After well over a decade of speculation, discussions and debate, residents have had their first real opportunity to weigh-in on the construction of a new Central Library during a series of meetings.
Led by city and county officials, the last of the community meetings was held Tuesday evening at the Central Library on Fifth Street — a building many call drab and outdated.
The county is currently considering seven sites that are either available for purchase or already in the county’s possession on which to build a new main library. Preliminary findings about each site and their pros and cons were shared at the meetings. Residents also weighed-in — not only about the sites but their wants and needs for the new library.
On the table are two county owned structures — the current Central Library location and the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office building on Third Street — and five properties that would have to be purchased. The sites have been dubbed “Winston-Salem Journal” (the paper’s parking lot), “Green Street,” “Spruce Street,” “Chestnut Street” and “Southeast Gateway.” Each site has its own unique set of attributes, which audience members passionately expounded on Tuesday.
Jacqueline Pierson, a media services program manager for Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, singled out the Winston-Salem Journal site, a parking lot at the corner of Fifth and Marshall Streets, as the county’s best option, because it offers opportunities for collaboration with the nearby MC Benton Convention Center and increased visibility for visitors to the city.
“I like the idea of people from outside Winston-Salem seeing Winston-Salem as an active cultural site,” she said.
Aubrey Kirby, the architect who designed an update of the current building in 1979, believes the library’s current site is the best option.
“There’s basically nothing wrong with this four story building. It’s been well maintained and can easily be brought up to the 21st century (standard),” he said, adding that the county would save revenue by avoiding the expense of land acquisition it would incur at some of the other sites. “…People know the library and this is, I think, important that we keep it close.”
Another audience member and librarian railed against the prospect of renovating the existing site.
“I am against this building totally,” he said. “…It needs to be open; it needs to be airy, and this building is not.”
Someone else suggested moving the library site elsewhere, and turning the existing building into a fine arts museum with a permanent collection.
“It’s a very exciting project,” he said. “I think it would be a wonderful use of this building if we could do it.”
Dave Ferguson, a retired library administrator, criticized the planners for taking lightly concerns about parking at the future library and expressed concerns about the feasibility of staffing a four-story structure with the same number of staffers currently at Central Library.
“I’m sort of surprised about the parking being treated so cavalierly,” Ferguson said. “…That’s the reason that it (the current location) hasn’t been used as it could be, because parking is limited.”
The new facility will be about 30 percent larger than the current 85,000-square-foot Central Library and likely three to four and a half stories high, depending on the site that is chosen, explained Project Planner Marco Andrade.
Jason Thiel, president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, said the new library should have an attractive design that makes a strong statement to visitors and city residents alike.
“This library is something that has a tremendous message about how we as a community feel about learning, public learning and books,” Thiel said. “…I would encourage people to not design the building around the parking lot. Let the building be the actual story. This is a Central Library. Let’s let it be an urban library.”
Library Director Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin said the project is long overdue as the current facility — which was constructed in 1952 and added onto in 1980 — is ineffective in meeting the needs of today’s library patron, with spotty wi-fi and too few outlets to accommodate computers and other technology.
“Finally, we are the center of attention,” declared Sprinkle-Hamlin, who says replacing the current Central Library was a goal she set for the library when she took the helm 13 years ago.
Though she favors those sites that are in the heart of downtown, Sprinkle-Hamlin says the prospect of getting a new facility far outweighs any concerns she might have about its location.
“It doesn’t matter where it is as long as we get a new facility that’s flexible, that can change with the times, because we’re always changing,” she said. “(Today’s) libraries are what you call a ‘community living room.’ Not only do people come to check out books, they hold meetings, book clubs, job seeking — it’s a lot of different things that they do, so we have to think about that. It’s a meeting place for the community.”
County Commissioner Walter Marshall remembers discussions about rehabbing or replacing the Fifth Street facility that predated his arrival on the Board of Commissioners in 1997. Forsyth County voters approved funding for the renovation or construction of a Central Library during a 2010 bond referendum, but still the process has still been slow in coming online, and Marshall believes the delay has been to the city and county’s detriment.
“How can you have a 21st century society and not have a high-tech library?” he questioned. “How can the community really make any progress without an important thing like a library? A library today is a must in society.”