Silver Spring residents refuse to stay quiet over library changes
Some say design differences make them feel unheard
Planners of the new Silver Spring Library expect to begin construction of the building this fall, but until then they may have to reconstruct relationships with residents who feel last-minute changes to the building were made without community consent.
In recent weeks residents have expressed outrage over changes made to the library's design, which was originally determined in an exhaustive series of community meetings over the past two years.
An escalator that planners and residents praise as a key visual and functional component to the library's Fenton Street frontage may now be omitted from library plans. And county planners are planning to put a coffee shop in the library, which will be built at the corner of Fenton Street and Wayne Avenue, potentially stealing business from independent shops nearby, residents said.
"The notion that these things can just disappear makes a mockery of the [public design process]," Darian Unger, chairman of the Silver Spring Citizens Advisory Board, told the Montgomery County Planning Board Thursday. "It's not how community input should work."
In more than a dozen community meetings over the past two years, residents had successfully lobbied for a larger library, unsuccessfully lobbied for the library to front on Bonifant Street and hotly debated whether to install a pedestrian bridge connecting the library to the Wayne Avenue garage.
Unger questioned whether the county's Department of General Services, which is developing the library, was even listening during the meetings, which are called "charrettes."
"There were spirited attempts for community input at the charrettes, but very few people left happy," Unger said Thursday during the board's review of a mandatory referral request for the library, an advisory process for construction projects by government agencies. "The line around town was they were charades.' They gave the appearance of listening."
County planners said much of the library's design has been dictated by residents, many of whom had not agreed on major elements of the library and thus, some residents would be unhappy with certain elements. The escalator, which would sit behind a large glass façade with two elevators nearby, would cost between $500,000 and $750,000, said David Dise, the director of the county's Department of General Services. The library is estimated to cost $60 million.
"It's an ambitious and wonderfully designed building," Dise said. "We need to make sure we can build this building."
The biggest priority for the library design is ensuring that if and when the Purple Line light-rail transit line is built, the library can accommodate the station proposed for it, Dise said. When the county breaks ground, tentatively scheduled for Aug. 30, there will be nine months of utility relocation followed by two years of construction, Dise said. The community would be heavily involved in any design changes during that time, he said.
The library will house an art center and a coffee shop on the first two floors, a 65,000-square-foot library on the next three floors, county offices on the sixth floor and community meeting rooms and terraces on the roof. The design, by Arlington, Va.-based architect, Lukmire Partnership Inc., is mostly-glass facades intended to look like an open book. A residential component of the site will be built at a later date.
As for the coffee shop, Dise suggested that independent or local establishments would be preferred as the operator. Some residents want a different business altogether.
"This library is moving into an established retail center with several coffee shops, some struggling, within a few-block area of the library," said George French, a Silver Spring resident.
In mandatory referral hearings, the planning board has no authority to change a project's plans, only to make recommendations. The board unanimously approved the mandatory referral but urged planners to heed residents' concerns.
"Key elements like an escalator, which are not just visual but functional, they must pay attention to this," said board Commissioner Amy Presley. "Without it, that's the type of thing that if removed makes a community feel unheard."
Planners would have to come back before the board for a mandatory referral on any changes made to the library design resulting from a traffic study being conducted on the busy Wayne-Fenton intersection.
Also still under consideration is a pedestrian bridge, one of the many debated aspects of the library design. The Montgomery County Council rejected Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett's proposal for a pedestrian bridge between the library and Wayne Avenue garage in July 2009.
But Leggett (D) has asked that the building be designed so that the $750,000 pedestrian bridge could be installed at a later date, to allow for easier access to the building by seniors and the disabled.
"The library will house one of the county's two disability resource centers, yet the trip to form the garage to the library will not be welcome for them," said Kathlyn Smith, chair of the Silver Spring Library Advisory Committee. "Patrons who drive may opt for other libraries."