Another Chapter Opens
July 13, 2009 12:04 PM
A committee looking at the future of the Central Library has recently completed its work, and tonight, the Common Council will have a forum to take a closer look at the proposal. The committee recommends an ambitious project that would create a new free-standing library on the corner of West Washington Avenue and Henry Street along with a redevelopment of the current library site into shops, a hotel and more.
It's an exciting vision for that entire block, and it could have positive ripple effects in the blocks surrounding it. But it comes at a steep price - about $27 million more than I had budgeted for it.
Given our budget challenges in this recession, I might be inclined to reject this out of hand, but I won't and here's why.
Our current Central Library is a tired, dated, inadequate facility. A city that loves learning as much as we do needs a facility that is up to date. Modern libraries are more than just shelves of books. They are civic spaces where people go to learn and share ideas. Madison's Central Library should be the intellectual ground zero of a community whose economy and culture is largely built on education. Given that, does it make sense to put more money into simply buffing up a fundamentally inadequate building?
Then we need to take into account the total benefits of the project. The proposal would add millions of dollars of value to the tax rolls and a hotel would produce more room tax revenue. And, there may be more development spurred in the vicinity that would create even more value. Then there's the value of lost opportunity if we were to simply rehab the current site rather than redeveloping it. Finally, there are the values of good design and urban vibrancy that you can't necessarily put a number on.
It seems in some ways that it is both the worst and the best time to take on a project like this. While it's a tough time to come up with the funding, we could see significant savings striking now while contractors are hungry and willing to give us the best prices in decades. And, we'd put a lot of people to work in the process.
I can't say for sure right now if we can make this work or not. But I am committed to giving it my best shot between now and when my 2010 Capital Budget is due to the Council around Labor Day.
I would be remiss if I ended this entry without putting in a good word for Terrence Wall. Terrence played a big role in getting us to this point by proposing an ambitious mixed-use project including a library for the current site. While ultimately another project was selected, Terrence deserves our thanks for investing time, effort and resources in a competition that has resulted in a very good product.