WRL trustees continue to weigh possibilities for a new downtown library

Staff writer

Those hoping to see a new or renovated library in downtown Williamsburg may have to wait another year for plans to take shape.

Last year, the Williamsburg Regional Library Board of Trustees began to explore ways to address space, accessibility and parking issues at the Scotland Street library, which is popular with both Williamsburg and James City County residents.

Despite its popularity, WRL Director Betsy Fowler said city library visitors have struggled with the limitations of the aging and cramped facility in recent years. She said issues range from a rigid, restrictive layout that limits the number of events and activities that are possible in the building, an inadequate number of spaces in the library parking lot, safety concerns posed by the building’s three entrances and limited office space for library staff.

“The issues (at the Scotland Street library) are ongoing and consistent,” Fowler said.

As those conversations progressed, the board discussed the possibility of a new downtown library that could be jointly funded by the city and James City County. Last fall, Fowler expected to begin moving forward with plans for a jointly-funded library by this spring’s yearly municipal budget cycle, but now says that initial assessment may have been somewhat premature.

Fowler now expects city and county officials to review the study’s findings and think about the possibility of a jointly-funded facility over the next year, and hopes to enter the five-year capital improvement plan cycle in fiscal year 2021.

“That probably was too aggressive, because the information was fairly new,” she said. “I’m hopeful that by the time the next CIP cycle rolls around, that some decisions will have been made that can show us a path forward.”

In a presentation to the library board last year, Greg Lukmire, northern region president for RRMM Architects, recommended that a new or renovated Scotland Street library add a minimum of 92 parking spaces, more than doubling the current number of spaces. He also recommended the library replace the large structural steel stacks at its center with traditional shelving and add meeting rooms and a dedicated gathering space for teens.

In an online survey and in a series of focus groups conducted last fall, library users echoed the desire for more parking spaces and strongly supported keeping the city library downtown.

“After the public survey, I think the overwhelming response was how much people valued the location of the downtown Williamsburg library because of the proximity to CW and Merchants Square restaurants and the college,” Fowler said. “I don’t think there’s a political appetite to move the Williamsburg library based on its importance as a downtown anchor and the clear feedback from people.”

Because WRL records show the Scotland Street library is used more frequently by James City County residents than those living in the city, library board members suggested the two localities jointly fund the construction of a new downtown library under a new agreement. Under WRL’s current agreement with Williamsburg and James City, each locality is responsible for the construction and capital costs of the libraries located within its jurisdiction.

Between July 2017 and June 2018, WRL reported that 484,327 Williamsburg, James City and York County residents visited the library on Scotland Street, while just 132,970 used the James City County library. In that same time period, 570,143 items were checked out of the Williamsburg library, while 316,685 were checked out from the James City County library.

Jason Purse, James City County assistant county administrator and WRL board member, said the city library’s popularity among county residents stems from its convenient location to residents of the lower half of the county.

But a jointly funded downtown library isn’t the only possibility on the table.

Fowler said the county’s leadership could instead opt to fund a second James City County library, which could reduce the strain being placed on the Scotland Street library by county residents.

Purse said the board is open to exploring all available options when it comes to addressing the needs of Williamsburg and James City library users.

“It would have a vibrant place where folks could go, but then also have a facility of a size that might be a little bit bigger, and I don’t know that that’s necessarily going to happen downtown because of the space limitations,” he said. “We’ve seen such expanded services that we want to make sure that our citizens have the ability to participate in a meaningful way that’s convenient to them, so we’re looking forward to these continued discussions.”

Arriaza can be reached at 757-790-9313 or on Twitter @rodrigoarriaza0.

Copyright © 2019, The Virginia Gazette
68°