Ann Arbor’s “Jewel in the Crown”

AADL Board Moves to Reimagine the Downtown Library

The Ann Arbor District Library board is restarting a conversation about its downtown building.

This should surprise absolutely no one. After all, in their campaign last year the four trustees elected in November supported doing just that.

Entrance to the Ann Arbor District Library’s downtown building at 343 S. Fifth Ave.

So during a June 12 retreat at AADL’s Westgate branch, the board spent six hours focused on the downtown library’s future. They resolved to explore their options, solicit input from community members and staff, and develop a process and timeline for making a decision.

Trustees also agreed to discuss this issue at each of their monthly board meetings for at least the next few months. Their next meeting is on Monday, June 19 at 7 p.m. in the downtown library’s fourth floor conference room, 343 S. Fifth Ave.

While the idea of a new downtown building clearly has traction on the board, several trustees also expressed caution, saying they haven’t settled on that option yet.

Ed Surovell, who has served on the board since 1996, noted that opponents were “very vocal, articulate and influential” when the library asked voters to fund a new downtown building in 2012. That $65 million, 30-year bond proposal failed with opposition from 55% of votes cast.

“They beat us last time, and that is the issue,” Surovell said. “If you lose again, you’re out.”

What follows is a more detailed report of the board’s June 12 retreat, for those of you with the time and stamina for such depth. For everyone else, here are the main takeaways:

  1. Trustees say they aren’t yet ready to make any decisions about the downtown library’s future. However, most trustees — perhaps all — are leaning toward taking action of some kind. They want to make the building more reflective of the community, as well as a better showcase for the library’s offerings.
  2. AADL’s facilities manager reported that deferred maintenance for the current downtown building is estimated at $500,000 annually. Some trustees think those funds could be put to better use.
  3. Trustees plan to solicit community input, both from the general public and from specific stakeholders. At their June 19 meeting, they’ll each bring a list of people they’d like to invite to speak about a vision for the downtown library.
  4. An agenda item on this topic will be part of every monthly board meeting for at least the next several months.
  5. Trustee Victoria Green agreed to draft a set of library/community values that a downtown library should reflect, based in part on the library’s current strategic plan and the board’s discussion at the retreat. That document will serve as one of the starting points for their work.

All seven trustees participated in the retreat: Jamie Vander Broek (president), Linh Song (vice president), Jim Leija (treasurer), Ed Surovell (secretary), Victoria Green, Jan Barney Newman and Colleen Sherman. More than a dozen staff members also attended, including director Josie Parker, deputy director Eli Neiburger, and marketing manager Tim Grimes.

Attendees from outside the library included Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, and Kathy Griswold, who served as treasurer for one of the groups that opposed the 2012 bond proposal.

Setting the Stage: Placemaking & Urban Design

The retreat was facilitated by Kerry Sheldon of Bridgeport Consulting. After introductions, the session began with a 2.5-hour presentation by Richard Murphy of the Michigan Municipal League (MML), focused on placemaking and urban design.

Richard Murphy of the Michigan Municipal League at AADL’s June 12 retreat.

The intent of placemaking is to create public spaces where people want to linger and enjoy their surroundings, typically in an urban setting. The concept is described by MML as “capitalizing on the distinctive assets of a community to integrate a mixture of uses that connect people and places on a human scale.” (Learn more about placemaking principles here.)

Murphy’s talk also touched on the role of anchor institutions, including public libraries, in creating a welcoming, vibrant downtown. He wrapped up with a brief overview of urban design principles, and a look at public library buildings in Seattle and Montreal.

Current Downtown Building

The retreat included a presentation by Len Lemorie, AADL’s facilities manager. He reported that the relatively new branches within the district — Malletts Creek (opened in 2004), Pittsfield (2006), Traverwood (2008) and Westgate (remodeled in 2016) — were in good condition. A few discrete projects might be needed, but by doing ongoing repairs and maintenance, they can “reset” branch buildings to near-new status every 10 years or so.

From left: AADL trustees Jamie Vander Broek, Jan Barney Newman and Colleen Sherman.

That’s not the case with the downtown building, Lemorie said. He described the work there as dealing with deferred maintenance, and estimated that AADL would need to spend about $500,000 annually on it.

Basically, everything needs to be replaced, Lemorie said, including the roof, mechanicals, windows and other major infrastructure. The last major renovation was in 1991, although significant work has taken place since then, including a remodeled front entrance, elevator replacement and bathroom renovations.

Trustee Jan Barney Newman asked specifically about the sewage overflow “crocks” in the library’s basement. Lemorie explained that the building’s sanitary sewer lines are lower than the city’s system, so waste is stored in tanks before being pumped into the city’s pipes. Control systems were installed to monitor the levels of those tanks, he said, and there’s excess capacity in case a power outage prevents pumping. The library also would close the building during such outages.

Lunch had been served at this point. Trustee Linh Song quipped that this was a perfect lunchtime discussion.

The Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival draws hundreds to the downtown library.

Song then asked Lemorie to address issues that arise in the downtown building when the library holds major events there, like the Tiny Expo, Ann Arbor Mini Maker Faire and Ann Arbor Comic Arts Festival.

The library staff gets creative in using that space, Lemorie replied, but the building isn’t configured to handle really large events. He also noted that there aren’t enough bathrooms to comfortably accommodate those kinds of crowds. Trustee Victoria Green observed that the current building design also requires a lot of staff time to rearrange things before and after events are held there.

Several trustees questioned whether the $500,000 annual cost for deferred maintenance could be invested in more strategic ways, to better serve the needs of the community.

Jamie Vander Broek, the board’s president, likened the situation to investing in a rental property. Why would you plant tulips in the yard if you knew you might be moving?

Song described discussions about a recent millage for public school infrastructure, which voters approved on May 2. She served on the campaign committee to support that tax, and said the issue came down to investing funds in infrastructure now with the goal of saving money in the future.

Board Discussion: Overview

Before the retreat, Kerry Sheldon had met with each trustee individually to get a sense of their priorities. Those conversations had revealed several common themes, according to Sheldon:

  1. The importance and value of being located downtown, and pride in being an anchor institution and contributing to the vibrancy of Ann Arbor’s downtown ecosystem.
  2. Interest in staying true to the vision of a proud flagship — a “jewel in the crown” — located in the heart of the city as a full-service, beautiful, functional, safe facility that’s accessible, inviting and welcoming to all. Trustees believe a successful downtown facility should be busy.
  3. Desire to respond to community needs, especially the intense demand for space that can support a wide range of events, programs and community gatherings.
  4. Openness to considering a wide range of possibilities vis-a-vis building location, appearance and height, and whether to co-locate with other entities.
  5. Strong commitment to autonomy and self-determination. A need to control the library’s own destiny, and retain its nimbleness and flexibility.

Part of the retreat included small group discussions among trustees, staff and other attendees. After that session, Sheldon summarized the themes she’d heard:

  1. The need for flexibility in addressing community needs now and in the future, including the need for a downtown gathering space.
  2. The importance of creating a safe space for all patrons.
  3. How does the library’s flagship building communicate civic pride and the fact that Ann Arbor values its libraries? How can it best utilize all collections and make those collections more visible and accessible?

Those themes were echoed throughout the entire retreat as well. For purposes of this report, the day’s discussion is summarized and organized into these categories: 1) highlighting the richness of AADL offerings; 2) the context of the building to its surrounding downtown setting; 3) community needs and uses for the downtown library; 4) parking; 5) how to reflect Ann Arbor’s values; 6) soliciting public input; 7) possible opposition to a new building; and 8) next steps.

Board Discussion: Highlighting AADL Offerings

Several trustees remarked on the disconnect between the richness of the library system’s collections and programs — both physical and online — and the impression you get when you walk into the downtown building.

Some of the AADL items available for checkout are kept in black carrying cases.

Something like a concept store is needed to highlight AADL’s programs and services, trustee Jim Leija said, perhaps using a museum model to draw visibility to the library’s full portfolio. How can the built environment help display the richness of the entire collection and programming?

Trustee Jan Barney Newman joked that the current first floor looks like an A1 Rental space full of body bags. (The library displays many items from its Unusual Stuff to Borrow collection on shelves in the first floor, and many of those items are stored in black carrying cases.) She suggested a digital display of the items, rather than the items themselves, might be preferable.

A cafe is another way that might help draw people into the library, Leija said. Right now, he added, the downtown building feels fragmented.

Board Discussion: Downtown Context

The downtown library’s relationship to other activity in the area was highlighted in discussions throughout the retreat. The building is located at 343 S. Fifth Ave., at the northeast corner of Fifth and William, across from Blake Transit Center.

Blake Transit Center, where buses exit onto South Fifth Avenue directly across from the downtown library’s entrance.

Part of the discussion was framed during Richard Murphy’s presentation on placemaking, when he asked trustees to consider three questions: 1) What role does the library play in downtown? 2) What does the library itself bring to downtown? 3) How does the library activate and interact with surrounding spaces?

The library’s entrance is off of South Fifth Avenue, a one-way street heading south. There’s limited parking on the street, although there are a few metered spots and a drop-off location in front of the building. A city-owned surface parking lot and underground parking structure are adjacent to the library.

Susan Pollay, executive director of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority, said that as the city evolves away from a more auto-centric focus, it’s possible that Fifth Avenue could become a two-way street — in the same way that South State Street was converted from one-way to two-way traffic 14 years ago. (The DDA manages public parking for the city, as well as other downtown infrastructure projects.)

Ed Surovell noted that “if we could select a site de novo, we would not put [the downtown library] where it is.”

It would be better on Liberty Street, a more active part of town, Surovell said. Right now there’s a dead zone around the downtown library, he added, with the federal building at Liberty and Fifth, a couple of small restaurants, a vacant lot opposite the library at William and Fifth, buses emerging onto Fifth from the Blake Transit Center, and a parking lot just north of the library.

Murphy pointed out that the city-owned parking lot — known as the Library Lot — won’t be a void forever. [The city council approved 17-story development at the site, while a citizens group is still pushing to convert that spot into a community commons.]

Trustees should think about how they can have a voice in what happens around the downtown library, Murphy said. What will be the library’s role in activating the space next to the Library Lot, whether it’s a building or a green space?

Proceeds from the shop operated by the nonprofit Friends of the Ann Arbor District Library support AADL’s operations. The store is located on the first floor of the downtown library.

Victoria Green wished there was more activity around the library — even temporary things like food carts. Others pointed out that aside from the front entrance, the building’s three public sides don’t invite interaction with passers-by. The building also is located at the edge of the downtown commercial district, but it doesn’t really serve as a gateway between the downtown and nearby neighborhood.

Linh Song noted that the library needs to truly feel like it’s part of downtown. A downtown experience isn’t just going out to eat, or to a show, or to pay a parking ticket.

What if the shop operated by Friends of the AADL were more outward facing? Song asked. What if there were a night market nearby? What else might bring people to the downtown library, and not just for large events or programs?

Board Discussion: Community Needs

Jamie Vander Broek, the board’s president, told trustees that in thinking about the downtown building, they should consider not just the library’s own needs, but also the needs of the community. That approach might include partnering with more local organizations and businesses, she noted.

Colleen Sherman mentioned the possibility of providing space for artists. Does the library have a role or obligation to support Ann Arbor’s creative culture in that way?

Responding to Sherman, Jan Barney Newman expressed concern about competing with other arts organizations, like the Ann Arbor Art Center. She’s heard feedback from people in the community about that.

Noting that AADL branches are popular as co-working spaces, Victoria Green wondered if the downtown library served that purpose, too. AADL director Josie Parker replied that people do use the downtown building for work, but not as much space is available for that, compared to the branches. There are also more limited places where people can bring food/beverages, she said.

Part of the walled interior courtyard at the downtown library.

During a discussion about the downtown library’s enclosed garden, Linh Song asked whether it’s available for weddings. When Parker replied that the library has a policy against holding weddings in its buildings, Green noted that the board could decide to change that policy.

Song described the downtown library as a community hub and gathering place, with diversity of race, age and socio-economic status. It also serves as a warming shelter, she said. And though the branches feel welcoming — people go there during power outages to hang out and recharge their devices, for example — she wasn’t sure the downtown building was viewed in the same way.

Green said her family has used the downtown library as a day shelter. She has sent her kids there after school until she could pick them up. She views that kind of use as positive.

Vander Broek described the Westgate branch as an extension of her living room. Why couldn’t the downtown library be a fancy living room? “I don’t call my living room a warming shelter,” she added.

Board Discussion: Parking

The issue of parking came up in different ways throughout the retreat. There is no free parking at the downtown library, though the building is close to two major public parking structures as well as nearby on-street metered parking. In contrast, free parking is available at all of the branches.

Library Lot parking entrance on South Fifth Avenue. The downtown library is on the left.

Several trustees noted that some patrons don’t come to the downtown library because it lacks free parking or because they don’t feel parking is easily accessible.

Not everyone can afford to pay for parking, said Jamie Vander Broek. But it’s out of the library’s control, she added, since the city and the DDA make decisions about public parking. It seems the trend is to charge more for parking, not less, she noted.

Victoria Green said she’s comfortable directing people to the branches rather than downtown, if free parking is important to them. Linh Song noted that certain things are only offered downtown, including many of AADL’s programs and events.

Richard Murphy mentioned possible changes in the future that could affect the need for parking. Those changes might include use of autonomous vehicles, an increase in bicycling and public transit ridership, and a growth in residential housing that would result in more pedestrians downtown.

Downtown Ann Arbor is growing faster than outlying parts of the city, Murphy said, and Ann Arbor overall is one of the fastest-growing cities in the state.

Board Discussion: Reflecting Ann Arbor’s Values

Several trustees noted that the current downtown building doesn’t reflect the library’s own values, such as innovation and creativity. Nor does it adequately reflect the community’s shared values and aspirations, they said.

The challenge is to define those shared values, then design features of a building that would support them. For example, Colleen Sherman asked what the physical manifestation of innovation might look like. Does a 400-seat auditorium — one of the features in the 2012 proposal — reflect innovation, or is it something else?

AADL trustees Linh Song and Jamie Vander Broek.

Sherman posed another question: If Ann Arbor is the most educated city in America, how should the library reflect that?

Linh Song raised the issue of equity. If the community values equity and access, how would the downtown library reflect that priority? Bathrooms are one indicator, she noted. The current building doesn’t have adequate bathrooms for families with young children or adequate ADA accessibility for older or disabled patrons, for example. When she granted that bathrooms might seem like an odd indicator, Ed Surovell jumped in, calling it a legitimate choke point. “The capacity for bathrooms defines everything else,” he said.

“Bathrooms for everyone!” Song replied, laughing.

Jim Leija wondered if the board should turn the conversation about a downtown library into a community discussion about “the soul of downtown Ann Arbor.”

Board Discussion: Public Input, Advisory Board

Trustees generally agreed that they wanted a broad range of voices in their decision-making process, and discussed possible approaches to getting that input.

AADL trustees Jim Leija and Victoria Green.

Jim Leija wondered if they’d benefit from creating an advisory board that represented key segments of the community: nonprofits, teens, retirees, families with young kids, and others. It might be similar to the Blue Ribbon Advisory Group that meets monthly with the Ann Arbor Public Schools superintendent, he said.

The board reached consensus that they needed more discussion about whether to create an advisory board, but they wanted to move ahead in asking for public input. In addition to soliciting commentary from the general public, they agreed to each create a list of people that they’d like to ask directly for input on the downtown building. Those people would be invited to speak at upcoming board meetings over the next few months.

Leija also suggested that questions in the library’s next community survey should focus on the downtown library. AADL hires EPIC-MRA to conduct its surveys, and expects to do another one in the next 12–18 months.

Although there was clear support for gathering public input, some trustees noted that they couldn’t be guided by that alone.

Victoria Green pointed out that the remodeled Westgate branch is really popular, but it includes elements that the public wasn’t clamoring for.

“I think people discovered what they wanted at Westgate when they saw it,” Green said, and that’s why vision and leadership are required from the board in making its decisions about the downtown library.

Colleen Sherman made this analogy: You don’t just ask toddlers what they want to eat — you give them options. “Or you lead them to vegetables,” Green added.

Jan Barney Newman felt it was important to include residents who pay taxes but who don’t necessarily use the library now. Sherman thought it was important to find out why those residents don’t use the library.

Board Discussion: Possible Opposition

Trustees discussed possible opposition if they decided to ask voters to approve a new tax for the downtown library. Opponents “beat us last time, and that is the issue,” Ed Surovell noted. “If you lose again, you’re out.”

From left: Trustees Victoria Green and Ed Surovell with Kerry Sheldon, who facilitated the June 12 AADL retreat.

In November 2012, the AADL put a $65 million, 30-year bond proposal on the ballot. Three campaign committees were formed to oppose the tax. The proposal failed with opposition from 55% of votes cast.

Surovell described the opposition in 2012 as being extremely well-financed, adding that it’s still unclear where the money came from “but I’m quite confident it’s still there.” Describing himself as one of the biggest supporters of a new building as anyone on the board, Surovell said he’s “very, very wary of not looking before we leap.” Some of the library non-users “are extremely vocal, articulate and influential,” he added.

Jim Leija didn’t think that non-users of the library were necessarily opponents of a new building. He thought the board should analyze potential opposition, but not be focused on that.

The defeat of the 2012 millage was a wake-up call for many, Leija said, including him. He was shocked when it failed, and that outcome prompted him to get more involved and run for a seat on the library board. He thought that in the future, supporters of a new downtown building would be more active in advocating for it.

Surovell stressed the importance of making sure the 55% who voted against the proposal in 2012 had time to air their grievances. The board needs to fully understand the opposition, he said, so that trustees can be confident in whatever decision they make.

Further, Surovell cautioned the board against sending out signals that they’d already decided on a course of action. They were blindsided in 2012, he said, and need to be better prepared this time.

Other trustees noted that they weren’t ready to make a decision, but they did need to develop a work plan and timeline for their decision-making process.

Next Steps

The goal of the retreat had been to talk about issues related to the downtown library and discuss a plan for how to move forward.

Jamie Vander Broek told trustees that she has a vision for the downtown library, but she recognized the need for a broader community conversation. “I’m eager to give our community that.”

Jim Leija said trustees seem open to asking the community about the downtown library again. “That’s a big deal.”

Trustees agreed that at their next board meeting — on Monday, June 19 — they’d bring suggestions for people to invite to give public commentary about the downtown building.

Notes summarizing discussion were posted during the June 12 AADL retreat.

Victoria Green volunteered to draft a document describing community values that a downtown library should reflect, based in part on the library’s current strategic plan and the board’s discussion at the retreat. That document will serve as one of the starting points for their work.

They also decided to include an agenda item on this topic for every monthly board meeting for at least the next several months. Discussions at future board meetings will lead to creating a work plan and deadlines for decision-making.

Linh Song said she wanted to better understand the project’s financial implications, and explore options such as potential private funding. She noted that another aspect of the decision-making is timing, especially as it relates to millages that other government entities might be requesting.

The Washtenaw County board of commissioners, for example, is expected to put a millage proposal on the November 2017 ballot to fund public safety and mental health services. The library needs to figure out how its potential request fits in with other proposals, Song said.

Vander Broek concluded the retreat by observing that “we made a lot of progress today.”

The Ann Arbor District Library board holds its meetings on the third Monday of each month at the downtown library, 343 S. Fifth Ave., starting at 7 p.m. The next meeting is Monday, June 19. All meetings include two opportunities for public commentary.