue the downtown library’s operations and services, and the existing building would be demolished. Based on the AADL’s experience building other branches, Parker estimated it would take another 18-24 months to build the new structure. The entire process could take four to five years, depending on how long the design phase takes, and on the weather, which is a big factor in Michigan, she said.
Based on prior discussions, Parker said they’d like to keep as much programming as possible, but most of the downtown collection would be stored off-site. Patrons could request items via the AADL website, and pick up materials at any of the other branches. So the library would be moving more materials throughout the system, she said, which will be a huge logistical challenge, but the staff will handle it.
Parker added that there’s no intention of reducing the library’s full-time staff. ”We will not lay anyone off for this,” she said. However, there are part-time employees – referred to as “casual” staff – that are hired cyclically, and there won’t be as much need for those positions, she said. So at times of the year when the library might typically hire more part-time employees, those position wouldn’t be filled.
In response to a query about where the temporary sites might be located, Parker said the staff hasn’t identified locations. They won’t start doing that until they know there’s a need, she said – until a decision is made about the downtown building.
Two additional public forums will be held this month: on Tuesday, June 12 from 7-9 p.m.; and Wednesday, June 20 from 7-9 p.m. Both forums will be held in the downtown library’s basement multi-purpose room at 343 S. Fifth Ave. in Ann Arbor.
In addition, public commentary is a regular part of the library board’s monthly meetings – upcoming meetings are on June 18 and July 16 starting at 7 p.m. in the fourth-floor conference room of the downtown building. Time can be reserved by calling 734-327-8311 by 5 p.m. of the weekday preceding the meeting. Others can address the board following the speakers who have signed up in advance. [It's rare for anyone to speak during public commentary at these meetings.]
Comments or questions can also be emailed to email@example.com. A video of the June 9 forum is posted on the AADL website, along with other information related to this effort.
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