What will it take to make Boise’s downtown library a ‘crown jewel’ instead of a ‘depressing’ disappointment?

Boise City asks residents to imagine a new, larger library

In his 2017 State of the City address, Boise Mayor David Bieter described the public library as a city's "conscience." It's time, he said, to rebuild Boise's main branch. It may cost up to $70 million, he said.
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In his 2017 State of the City address, Boise Mayor David Bieter described the public library as a city's "conscience." It's time, he said, to rebuild Boise's main branch. It may cost up to $70 million, he said.

A reading room with windows facing the Boise River. A welcoming coffee shop. A rooftop garden and room to store an additional 100,000 volumes.

And four times as many parking spaces.

A new downtown Boise Public Library may include these. The building is still years away. It doesn’t have an architect yet, or a budget either. But city leaders want it to be contemporary. Spacious. Impressive.

“We’re going for a wow factor,” said Kevin Booe, the library director.

They must wow people to counter the disappointment newcomers sometimes feel when they move to Boise from other cities — cities like Denver or Salt Lake City, with modern, dazzling libraries — and walk into Boise’s cramped main branch for the first time. The library is housed in a 1940s-era warehouse that the city converted in 1973.

“My first visit to the library here was so depressing, I almost turned around and left,” said Kathryn Svilar, who moved to Boise from Cheyenne, Wyoming. She calls the Laramie County Library the city’s “crown jewel.”

The estimated cost of the new main branch is $60 million to $70 million. That’s a lot for a city whose voters refused to authorize a $35 million bond issue in 2006 to build four branch libraries. Over the next decade, Mayor David Bieter and the City Council found the money elsewhere, and all four branches are now open.

“As with all public projects, how do you make it iconic and timeless?” said Boise City Council President Elaine Clegg. “Inspirational and functional, and still keep it within budget?”

A quarter to a third of the new library’s funding will come from philanthropy, said Mike Journee, a spokesman for the mayor’s office. A similar amount could come from the city’s urban renewal agency, the Capital City Development Corp., or from the city’s general fund. A third to half could come from a voter-approved bond sale or some other public-financing method.

More river? More quiet?

Stakeholders invited by a city consultant said they wanted to integrate the Boise River into the design, enhance reading areas and collections, and connect the library with its outdoor spaces. A rooftop garden and a place for food and drink made the list.

A request for comments posted by a Statesman reporter on the Nextdoor neighborhood app turned up complaints about the branch’s lack of parking for cars as well as bikes, homeless people using the public space as a refuge, and people making too much noise talking on their phones or playing music.

“We spend a lot of time at the library and we really love it,” said Boise resident Laurie Sebestyn. But Sebestyn was disturbed during a recent visit by a woman using a reading area to go on FaceTime, the iPhone’s video-calling app.

“Security asked her to be more quiet, but she wasn’t fully compliant,” Sebestyn said. “I know for budgetary reasons it might not be possible to do anything to mitigate this, but it’s truly the one thing that isn’t pleasant about the library.”

Laurie Enger wants the main branch to expand services for homeless people, including using an expanded space for job and other training.

“A whole resource center for people who are homeless,” she said. “You could design the space to accommodate different groups of people without causing conflict.”

Booe said the library works with local homeless shelters to discuss needs and potential partnerships. The library’s strategic plan includes possible classes, readings and other services for homeless people.

A growing space

Some key decisions have been made already.

The current main branch is 78,000 square feet, including the fourth floor, which is used for storage and the offices of the Learning Lab. Booe said the new building will include 110,000 square feet for library use and 20,000 for a performance center with flexible space, able to seat 300 people.

An additional 21,000 square feet will go to the city’s Department of Arts & History, which will relocate from City Hall to the new library. That office could include a gallery, retail shop, archival storage and research spaces.

A library should be a place where tradition meets the unexpected ... its space has to be adaptable because we don’t know how information science might change in a decade.

Kevin Booe, library director

The children’s room will expand, too, with interactive galleries and maker labs.

The new library will get an upgraded storage system: a tower with room to store thousands of items, accessible through an automated retrieval system.

Any new building will use natural geothermal heat, as the current building does.

What of the old building?

One uncertainty is the fate of the current building. The library moved into the repurposed brick hardware-supply warehouse in the early 1970s. It might be razed, or some of it might be saved and integrated into a new design.

Lynn Zeller, who visits regularly, said the city should preserve the building if possible.

“Without knowing whether or not any structural defects exist with the building, and I’m guessing there are none, I would say that razing the existing structure is like throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” Zeller said. “This neighborhood seems to be called upon to make a lot of ‘save or destroy’ decisions about buildings lately. It’s wearing.”

Amy Woodson, a North End resident and regular library user, isn’t fond of the current rebuilding of the Boise City Hall and worries what might happen with a major library project.

“Boise might need to stop focusing on a massive makeover and focus on maintaining what’s left of our small-city charm,” she said.

The new library will be built on the same footprint as the current library. The city wants contractors to work in phases so parts of the building will remain open during construction.

Where will a parking garage go?

Another question is where the cars will go.

The main branch now has 92 spaces. The new library will have between 350 and 400. There’s no room for that many cars without a parking structure. But whether that structure will be on the current site or off-site is undetermined.

The city owns the Biomark building, the rehabbed warehouse just west of the library at 9th and River, but that tenant has a long-term lease, so that has been ruled out. The library rents space in the Foothills School building across River Street to the north for book sales but does not own that property.

The library looked at building parking underground, said Booe. Experts said a small garage with about 80 spaces could be built a half level below grade before reaching significant water levels. The cost, though, would be high and the library would still have to build more parking somewhere else.

Lots of models to study

City leaders are studying other new libraries, including ones in Billings, Montana, and San Diego, California, that opened last year; and a library slated to open in Wichita, Kansas in 2018. Closer to home, there’s the Salt Lake City Library, an “icon in library land,” Booe said.

That library won a national Library of the Year award in 2006. Booe describes it as a gathering place that draws people with its educational materials but also with its flexible, mixed spaces. There are meeting rooms, quiet nooks and reading rooms. The entrance includes a glass atrium from which stacks of books, computer stations and activity areas are visible.

“It’s a great place, a good example of form meeting function,” he said.

Boise’s newly opened Bown Crossing branch, with a sophisticated, green design, has also set a standard for what might come next. Its features include interior lighting set to automatically adjust to the amount of natural light that’s coming in through the library’s windows and a special coating on the windows to keep the summer heat out. The branch has virtual-reality stations and water-wise landscaping true to Boise’s high desert location.

The cool old magazines are staying

Good news for library patrons who love its many collections: The library isn’t getting rid of anything.

The collection of bound periodicals where one can thumb through actual copies of magazines — some a century old — will stay. So will the Idaho history collection and historical documents.

Help from a Pulitizer Prize winner

In a November speech, Bieter said longtime library advocate Bev Harad and former Micron Technology CEO Mark Durcan will lead fundraising efforts. Boise Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Doerr and his wife, Shauna Doerr, will be honorary chairs of the campaign.

“To have a physical space where we can learn to sort the truth from untruth ... the library is a lifeline,” Doerr said. “I hope we can build something that is as appealing to a millionaire as it is to someone who makes $10,000 a year.”

His dream library would have a space offering food and coffee. “And I love the idea of a compass rose, pointing off in all directions,” he said, “the library as a central place from which you literally and virtually explore the world.”

Doerr wrote a couple of stories in his short story collection “The Shell Collector” while sitting in the library. He included elements from the local streetscape, visible from the library window, in his work.

The library, he said, “is a functional, free workspace for people who don’t want to be sitting in their apartment, or for people who can’t afford an apartment.”

What comes next

The city sent out a national request for qualifications for firms interested in designing the library. Seven firms responded. Booe is interviewing five. Each represents a partnership between a national and local firm. He anticipates choosing a firm by the end of this month.

The architects should have designs ready for public comment in April.

Boise Mayor David Bieter was among those opposed to the addition of the exclamation point to the Boise Public Library sign, he said during the debut of the 2017-18 season of "Story Story Night." But once elected mayor, he quickly discovered how "b

In the opening show of the 2017-18 season of "Story Story Night," Howard Olivier told the story of why he thought the Boise Public Library sign needed an exclamation point - and the meaning it holds for local residents. Not everyone was a fan.

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