‘The part of progress that has a downside’: What two years of library construction will mean for Charlotte

‘The part of progress that has a downside’: What two years of library construction will mean for Charlotte
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Walk into the main library in Uptown, and it’s not just shelves of books and periodicals. There are career training seminars and movie screenings and writing courses. Hundreds of people who don’t own a computer come here each week to use its free Wifi and printers.

The main library is set to begin a new chapter. Library and county officials unveiled more detailed plans last month to tear down the North Tryon branch and replace it with a $100 million, state-of-the-art facility.

The plan is to move out of the library in early 2021. The building will be razed that spring, and construction will last about 27 months. If everything stays on schedule, the new library will open sometime in 2024.

Officials say one goal is to make the library into more of an egalitarian place. In other words, it should be used as much by low-income residents who rely on its services as it is by Uptown professionals who book the sleek new space for corporate functions.

But this isn’t just any other new building going up Uptown. There’s been a library in Charlotte’s city center for more than a century.

The construction process means there will be a loss of public space in center city for at least two years.

“The main library is an important part of the ecosystem. It’s one of the primary day spaces for the population within our community,” says Lee Keesler, CEO of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library.

“We are going to work with others to come up with a community solution because (library users) won’t have other places to go, potentially.”

Rendering of the new uptown library

Rendering of the new, 115,000 square-foot Uptown library, designed by Snøhetta (courtesy of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

The library doesn’t have a reliable way to count how many people use the main library on a daily basis, but Keesler estimates it could be up to 500.

Construction is still more than a year away, but officials are starting to work on contingency plans for those patrons. On Monday, Keesler will host several community leaders and nonprofits for a lunch to start brainstorming ideas.

Leaders from the Urban Ministry Center and Men’s Shelter, two nonprofit organizations that provide services to local homeless residents, are among the attendees.

The library’s purpose is not to be a day center for those who experience homelessness, says Liz Clasen-Kelly, executive director of the two organizations.

Still, she says there’s a “high overlap” between the people the Urban Ministry Center and Men’s Shelter serve and those who come to the library for warmth and shelter during the day. Nonprofits that serve homeless individuals in Charlotte see the library as complementary to what they do.

While the library is closed, street homelessness in Uptown may appear more prevalent, Clasen-Kelly says.

“We might see more people out during the day who are otherwise not visible because they’re in the library,” she says.

One of the main issues will be getting needy people online. The Urban Ministry’s day center on College Street doesn’t have computers available for people experiencing homelessness, Clasen-Kelly says.

The Salvation Army hopes to fill some of the void, making sure computers are accessible to its clients.

“It definitely is going to be an adjustment for our families,” says Deronda Metz, the organization’s director of social services.

The library’s other events and functions, such as classes and job training, will temporarily move to other nearby branches while the new building is going up. Library officials will work to finalize details over the next 15 months.

Locations such as Myers Park, South Boulevard, Plaza Midwood, and Beatties Ford Road are all options because they’re relatively close to the main library, and are accessible by public transit, says library spokeswoman Ann Stawski.

And during construction, the main library’s books and other products will be absorbed into the rest of the 19-branch system, officials say.

main library uptown

Interior of the main library Uptown

County commissioner at-large Pat Cotham considers the library’s temporary closure “a part of progress that has a downside.”

“It’s a sacrifice when these things happen,” she says.

Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated the funds for Charlotte’s first main library, which opened in the summer of 1903. That location served Uptown until 1956, when a new, larger building opened on the site of the Carnegie location.

Carnegie library uptown Charlotte

Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie donated the funds to open Charlotte’s main library in 1903 (courtesy of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

The 1956 iteration was built “in response to increased use by the public, and a critical need for additional space at the Main Library.”

In 1989, that building underwent an $11 million expansion that more than doubled it in size — from 70,000 square feet to 155,000, filling a whole city block along North Tryon, Sixth, and College streets, the Observer wrote in June 1989.

At the time, many of the library’s functions moved to a temporary spot in a vacant storefront on South Tryon. The main library’s administrative offices relocated to the Hal Marshall Center.

Demand for services at the Uptown library soared during the recession. A job center opened in 2010 there in response.

Many consider the current library building Uptown outdated. The bones are nearly seven decades old.

“It was built to hold books, and it was not built for today’s print and digital environment,” Keesler says. “That manifests itself in a lot of different ways. For example, how our wireless activity has gone gangbusters.”

Keesler has described the new library as a technology hub. It’ll be a place where patrons can experiment with 3D printing and peruse digitized collections on interactive screens, he told the Observer recently.

The five-story, glass-paneled building will have a ground-level cafe, a job-training center, a dramatic spiral staircase, and outdoor terraces on its second floor and rooftop. It’ll have 15 rooms available for groups to rent.

Rendering of the new library Uptown

Rendering of the interior of Charlotte’s new Uptown library (courtesy of Charlotte Mecklenburg Library)

At roughly 115,000 square feet, the new building will also be smaller than the one it’s replacing. But library officials say it’ll be a more efficient use of space. That’s because some non-customer-facing functions such as truck pickups and deliveries will move to a new, 55,000 square-foot offsite support services center in North End.

The center will be in a dilapidated shopping center that the county acquired to be redeveloped on Eastway and North Tryon. The county also plans to move the Sugar Creek Library to that location eventually.

“There’s going to be a nice nucleus of activity there,” Keesler says. Library and county officials are still working to secure funding for that part of the project. 

When the new library opens, Keesler anticipates a “sizable increase” in people coming in to use the facility.

That’s what happened to the new central library in Calgary, also designed by Snøhetta, the architects behind Charlotte’s project. Calgary’s mayor has called the $245 million, glass-paneled building an icon for the city — much like how Charlotte’s is expected to be.

In the first year after the Calgary project opened, it had a million more visitors than the previous central library had in a year.

Impressive as Charlotte’s new library design may be, Cotham, the county commissioner, hopes the building’s designers are keeping the library’s mission in mind.

“The library is supposed to serve people,” she says. “It’s shouldn’t just be a great design of some fancy building.”

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