Library system debates downsizing - and iconic Central branch is caught in the middle

Trustees might have to tweak list of bond projects to make overdue repairs

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The board of trustees that oversee libraries in Atlanta and Fulton County might tweak a bond package from 2008 to close some libraries and fix up those overdue for repair. And Downtown’s massive central library designed by famed architect Marcel Breuer plays a role in the discussions.

At the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008, the Atlanta-Fulton Library System asked voters to approve a $275 million bond referendum to erect eight new branch libraries, expand two, and renovate a couple dozen others. Plus, if the county could raise $50 million, $85 million of that package would go towards replacing Downtown’s Central Library — a Brutalist concrete building at Margaret Mitchell Square — with another big library.

Sixty-five percent of voters approved the plan. Since then, seven new branches, including one in Capitol View Manor in southwest Atlanta near the Atlanta Beltline, have been built. But maintenance issues, along with budget cuts prompted by the recession, have left some Fulton libraries with leaky roofs, broken climate control, and mold.

On Jan. 3, Library Board Chairwoman Stephanie Moody, on behalf of the board of trustees, recommended the county tweak the plans for the bond projects — including reallocating cash earmarked for Downtown’s library to use on other branches.

Moody’s pitch to the commission requested studies to determine the price tag of sprucing up existing branches, a project that would claim more than half of Central’s original $85 million budget. The remainder would be used to buy property and build the new — and probably scaled down — Central.

Moody told Creative Loafing at a Feb. 24 board meeting that there’s no longer a need for a library of the Downtown headquarters’ size. “Central is not even one of our top circulating libraries anymore,” she says. “It’s like number 12, and it’s 265,000 square feet.”

If the library system can’t get more cash from the county commission, Moody told County Manager Dick Anderson in a letter, it might need to downsize. She also recommended ending the use of leased buildings to free up cash. Moody said many of the county’s libraries are in dire need of improvements that the bond package doesn’t cover.

But former Fulton County Commissioner Robb Pitts said donors won’t feel inclined to write a check if they can’t see how their cash will be spent. “You can’t go to people and say, ‘Will you give us $5 million, $10 million,’ asking to help us defray the cost of the library without letting them know what it’s going to look like.”

Pitts said he thinks the county should issue the rest of the bonds to fund the second phase of the plan, which called to allocate $23 million for slated library updates. “In the meantime, we can start with the design and planning of the new Central Library,” he said.

With the first phase of the bond projects nearing completion, board members are eyeing new options for phase two that don’t include what Pitts called an “iconic central library.” Pitts called foul, claiming the board shouldn’t be able to sidestep any of the goals agreed upon in the original bond.

“Phase Two would be some renovations plus the construction of a brand new Central Library to be located in Downtown Atlanta. Period,” he said. “They’re not renovating the existing one. It’s very clear that the construction of a new one is what the voters called for.”

Such talk is premature, Moody says, and a building assessment of the Central Library is underway. It should be noted that, when the plan was first floated, many people raised concerns about the ultimate fate of the Central Library, Breuer’s last work, if a new building was erected elsewhere in Downtown. Pitts is not a fan of the building. 

Pitts says library patronage outside Atlanta is on the rise, and any “great” metropolis should boast an “iconic” library: “If you look at the statistics, libraries around the world are being attended at an all-time high… But our Central Library looks like a jail. The replacement facility will attract tourists and conventioneers.”

Gregory McPherson, a guest speaker at the Feb. 24 board meeting and a member of Friends of Central Atlanta Library, said he thinks the board needs to concentrate more on appealing to those who utilize the library’s resources, rather than people who seem to be taking advantage of its shelter. The board also discussed how to deal with visitors, including homeless people, toting knives and box cutters to the library.

McPherson said he and FCAL think it’s “definitely time” for new leadership. He called for Moody’s resignation along with a more concrete plan to reform the library system.

The board of trustees is currently on the hunt for a new library director. Moody said she tried to “lure” David Singleton of North Carolina’s Charlotte Mecklenburg Library to apply. Singleton did not, so Moody suggests “emulating” Singleton’s library reform plan which closed small branches to help the system bounce back from the recession.

At its March 2 meeting, Fulton commissioners selected Gabriel Morley of Louisiana as the finalist for the executive library director seat. Commissioners Emma Darnell and Marvin Arrington opposed the selection process. The BOC has two weeks to decide whether to approve Morley for the job.

Some Fulton branch libraries — Georgia Hill, Carver Holmes and Thomasville Heights — will be closing in coming months to reroute personnel and material resources to the new Southeast Atlanta Branch Library on Pryor Road funded by the issuance of Phase I bonds.

“Closing branches is never a happy choice,” said Moody in the Jan. 3 letter to Anderson. “But if it helps the system come back stronger in the long run, then it should be seriously considered.”