WRL considering new library amid growing usage and aging facilities

rarriaza@vagazette.com

City and county residents looking for a new, modern library may have their wishes granted in the coming years.

Williamsburg Regional Library has issued a $30,000 contract to RRMM Lukmire Architects to survey possible locations for a new library that would be jointly funded by the City of Williamsburg and James City County if approved by both localities.

WRL operates the city’s library along with another facility in James City County. Currently, each locality is responsible for the construction and capital costs of the libraries located within their jurisdiction, but Williamsburg Regional Library director Betsy Fowler said this jointly-funded venture would require a new arrangement.

The firm was contracted after the county asked for a study assessing future needs and suggesting an optimal location for a new library, according to James City County budget and accounting analyst Jeff Wiggins. Neither locality has adopted funding in the budget plans for the construction of a new library.

The growing number of Greater Williamsburg area residents choosing to visit the city library over the one in James City County has placed a strain on the aging and cramped Scotland Street facility, according to Fowler. She said it would make sense for both localities to fund the new library because of the growing number of county residents regularly visiting the city library.

About 67 percent of all Scotland Street library usage comes from James City County residents, Fowler said, with city residents making up less than 19 percent and York County residents making up 14 percent.

“There was a mistaken perception that James City County residents use the James City County library, which is not true at all. They’re the majority of the users of the library in Williamsburg and we’re just at capacity for that,” said Williamsburg Regional Library Chairwoman Natalie Miller-Moore.

WRL reports that 484,327 Williamsburg, James City and York County residents visited the library on Scotland Street from July 2017 to June 2018, while 132,970 used the James City County library.

Although the Scotland Street facility features a 268-seat auditorium, a children’s area, study space and computer stations, Miller-Moore said the library’s cramped corridors, inflexible layout and limited parking have made it less than ideal for the level of regional use it receives. Except for the auditorium and group study space, the majority of the Scotland Street library is taken up by its book and media collection. A significant reason for its inflexible design and space constraints are the large structural, steel bookshelves, which support a half-story of the building. Miller-Moore said the sizeable bookshelves make it challenging to expand the library’s collaborative study or community programming space.

“There’s almost no flexibility in how we use that space, which is really the only center of the library,” she said.

Other issues include the three entrances into the library, which Miller-Moore said cause navigation and security issues, along with the 88-space parking lot the library shares with the nearby Stryker Center and Williamsburg Police Station. At a presentation to the library’s board of trustees last March, Greg Lukmire, northern region president for RRMM Architects, said a standard parking count for a library is typically one space per 200 square feet of the building. Lukmire recommended that a minimum of 180 parking spaces would be necessary for library patrons.

A look at renovation

Late last year, WRL contracted RRMM Lukmire to study the possibility of a renovation at the Scotland Street library. At his presentation earlier this year, Lukmire laid out plans to bring the city library in line with other libraries the firm has designed or renovated, which included Bowie Branch Library in Bowie, Md., the William J. Howell Branch Library in Fredericksburg and Fairfax City Regional Library in Fairfax. Lukmire emphasized their open layouts, natural lighting and ample educational and recreational space.

Fowler said the proposed renovation plans for the Scotland Street library would be cost-prohibitive and would still not address design and parking concerns.

“The price tag was $17 million and it still had the existing issues that building has, so it’s not very cost-effective to try and redo that building. It’s already had two additions and it’s been cobbled together over the last four and a half decades,” she said. “You’re not going to get the caliber of library that you would with a new facility.”

What a new library could look like

Members of the WRL Board of Trustees recently toured renovated libraries in the region, including Slover Library in Norfolk and the Libby Mill and Varina branches of the Henrico County Public Library system. Miller-Moore said these facilities featured large areas dedicated to children and teenagers, space for community events and meeting and conference rooms, which the city library lacks.

“The library is now the community information hub,” she said. "It’s not just a place to just come and quietly read or work on your book report; it’s a place to come find other people who like what you like and have a conversation about it or learn more about it together, and in that way, it’s a real civic function that the library serves.”

Millier-Moore said the library’s board of trustees has been considering ways to “reimagine its library spaces” since 2016 when the body adopted its most recent strategic plan, but that the hiring of Fowler as the director of WRL last year brought those ideas to a new level.

“Betsy gave us a pretty compelling case and showed us the numbers. We have the highest rating possible for everything except our facilities,” Miller-Moore said. “In terms of the next level for programming, we have that, what we need is next-level facilities to match that.”

Williamsburg Regional Library plans to invite public feedback as part of the site selection process and expects to have a completed study and findings report from RRMM Lukmire Architects by mid-September.

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

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