Plan for Wichita’s new central library gets scaled back

Wichita’s library board has a new, leaner plan for the proposed central library on the southwest corner of Second and McLean: Start smaller, serve targeted needs and grow the facility as needed.

Today, that board will ask the Wichita City Council to pursue a scaled-down new library building to replace the 90,000-square-foot pre-fabricated concrete structure near Century II downtown, a 1967 building ill-equipped to support the library’s evolution from a collection of books and magazines into a curator for electronic information, city and library officials say.

The council will be asked to clear the way for a smaller-scale, more affordable library costing $30 million or less, at least 20 percent under current project estimates, in a nod to the city’s ongoing budget crunch, which is expected to last through 2014. The scaled-back library would be built to accommodate expansion possibilities as needs and money dictate. Meanwhile, the library’s foundation has agreed to launch a fundraising campaign to supplement the city’s contribution.

Original plans called for a 135,000-square-foot new library costing almost $38 million. The library project was delayed earlier this year to 2014-15 when the city scaled back its capital improvements projects to better manage debt.

Mayor Carl Brewer and City Manager Robert Layton on Monday praised the scaled-down proposal.

“I’d have to think this would play well with the City Council,” the mayor said. “It’s a smart, reasonable thing to revisit the library plan, something I think clearly demonstrates they’re trying to be cautious how to spend our dollars based on their needs.”

“They have been a good partner throughout this process,” Layton said. “It’s just a matter of recognizing the reality of our financial situation.”

City Council member Michael O’Donnell, who raised doubts earlier this year about the price tag of the new library, said he remains interested in a renovation proposal for the current library, plus a proposal for the building’s future should the new library be built. O’Donnell said the new library site could draw traffic away from the core downtown the council is trying to revitalize.

However, he said, he’s open to the new library board proposal.

“I wouldn’t support something to the tune of $40 million and I don’t think our capital improvements plan would handle that, either,” he said. “To me, it’s completely unreasonable to be forging ahead with a plan we cannot afford, so I’m interested to see what this group can do with $30 million. I still feel that’s a reach, but I’m open to reviewing it.”

Cynthia Berner Harris, the city’s director of libraries, said the 45-year-old facility at Century II no longer fits the business model of a high-tech library.

“One of the things that’s happened to us is the business of libraries is very different than it was back in the 1960s,” Harris said. “It’s a real-time world ... We have a much greater reliance on technology from a business perspective than we ever had at that time. Information for customers now is much more heavily based on technology solutions, with the Internet as a driver of that right now.”

Libraries are becoming increasingly computerized, from card catalogs to digitized magazines, music and books.

“We’re not in the music cassette business anymore,” Harris said. “But for example, we’re in the books on cassette business, the books business, the e-books business and the downloadable e-books business ... The business is constantly evolving, but we’re comfortable that there’s always a place for us in it.”

Harris and her staff are trying to evolve in a concrete box crammed full of books and magazines. Today, there’s insufficient room for the library’s full book collection, with 35,000 books stuffed in the basement on a retrieval-only basis. There’s not enough room for an entire classroom of children to meet in the children’s section. There aren’t enough electrical outlets to handle a reasonable number of computers. There’s no room for the public to assemble in any numbers to learn about the latest in health insurance trends. There are only two sets of restrooms in the three-story building, and they’re not compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, Harris said.

And perhaps most critically, some of Wichita’s one-of-a-kind items — historical books, maps, magazines, newspapers and clippings — are being housed in a basement room with erratic climate control and vents that spew black powder onto them, leaving paper yellowing and historic leather bindings crumbling.

The proposed size and programming at the new library is unclear: Library board members and city officials want to launch an extensive public engagement process to ascertain priorities, then produce some schematic drawings of what the new library would look like and contain.

“We know from prior feedback what the public wants. We have that list,” Harris said. “If the council approves this project, it’s another level of prioritizing — a ratcheting down of that list — intended to figure out the program and vision we can get. What can we do in a first phase to get efficiencies of operation, and how do we design that?”

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