Selling a Millage
The campaign for a new downtown library
by Eve Silberman
Ann Arborites love their downtown library. But do they love it enough to spend $65 million to replace it?
Last May, Ann Arbor District Library director Josie Parker and AADL trustees Ed Surovell and Prue Rosenthal invited Ellie Serras to a meeting. At Surovell's real estate office on W. Stadium, they asked her to captain the campaign for a bond issue to build a new downtown library.
Serras collaborated with the library on various projects during her fifteen years as head of the Main Street Area Association. She listened as the others described why the building, the oldest part of which dates to 1957, had outlived its usefulness.
"Once I talked with Josie and Prue and Ed, I was totally awed," Serras recalls. "I knew it was a need."
In July, the library board voted unanimously to put a $65 million bond issue on the November 6 ballot. Interest payments will roughly double the cost over thirty years. If voters approve, the bond millage will cost the owner of a $250,000 house in the library district--which includes the city and parts of neighboring townships--about $70 a year.
Serras's husband, Dennis, led downtown's revival as a partner in the Mainstreet Ventures restaurants. But Serras, whose bubbly persona masks a sharp marketing mind and laser-like focus, is a force in her own right. And she's proven she can convince people to tax themselves: after stepping down from MSAA in 2008, she persuaded Main Street property owners to fund a "business improvement zone" to pay for better landscaping and cleaner sidewalks.
Serras quickly lined up support from the political establishment including county commissioner Leah Gunn and former Republican mayor Ingrid Sheldon. The group's fifteen or so core members, who also include young up-and-comers like former Ann Arbor Film Festival director Donald Harrison and photographer and arts organizer Pete Baker, spent the summer drumming up support through personal contacts, a website (ournewlibrary.com), and social media.
The new-library forces cite the woes that afflict the
existing structure. "The building is falling down," claims Surovell. "The last couple of years, we've had to replace an elevator, we've had to replace [air conditioning] chillers, we don't have ADA-approved restrooms, except for the first floor."
Although the library has been expanded twice, in the 1970s and the 1990s, advocates say it needs larger children's and youth areas and a bigger meeting room. The new building would be almost 50 percent larger, with amenities that include what the library's website calls a "grand, quiet reading room," a privately run cafe, and a media production lab. But it's the planned 400-seat auditorium that has been most controversial--and helped launch an opposition group.
"Protect Our Libraries" held its first meeting in September, at the home of former school board member Kathy Griswold. Griswold says that, like Serras's group, opponents will be putting up yard signs and maintaining an online presence as the vote nears.
No one disputes that the downtown library is a very busy place: it tallied some 600,000 visits last year. In the last decade the number of library events listed in the Observer's calendar has doubled; during just two weeks in September, it hosted seven evening talks and presentations, two Saturday art workshops, a documentary movie, a kickoff celebration for a Kerrytown BookFest exhibit, and a "crown-making" workshop for kids.
Like other libraries around the country, the AADL "has evolved into a cultural and sharing space," says Serras. In part, the evolution reflects a hunger for community space in a nation increasingly segregated by income and interests. However, it also reflects libraries' realization that their traditional roles as places where people do quiet research and borrow books are diminished in a world where "google" is a verb and Amazon's best-selling product is the Kindle e-reader. "With a library in a world that is changing daily," Surovell says, "we have to change along with it."
In September 2008, the board, after discussing and dismissing another renovation, voted unanimously to
tear down and replace the library. As the magnitude of the Great Recession became clear, though, the effort was suspended just two months later.
At the end of last year, the board decided the economy had improved enough to revive the project. Last spring, they commissioned a survey that found that 61 percent of registered voters either supported or were "leaning toward" supporting the construction of a new library.
But Lyn Davidge, who's running for the AADL board, argues that while the economy has improved recently it's not exactly robust. Davidge is also uneasy that design of the new building remains vague. "People are asking for specifics and they're not forthcoming," she says. Parker responds that while local architect Carl Luckenbach had been hired to do some preliminary planning, hiring a project architect and establishing a design process will hinge on the bond's passage.
Griswold doesn't see the need for features like the reading room, and questions the wisdom of expanding children's services in the current location, since "most families with young children don't live downtown." But Griswold is most troubled about the 400-seat auditorium. She wonders why U-M facilities and venues like the Michigan Theater can't meet demand for large meeting spaces.
"We know from our current experience that there is a real need for this size space for the type of programming offered at the Library," Parker responds by email. The director says that nineteen events last year drew crowds that exceeded the capacity of the basement multipurpose room, which holds about 135. Another two dozen programs had to be held off-site.
Some opponents worry that a larger auditorium won't serve just library events: an anonymous "talking points" memo suggests that it might secretly be intended as "the first phase of a downtown conference center, especially if a hotel is built on the old library lot." Prue Rosenthal and others firmly reject that speculation. "We would be able to fill that space continually," Parker says.
A more complicated question concerns the need for a bigger building as more and more people do their reading on e-books. Parker says that while library leaders have discussed that question, to date circulation has remained steady. New library supporter and young dad Pete Baker says that he and fellow parents can't imagine bringing up their kids without the richness of the printed word. "We want large picture books," he says.
The AADL board chose a presidential year for the vote, trustee Margaret Leary emails, because "we feel the more voters who turn out, the higher the support for the bond will be." The challenge, Serras says, will be to get the "new library" message out loud and clear.
Ann Arborites love their libraries, which have won national awards and have the highest circulation in the state. But they also love their old buildings, and older users in particular may find it hard to vote for the demolition of the stalwart at Fifth and William. But while the future of the twenty-first-century library is unknown, the fate of the downtown library will be decided very soon.
[Originally published in November, 2012.]