Downtown library plans take shape

Published 9:35 pm Monday, September 20, 2021

Plans for the new $23.3 million downtown library that is still more than two years away from opening are beginning to take shape.

Richmond-based Quinn Evans Architects is designing the new two-story library, which will be about two-and-a-half times larger than the 14,500-square-foot, one-story Morgan Memorial Library across from City Hall.

Chuck Wray, a consultant with Quinn Evans Architects, outlined the broad themes the new library will address during City Council’s Sept. 15 meeting and showed preliminary designs for the facility.

Council members were generally pleased with the presentation but offered their own feedback on what they want to see in it.

Wray highlighted a pair of libraries his firm recently designed and that have since opened — a 44,000-square-foot library in Henrico County and a 43,000-square-foot library in Cecil County, Maryland. He said they try to take advantage of their locations, and in Suffolk’s case, his firm wants to take advantage of downtown’s uniqueness.

“We’ve looked closely at downtown,” Wray said. “There’s an amazing collection of architecture here, and it’s really an interesting moment to fill in this missing tooth that’s along Washington Street, if you will. So we’re looking at a way to definitely have something that’s very compatible, very inviting, very open, really connected to the outdoors and just really an evocative place. We believe libraries are the most transformative places that a community can invest in, quite frankly.”

Wray said the firm has designed an adaptable space with room to breathe and accessibility for the whole community.

On the corner of Washington and South streets, it will have an entry plaza and connect the building to the rear — to its south — through a series of outdoor spaces, to include children’s spaces, community gardens, a multi-use parking area that could also be used for a farmer’s market, and link it to a linear park with a water element. The public would have entrances in the front and rear of the building.

He said his firm would also like to have Lee Street converted to being a one-way street for people to drop off and pick up books, for a Library-to-Go van and to accommodate deliveries.

Inside the library, there would be a service point just to the inside of the front entrance. Adjacent to that would be an “after-hours” area that could be divided into multiple uses that could be isolated from the rest of the space.

Children and teen spaces will be on the ground floor going the length of one side of the building, with collaborative spaces they could use. Staff members will be housed in the rear of the building with eyes on Lee Street and the parking lot — giving it a passive security feature, Wray said.

Upstairs, the library will have a smaller footprint, with the adult area, staff workspace, larger group study rooms, collaborative spaces, smaller study rooms and a digital content creation lab. It will also have a dedicated community space that can be open when the rest of the library isn’t. Besides stairs, the new library will also have an elevator.

Wray said a new, modern library can be a hub for community activity.

“The library project, in our mind, is another great example of how the city can infuse downtown with more activity, with more character (and) bring people to downtown,” Wray said.

Wray said there has been a shift in the last 15 years from libraries being a place solely where books are stored, to more of a community hub and people-centric environment.

In December 2019, the city selected Quinn Evans to design the new library, with the city executing a nearly $1.8 million contract for design services in February. That’s scheduled to be complete by spring 2022. Site plan review has been ongoing since last September and is expected to be ready for approval by August 2022.

Bidding for construction of the project is expected to take place between October and November 2022, with construction beginning that December and finishing up by March 2024, with the library opening sometime in late spring 2024.

Councilman Roger Fawcett said he wanted to leverage and maximize every aspect of the library that he can, including adding college classes from places like Paul D. Camp Community College, Norfolk State University or other schools. He also wants to see programs for seniors in the new library and liked the STEM and children’s spaces.

“We have to be able to use it for (many) things,” Fawcett said.

Fawcett is also concerned about accessibility for seniors in getting to the second floor, even with an elevator, but Wray said trying to put a one-floor library on the site was not feasible. Not only would the library take up the entire footprint of the site, it would also create stormwater issues.

Mayor Mike Duman said once it does open, the new library will need to adapt if certain spaces end up under-used.

“Flexibility is going to be the key, for us to be able to adapt,” Duman said.

Councilman Tim Johnson wants to ensure that it is a library that everyone will use and that it will blend well into downtown. He hopes it will have an area for gardening and a kitchen inside as a way of broadening the new library’s programs. He said he wants it to fit into what the city wants downtown to look like, and it’s a one-shot deal to get it right.

“I’m impressed so far with what you’ve presented,” Johnson said. “It’s what we’re looking for as a city.”