Library location lesson
When the new building opens at the top of Library Drive, Chapel Hill residents will get a much larger new library with expanded community spaces. But by moving the library away from businesses and restaurants, we will lose several close and casual connections that are key to a thriving and walkable urban community.
Opinion: Geoffrey Green
MCRP Candidate, 2013
Library location lesson
(Article originally appeared in the Chapel Hill News on March 31, 2013)
On a recent Saturday morning, our family headed out to University Mall. My wife and I shopped the Farmer’s Market and Southern Season with our 4-year-old while our two older boys browsed the Chapel Hill Public Library.
We wrapped up the morning with an impulse purchase from Kitchenworks and lunch at Red Bowl Asian Bistro. Visiting University Mall has become a Saturday routine for us during the last year and a half, but that routine will end with the library’s return to its permanent home next month.
When the new building opens at the top of Library Drive, Chapel Hill residents will get a much larger new library with expanded community spaces. But by moving the library away from businesses and restaurants, we will lose several close and casual connections that are key to a thriving and walkable urban community. The library’s temporary location, integrated among shops and restaurants, had substantial benefits that we should remember as we plan Chapel Hill’s future.
Mixing retail and service businesses next to an institution like the library benefits both local businesses and residents. At its temporary location, the library was near many local stores, restaurants, and community events. Chapel Hill’s farmer’s market takes place in the mall’s parking lot, and Saturdays bring community events such as Back to School day and the Day Camp Fair.
Library visitors could grab a cup of coffee at Joe Van Gogh right outside the library’s front door, drop into Cameron’s, or pick up dinner at Village Burgers, supporting local businesses and keeping tax revenue in Chapel Hill. By contrast, the library’s permanent location stands alone and isolated. Once you get back in your car, you can just as easily shop at New Hope Commons or eat dinner in Durham as you can shop or eat in Chapel Hill.
For residents who don’t drive, the new library building stands nearly 300 yards away from Estes Drive, up a 60-foot vertical climb, making it challenging for bicyclists and pedestrians to visit. It’s especially hard for residents in wheelchairs or pushing strollers to reach the entrance. For transit users, the nearest bus stop is on Franklin Street, whereas buses stop at University Mall multiple times per day Monday through Saturday. That’s because transit is practical for destinations that serve multiple uses, such as a shopping center, but not for a library set back 300 yards from the road. Therefore, although one of the vaunted features of the new library is a teen room, most Chapel Hill teens will need an adult to drive them to the library to use it.
It’s not surprising, then, that the renovated library includes 111 additional parking spaces, for a total of more than 200 spaces. For a town that is trying to emphasize transit use, bicycling, and walking, the library’s poor accessibility is a step in the wrong direction.
I’m not arguing the town was wrong in rejecting a proposal to make the library’s permanent home in the mall. Investing a lot of money in an aging University Mall posed its own problems. Renovating the existing library site may well have been the best of a limited set of options.
The lesson here is that location matters.
If we want to support our local businesses and decrease our dependence on cars, we need to support public and private development in places that serve these goals. Compact sites, on flat ground located and near other businesses (such as the University Square redevelopment downtown) support such sustainable urbanism. The library’s permanent location does not.