Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: Falls Church’s Little Library That Could

By Chester De Long

As is generally known, our small library has won national star rating for eight years. How has this happened in a work space that is badly deteriorating to the point of failure of air and heating systems, obsolete elevator, inadequate wiring, leaky plumbing, a leaky roof, lack of space, etc.? Of course, it is the dedicated, hard-working staff and director who have accomplished such a feat. But how long will the staff and patrons need to overcome an environment where, for example, a) the working spaces may range from 55 to 90 degrees depending on the season, or b) the spaces are flooded from toilet overflow, or inundated by roof leaks? How often do we have to have a patron or a staff member trapped in a creaky elevator for which parts are no longer manufactured?

These are not just one-time occurrences, they are repeated hazards.

I cannot imagine that citizens of our city want to tolerate such conditions for the staff or themselves. Yet, we hear comments that there is no need to change or improve the building. Or we hear suggestions that libraries are no longer necessary in these digital times. This latter comment exemplifies the type of thinking that declared the computer revolution would take us to the paperless age. So now our paper usage has soared almost beyond belief. Come on, let’s get real.

The city’s citizens and employees need a library renovation and expansion just to continue serving current patrons, let alone accommodating an expected population increase resulting from new and contemplated apartments, condominiums and conversion of small homes to “McMansions.” Further, the library is currently providing programs for several thousand children each year, with attendance doubling in the last ten years, and still increasing. The building simply cannot accommodate further increases in attendance at these popular programs. More important, we do not want these attendees, especially the children, exposed to the conditions described above.

Over the last two years, members of the Library Board have worked with a design firm McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture and the Esoarc Studio to come up with a minimally expensive solution to the building’s problems. The result has been a plan which incorporates public inputs and which has been shown to the public. The plan offers a choice of expansion either on the west side or the east side, and that choice will be made later, based on semi-final design drawings. Since 1992, when the building was expanded, a U.S. law has decreed guidelines for new or renovated structures to meet the needs of handicapped persons. So these guidelines will take up to a third of our now contemplated 6,600 square-foot expansion and renovation plan, leaving us with something over 4,000 square feet and a somewhat higher price tag than expected.

We had originally suggested a total raze and rebuild, but the cost was at least $18 million, and was rejected by the Planning Commission. Discussions with the design firm staff led to the current plan which, when implemented, will serve the City for at least 25 years. The plan will provide new restroom facilities, more aisle space between shelves, wider corridors as well as some other safety features (all required). But it will also provide more sequestered space (ahhh, the quiet will be amazing!) for children’s programs, added space for young adults, more space for local history archives plus better office arrangements for staff, better security, better sight lines for staff to track activities, more and better wiring, a new elevator, new air and heating equipment, a new roof, more logical placement of computers and many other modern niceties.

The Library Board intends to publicize the plans more widely and has authorized a short film which will display the two options mentioned above to receive more public input. This will occur shortly, and board members welcome questions and discussion of this acutely needed renovation/expansion. We now are waiting for City Council deliberations on the financing of the $8.3 million price tag. By the way, the two major site restrictions are a) the land must be used for library purposes or revert to the Styles family heirs, and b) the architecture must be “like” the Williamsburg Colonial design. So fear not, you will not lose the present looks of our building, but it will be slightly larger and will be entered from Park Avenue.

As a member of the Library Board and as a private citizen, I urge readers to tell City Council members that you encourage and support a library renovation and modest expansion. Let’s remove the obstacles that staff and patrons are struggling to overcome and instead redirect our efforts into making our stellar record even better!