Atlanta’s Central Library debate

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Last night I attended a “Social Studies” talk hosted by the Center for Civic Innovation and Creative Loafing. The discussion and points made went well beyond the simple but helpful Poll Curbed did a few months ago and voices were not raised during the panel discussion. The talk was interesting and enlightening with multiple views: the preservationist/architect-afficionado, the library system itself, the politician with a driving desire to see a long-dreamed-of plan go into action.

THERE IS SO MUCH I WANT TO SAY ABOUT THIS!! but for now I’m going to leave it at a brief recap of what each panelist had to say.

DR. GABRIEL MORLEY: brand new Director of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System.
Position: Neutral
What he brought to the table: an honest look at the library SYSTEM and where libraries, including this one are going in the future. He’s spent some time thinking about this and working on this in Louisiana. He made a good point that the library will survive and work with whatever buildings they are given. As a public institution whose mission is to provide access to information to the public, the future of the library is beyond the physical building itself. No longer should the MAIN focus of libraries be about bringing people into the building, it should be about making information accessible to the public wherever they are. He even pointed to a program that was beginning this summer in Louisiana where library books could be delivered to you when and where you need them (uberBooks?). He’s all about rethinking and while he stayed clearly neutral on the preservation of this particular building he did say that building big new central libraries at this point in time seems misguided, the buildings themselves, if anything, need to scale back so the focus of the Library can be on making information accessible.

DEAN BAKER: Friends of Central Atlanta Library (FOCAL), preservationist, historian, lover of Atlanta (from what I know)
Position: Save!
What he brought to the table: Dean brought up a lot of great counter-points to former councilman Rob Pitt’s argument. Besides pointing out that Atlanta already has pretty much the most iconic library we could ask for, he has respect, appreciation, and probably genuinely LIKING the blocky concrete Brutalist building. Beyond the architectural perspective, he circled back several times to the rehab what you’ve got vs. demo and new construction options or even rehab vs. new construction elsewhere and put the Breuer (can we call it that now?) to another use. He pretty much made the point that it would be far more economical for the City, the Library system, and beneficial to the community to rehabilitate THIS iconic building rather than building a new Central Library anywhere else.

MELODY HARCLERODE: Architect and Past President of the Atlanta Chapter of the American Institute of Architects
Position: Save the building!
What he brought to the table: Melody made the point that the architecture is beautiful, iconic and worthy of preservation. She loves it architecturally and wants to see it remain. She was clearly open to other uses for the Breuer building or bring additions/change to the building just so long as it retains its original architectural integrity. Preservationist values. She noted that she voted yes on the referendum back in 2008 that is listed below, presumably she understood at the time that that meant building a new central library. I was unclear on how she feels about keeping the Central Library at the Breuer building.

ROB PITTS: former Fulton County Commissioner, also served on the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library Board
Position: New Central Library!
What he brought to the table: It may seem personal but it’s not. The voters have spoken.

thanks to Kyle for posting the bond referendum as it appeared on ballots in 2008!

thanks to Kyle for posting the bond referendum as it appeared on ballots in 2008!

Though he had not before, Mr. Pitts acknowledged that the Breuer building is iconic and architecturally significant, even ‘beautiful’ to some people. He also said point blank that he’s hated that building since it was built (and he remembers that, he’s been in Atlanta politics a long time). So his pushiness for a new library and who-cares-what-happens-to-the-Breuer-building is personal but he’s a politician and knew how to spin it so that we could tell it WASN’T personal. It was all about the voters. As he said repeatedly, the voters voted in 2008 to allocate funds specifically for a new central library, not a rehab, but NEW CONSTRUCTION. He knows politics, he said, and you can’t backtrack when the voters have spoken, the city’s hands are tied. Ok, you CAN backtrack, educate the public on the options again, take it back to the table, back to the ballot box and see if the voters will allow the funds to go toward a rehab or something rather than ONLY new construction, but that is politically dangerous, you do that and voters don’t trust you anymore. I was still skeptical on whether the voters REALLY DID speak specifically for allocating X funds for specifically a brand new library or if it’s something the Commissioners did (and therefore could undo), you can see the ballot measure below. ‘The voters have spoken’ was his primary argument and in fact, this was the ONLY thing he had to stand on to argue for a new central library building.

For this audience member, that all-about-the-voters/public spiel was not enough in the face of all the other evidence.

I suspect the audience was fairly pro-preservation, and even pro-rehabbing and keeping the Central Library here, but maybe there were more current politicians or Library Board members, I would’ve liked to hear from the folks who WORK at the Atlanta Central Library speak to the current pros and cons of the library (iconic architecture aside), I would like to hear more from the people to actually USE (or live near enough to use “if only…”) the Atlanta Central Library and how it could better serve them.

view of the Breuer Central Library from Peachtree St. (exit the south end of Peachtree Center Marta and there you are!) from the Atlanta Preservation Center.

view of the Breuer Central Library from Peachtree St. (exit the south end of Peachtree Center Marta and there you are!) from the Atlanta Preservation Center–there’s actually a lot more windows than you think.

meanwhile, some more reading on this issue:
Creative Loafing: Library system debates downsizing — and iconic Central branch is caught in the middle
Kyle Kessler for CL: Central Library doesn’t need replacing, it needs boosting
ArchPaper.com Future Uncertain for Breuer’s Central Library in Atlanta
Overdue! Metropolis article from 2009, architectural significance and changing libraries
Waiting for the Internet – great images of the interior

this just in from the real journalists: Curbed’s report on last night

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