A beautiful new library gracing Capitol Boulevard, with a wall of glass embracing the Boise River. An outdoor plaza that welcomes strollers and lunch-break nibblers while, inside, library patrons read and download books. A new Boise main library designed by a world-famous architect and inspired by equally beautiful libraries in Vancouver, B.C., and Salt Lake City.
But is this the right building at the right cost for Boise?
That’s the question the community is being asked, and we want to be sure the city is willing to hear what the community says. So far, the city is sending positive signals: A series of open houses, with staffers poised to answer questions. A public comment period that is open until June 23. A detailed website on the plan. A second round of public comment in September, with a specific focus on how the architect responds to public feedback.
So, a good start. But how wedded is the city to its beautiful architect’s renderings? Is it truly open to incorporating citizen suggestions, from keeping the Cabin in its historic home to rethinking the fountains and offices?
We ask this because this is big project with a lot at stake, and Mayor David Bieter has a tendency to get his back up and dig in his heels when his ideas are challenged. When the city decided to endorse the F-35 fighter jet mission for Gowen Field and to help finance a Downtown multi-sport stadium – stances we also supported – Bieter and the city essentially told critics: “We know best.”
That won’t work with the library, a beloved institution in a beloved location next to a beloved historic asset. This project has to have broad public support, philosophically and practically: Of the $80 million to $85 million pricetag, $18 million is supposed to come from philanthropic giving. The entire citizenry needs to feel heard and engaged. City leaders must keep an open mind as the community vets this proposal and asks tough questions, such as:
▪ That price tag. $80 million-plus is a big chunk of change. How much of this gateway is practical, useful, necessary space and how much is showpiece? Do we have the right mix of substance and statement?
▪ Where’s the parking? Officials say $15 million for parking is part of the package, but the what and the where aren’t answered. The existing library’s 100-odd spots often are full. Until patrons see details, the promise of 300 parking spaces somewhere nearby will not assure doubtful patrons worried about accessing a building designed to get more use.
▪ What happens to the Cabin? The home to the literary center between the river and today’s library is not in the site plan. The city owns the land and the building, and acknowledges that it might move the Cabin. But fans of keeping the Cabin on its original site worry their interests are getting short-shrift. (And there are many fans; the Cabin seems to be the most common concern among 300 comments at coUrbanize, along with birds flying into all the glass.) The new library is billed as the city center for arts and history, with space for the Arts and History Department and city archives. A brochure promises the library will be “a gateway to our history;” library materials talk about enhancing local identity and reinforcing a sense of place. Does moving the Cabin contribute to those missions? Built in 1939 to mark the 50th anniversary of statehood, the Cabin at its site is sacred space for Boise history buffs, and is adjacent to another sacred space: the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial, which no one would dare relocate. A world-class architect could find a way to incorporate this historic structure.
▪ How will the new library handle people experiencing homelessness, who will come to escape the heat of summer and cold of winter? How does the library serve as a humane space without becoming a day shelter? While this is an uncomfortable question to raise, the answer is important. The library must accommodate people in search of assistance and job-search resources while ensuring it is safe and welcoming for all.
▪ How do the outdoor fountain and gathering spaces and interior “maker” spaces mesh with what JUMP offers just a couple blocks away? How will the library’s 300-seat event space be different from the public event space in Idaho history museum opening right across the street? Aren’t we in danger of having redundant, competitive facilities? How do we ensure we don’t end up with an unused funky outdoor space competing with other Downtown funky public spaces?
▪ How will the library building be used in 20 to 50 years? How will the public even use libraries decades from now? Do we need this much space for a future when media are evolving, digitizing and miniaturizing?
▪ If this is a new Downtown library, do we need a performance venue, exhibition space and Arts and History Department offices that drive up costs and are not essential to the mission?
The people asking the questions we’ve heard are not anti-library or anti-growth. They’re people who want to see their city grow wisely and well. And these concerns don’t come in a vacuum: Some of the same people wonder if they’ll be able to recognize their city as hotels and offices grow higher and more dense. They, and we, want to make sure that touchstones and traditions are honored, and that the city is listening.