Thursday, February 19, 2009

is wheaton too "modest" for a nice downtown library?

Rockville's Town Square is organized around public buildings, like the VisArts Center and the Rockville Library. Shouldn't Wheaton's downtown work the same way?

Lots of letters in the Gazette this week about whether or not to move the Wheaton Library downtown, which we discussed at length last week. There's a really big disconnect between what move opponents say and what they're implying.

In one letter, resident Howard Phoebus says "the modest nature of Wheaton is just fine," citing the horrors of the new Georgia Crossing shopping center at Georgia and University which, for all the traffic it may or may not have generated, is filled with modest, local stores. No "high-end" chains here. Meanwhile, resident Jeff Gates (who I believe commented here the other day) writes that he doesn't want to see "high-density townhouses" built on the former library site, despite the fact that any development there would provide affordable housing, helping to keep Wheaton "modest."

The argument that the County could save money by renovating the current, forty-seven-year-old library and build a smaller, "satellite library" downtown doesn't make any sense, given that most people looking for materials would still wind up at the old library. By this logic, a new library should be built downtown, where it's more easily accessed by Metro/bus/foot, and a satellite facility built on the site of the current library. But even that's kind of ridiculous, because the libraries would still only be five blocks apart.

There are a few people who have the right idea, though. Three letters from supporters of the move generally agree that if "all our community had access to education facilities such as public libraries, there would be a great deal less crime," Meanwhile, Marian Fryer, who used to chair the Wheaton Redevelopment Advisory Board, rails against the "them vs. us" mentality of her neighbors and a resistance to change in a community that most everyone agrees has bad traffic, poor pedestrian accessibility and a reputation for crime.

As a public institution, libraries belong at the center of a community's civic life. Just look at the regional library in Rockville Town Square or even the Barnes and Noble in Bethesda. Why shouldn't Wheaton, which has even better road, rail and bus access at the center of its downtown than Rockville and Bethesda, put their library in the place where the most people can benefit from it? This isn't just an argument about books or free parking. It's about creating a solid public realm, and it's the one thing that Wheaton's business district could use the most.


Robert said...

Given the $450,000,000.00 county budget shortfall, it seems unlikely that the timing is right for a new library in Wheaton in addition to the new one already in the works in downtown Silver Spring.

Sligo said...

The Wheaton library was the premiere library in the area for quite awhile, and now it's time for them to wait their turn while libraries in surrounding locales are upgraded.

Thomas Hardman said...

I'm practically astounded that you refer to the letter to the editor of the Gazette by Duncan Smith.

I've rarely seen so much illogic in so few words, and the last time I encountered that, it was downtown at a public park on St Elizabeth's "put 'em back on the street day", which is when St E's used to grossly overmedicate people they'd been keeping indoor over the winter, and then unceremoniously foist them back into the springtime world of unsuspecting locals and tourists. One fairly well-dressed and generally not-misbehaving fellow sat down next to me and treated me to heaping helping of complete Word Salad which made almost as much sense as Mr Duncan Smith. It would seem that the Gazette will print any letter to the editor which seems to support the positions the Gazette wants supported, but that's no reason for someone as intelligent as Mr Reed to cite it.

Smith says: "The argument that crime in the CBD/downtown is a reason to remain in the existing location is hollow. If all our community had access to education facilities such as public libraries, there would be a great deal less crime."

1. All of the community does have access to the extant library.

2. Library patrons generally aren't carrying significant amounts of cash or credit-cards and there is no ATM machine there.

3. People at or near malls or other commercial establishment often carry significant amounts of cash or may be observed to use ATMs.

4. Malls are multi-purpose multi-facility, by which I mean they are a gathering of storefronts. They are designed to attract large numbers of people who wander without obvious purpose nor destination, making them inherently difficult to police and making access control almost impossible as that is inherently counter to the intent of the facility.

Malls/shopping-centers, thus, attract criminals because that's where people are likely to be carrying amounts of money worth robbing, and these people are all milling about in an uncontrolled and barely defendable way.

A library, by contrast, has people visiting almost exclusively for one purpose, coming and going to that one destination for exclusively that purpose: reading. Other than that, if they aren't reading there at the library, they are borrowing books or returning them. And quite frankly I can't think of anything that has less value to a criminal, or more value to almost anyone who isn't a criminal, than borrowed books.

Thus, the libraries should be -- to the degree that land-use possibilities will allow -- left to be free-standing destinations, or if not left free-standing, libraries should be sited anywhere except near malls.

Rockville's downtown library may be excused from this general paradigm solely because although it is sited among many shops, it's sited in a very mixed-use area which has quite a lot of people actually living there. Criminals know this and as a rule the sort of street criminal who might prey on library patrons knows that they are taking the biggest risk there is for their kind, operating in a residential community.

Dan Somma declares that if a new library is built in CBD he'll be happy to walk there, but anyone who wants to take transit there should consider themselves welcome as well.

Yet Mr Somma makes a grevious error of logic as well; he suggests that placing a new library extremely close to a transit hub (directly atop one, in fact) will somehow increase the level of pedestrian activity in Wheaton CBD, by making it less convenient to locals and more accessible to people who might walk from the terminal to the library and then from the library to the terminal. Why exactly those people might make the arduous trek to Westfield Shopping Town for shopping when they would have had to walk past just as much (and more convenient) shopping wherever they boarded transit, is beyond me, and evidently this consideration escaped Mr Somma as well.

Brad Van Grack tells us that he just can't understand why the County can't just renovate the current library at its present location. He says "it's a County thing". Actually, it's not; it's called a power play. If they refuse to rebuild or renovate at the current location, on the one hand, they get to decide where the new one will be, and I assure it will be where friends of the Powers-That-Be can make bundles of money off of new construction, and on the other hand, the friends of the Powers-That-Be can make bundles of money off of construction of new townhomes at the site of the present library.

However, we don't need even more housing in the present economic crisis which is characterized by a massive excess inventory of housing both nationwide and locally. Nor do we need even more sterile concrete and stone hideousness in the already desertlike Wheaton CBD.

What would it take for me to sign off on a new library in Wheaton CBD?

Put it in the middle of a park. Wheaton does not need more pavement and concrete, it needs less. There are vast tracts of parking that aren't ever used, and in any case, I think I will get no argument from anyone here that there are far better approaches to land-use than big flat parking lots, and there are far better approaches to parking as well. An ideal site might be at the southwest corner of the Westfield Shopping Towne lot, where the old Sears Automotive Center was once locate. That's an expanse of unused parking sufficient to land a C-130 on and since we probably won't be needs airlifts to Wheaton anytime soon, why not carve out the corner there, recycle the brownfield there, and build a nice defensible/patrollable park with a nice library that is adjacent to neighborhood, with a swimming-pool right nearby, and all of it still convenient to mass-transit and shopping.

Jeff said...

Yes, Dan, I am the same Jeff whose letter appeared in the Gazette and who also left a comment with some important information, facts if you will, on your last post on the subject. It's pretty clear you are decidedly for moving the library.

As I mentioned previously, we are concerned about the future of our neighborhood and community around the present library. I outlined a number of issues, including high density townhouses in an area that is presently detached homes. This influx of high density is changing the quality of our neighborhood.

In response to my letter to the editor you stated "'high-density' townhouses built on the former library site...would provide affordable housing, helping to keep Wheaton 'modest.'" What you fail to acknowledge is that high density does not necessarily equal affordable housing. The townhouses built a couple years ago on Amherst next to the Metro sold for over $800,000! That is far from affordable.

We have a right to be concerned about the future of our neighborhood in the same way that all of us have a right to be concerned about the future of the downtown area. The library's present location, as part of our community, is an asset we don't want to lose, not because we're selfish but because it has helped define our community for years. This was something that attracted a lot of us when we decided to move here. And in all the conversations about the future of our neighborhood no county official has addressed this subject.

Here's an important point I'd like to add to my comments in your last post on this subject: in addition to not knowing what could take the library's place should it move, the County cannot tell us if the book store on the first floor would convey with the library's move. That, according to my conversation with a library official, will only be made after the decision to move the library is made.

There are too many unknowns in this equation and a lot of us don't feel comfortable with them.

Sligo said...

I go to that library all the time for the bookstore. That would be a loss. Where would I get LPs?

Thomas Hardman said...

It sounds to me very much as if "the County" wants to move the library first and then decide what to do with it later. That means that in their mind, it's a done deal already. If that is the case, then this argument is already moot, though to keep up appearances "the County" will sned out as many PR fronts as necessary to Astroturfover any actual Grassroots opposition.

As to the townhomes over on Amherst that sold for $800K, I wonder how much they're selling for now? "Affordable housing" is coming, like it or not, as a result of an eccentric economy being forced back into something closer to normal.

The current library is a fixture in and centerpiece of the neighborhood and even if a new library is built, this one should remain. Removing that building would affect Wheaton-Glenmont in the same way as DC would be affected if you moved the Smithsonian to Rosslyn.

Dan Reed said...

I'm less for the library moving to Downtown Wheaton than I am against the direction that the discussion has taken, which is that a) Wheaton is somehow "not good enough" for the kind of development being seen in Silver Spring or Rockville, and b) that the library "belongs" to the neighborhood it's located in, and not to the greater area (it is, after all, a regional library) and that moving it downtown would somehow make it less a part of the Wheaton community or c) that there shouldn't be any additional development in Wheaton, which is wrong on many, many counts.

The biggest issue for the library now is what Sligo and Thomas Hardman allude to . . . whether or not there's enough money for it, whether or not the County knows what to do with it in a downtown location, etc. As someone who visits Wheaton and the library frequently, I think the argument for why it should be moved downtown is solid, but we haven't even gotten money for the damn thing yet.

Thomas Hardman said...

Goodness gracious, Dan...

I don't know where you get the idea that I might think that Wheaton "isn't good enough", not entirely sure what you intended that to convey.

Additionally, I have to agree that regional libraries ought to be accessible to and "belong to" the entire jurisdiction that funds them, but in fact they all do. Yet for many neighborhoods their libraries are as much of fixtures as their favorite store down the block, or a neighborhood bar that hasn't changed the menu for the last 30 years. Seriously, think "neighborhood fixtures".

Aside from that, haven't we got the InterNet and the WWW 2.0 and probably soon enough we'll have the WWW 3.0 which will see the convergence of all media. As it is, interlibrary loans and the paper hardcopy version of NetFlix are intergrading all across the place. Even back in the 1970s I could go to any library in the County and ask for anything every published with a copy on reserve at the Library of Congress. I used this facility a few times back then, and I got photocopies of various articles for an extremely nominal fee and it took three days, an exceptionally fast turnaround for the time. Why couldn't we reasonably expect to go to the library next year, ask for a book they don't have there, and be issued a "Kindle" with a copy of the text, or simply have a URL code delivered? All of that was possible 5 years ago. But I admit nothing will replace the lovely sound of careful whispers amid the stacks with the librarian not even having to quite articulate a "ssh" to the well-trained patrons.

Seriously, look at the whole thing this way. Think of the library as the "neighborhood bar" which I have to remember is a concept with which you are not yet familiar. Look, you could have the Giant Disco Of Every Cool Thing built up around the corner, and it could go right ahead and be all of that, with disco chickies/bois and all of the hangers-on and all of the stuff that happens around all of that. But there are people who are dead tired of -- or never acquired a taste for -- the Giant Disco of Every Cool Thing, and what they want is the little box around the corner with the librarians they know, the patrons they recognize, their neighbors quietly talking about this-and-that, and people reading the notes posted up on the neighborhood bulletin board.

Hey, look, the County wants to build a Giant Library of Every Thing Cool in downtown Wheaton, let them build it and make it the library for the whole county and everyone else. But leave the Wheaton Community Library as it is, in the same way that a lot of communities in MoCo have their Local Parks, as opposed to Regional Parks. Sure, anyone at all across the County (or from abroad, FGS ["for goodness sakes"]) can come hang out at Wheaton Woods Local Park, but it's meant as a part of the neighborhood and for the neighbors. If there's a place meant to attract everyone from everywhere, that would be Wheaton Regional Park, not Wheaton Woods Local Park. Local libraries are "cool", they are the "neighborhood bar".

And as you say, we just don't have the money.

But last and not least, there definitely should be development in Wheaton... but more sterile concrete is NOT what it should be. I realize that you and a lot of other people like concrete, the more sterile and anti-human the better, but a lot of people don't want that. Some of us love our planet and the living things of this Earth, and just like all decent Urban Planners on the East Coast love and demand Urban Forest, all decent Urban Planners should understand that if possible, libraries should be integrated into neighborhoods rather than centralized. Sure, have a central book repository and Grand Library Central, but the neighborhoods love their libraries as part of their neighborhoods, they're cherished institutions, like the trees on the "no man's land" between the sidewalk and the street. People just want it that way. Can't the Democrats give people what they want, rather than telling them that they'll have what the party thinks is good for them, based solely on trendiness in soft-sciences like the latest fads of the cognoscenti in the liberal arts' critics' circles? People want what they want, and nobody minds a Wheaton Central Library if the money can be found for it. But leave the neighborhood libraries where they are, okay?

Jeff said...

Dan, the people in my neighborhood are not saying Wheaton isn't good enough. As I said we aren't anti-development. But it's not a black and white issue. And while we would like to see downtown Wheaton developed, we aren't interested in "cookie-cutter" solutions. Just because it's good for Rockville doesn't mean it's the right solution for Wheaton. I have heard no talk about putting a top notch live theater downtown. This would draw the types of people (and $$$) the County wants and increase the quality of the nightlife. And, as an important bonus, it would benefit all of the restaurants that are presently suffering from low headcounts.

A mix of office buildings to help the local community during the day and a theater to attract residents in the evening is a balanced approach to growth and a win-win. So why isn't the county talking about these alternatives? Why is it focusing on the library as THE linchpin for redevelopment? Rob Klein said at the library meeting last week that if you don't come with specific solutions to the community the project is bound to fail. So where are the alternatives?

An important issue for us, based on our prior experience with the Good Counsel parcel, is that the County is more interested in development (and relationships with developers) than it is in maintaining the quality of our community and making us feel that our County government is working for us. If it wasn't for the Wheaton Regional Homeowners Association (which is the neighborhood where the library exists) the Rafferty Center would have been destroyed. We worked hard to keep it to benefit the community. This was not the County's idea.

We feel that all of this interest by the County in what the public thinks is simply pro forma (that's the way it was with Good Counsel where the County voted for the first time in its history to change the zoning on this parcel to a new R15, the densest zoning ever enacted here). I would love to be proved wrong on this.

Thomas Hardman said...


There is a lot of that sentiment going around, that "the County" has got its plans and they allow the public to have its say because that's what the law requires. But the law does not require that the majority of public opinion is binding on "the County". Thus, all of this proceduralism is just to create an image of a responsive government, when actually it's all just "pro forma", following the forms to keep up appearances.

And as you suggest, it sure does seem that "the County" is far more concerned with turning out established communities and replacing them with high-density communities, beehives built to maximize profit to developers and thus to maximize the abilities of developers to promote continuance in office of those who are good to them.

But as for the rest of us, what we're seeing is some of the special amenities that make MoCo so attractive -- or made it so attractive in the past -- being ripped right out of the ground and replaced with one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter "solutions" that don't seem to make anyone happy, other than pleasing those who love only the sound of ka-ching ka-ching as money changes hands.

Unknown said...

I can't keep up with everything said here so I'll start by addressing the fact that the Amherst Ave. townhouses went for $800k

1) That was at the peak of the largest housing bubble our country has ever known. There were shacks in the wilderness off a dirt road that were getting $300k

2) The location is highly transit accessible. There is a scarcity of housing in transit-accesible locations. There is far more demand for transit accessible housing than there is supply. The only way to bring the price down is to build more transit-accessible housing to meet the demand.

While I'm at it, the townhouses on the former Good Council site will help that equation. There are a ten minute walk from the Metro. That's a good thing.

I fail to see how they have changed any character whatsoever. No one's house got bulldozed. I live literally across Georgia Ave. from the site and I fail to see how the character was changed. I don't get this opposition. You just want to feel exclusive in your own mind. Get over it. You live on the outskirts of a vibrant town. You're going to have neighbors.

Somewhere in this thread, someone mentioned businesses. Do you know what the businesses in downtown Wheaton would love? Easy. An expanded customer base. How do you have an expanded customer base? Build more housing. How do you have those people patronize those businesses without building costly parking structures? Build the housing in walking distance.

Thomas Hardman said...

Cavan, we've been all through this argument of "walkable to business". The modern model for most businesses is that they don't just expect, they actually need to have people come from as far as 25 miles away in the case of businesses located in malls. In the case of mom-and-pop businesses? I don't have that figure handy -- Dan Reed almost certainly will have it handy -- but they can't survive only on people within walking distance, unless perhaps they're located on the ground floor of a central building in a town full of skyscrapers, where the elevator ride covers more yards than the surface walking covers.

If people are proposing building things as a solution to the woes of Wheaton's CBD businesses, propose building more parking that's close to the businesses, or relocate the businesses closer to more parking.

And while we're on the subject of businesses, books, parking, and revitalization of the Wheaton CBD, I used to quite regularly drive from Aspen Hill to Wheaton to visit a one-of-a-kind resource, Bonifant Books. For one, if I wanted any particular title, chances were that they'd have it, for sale, used, and cheap at the price. They had records, they had tapes, they had video, they were not a borrowing library on the public dime, but if they didn't have exactly what I was looking for they almost certainly had something very close to it and often I would discover through browsing that they had something -- or many things -- that would be just as interesting or even more onto the point, and furthermore once I had bought and read a pile of books, they'd buy them back in bulk.

This was one of the one-of-a-kind things that would make me drive down to Wheaton and circle the block for a half hour looking for parking. The store was a long-haul draw, and almost every time I drove to Bonifant Books, having managed to find parking, I'd stop in at Dunkin' Donuts or Marchone's for coffee or a sub.

And now let's look at the wisdom of the County. Where, exactly, is Bonifant Books? Last I checked, they were open very irregularly operating from a storage shed in Kensington, pretty much by appointment only, trying to reduce inventory on eBay. And why has their business been destroyed, the business of one of the County's largest and most profit-turning used book stores? Because the County wanted to "revitalize" Wheaton CBD. And now that there's not book store because they drove it out of business, the County wants to place a new library... right about where Bonifant Books was. DO you smell the RAT?

One of the last money-making mom-and-pop shops in Wheaton, one of the very few reasons I ever had to consider Wheaton a destination rather than a traffic hassle on my way downtown, one of the very few places in that part of the County that was a refuge and a godsend to we who are non-gregarious and love to read things that haven't been picked out for us by the Nanny State... shot dead in the water in the interest of "progress". And the County wants to replace it (and a beloved neighborhood library) with a Big Box O' Books that you can't get to without traversing spaces that drive non-gregarious people to the edge of nervous breakdowns.

Un Believe A Bull.

And then people make the argument that building townhomes raises the ability of businesses to survive.

So, tell me how many people walk to Bonifant Books, Cavan?

Dan Reed said...

Cavan and Thomas,

You're both right. The modern retail model says you need to draw from a huge area - for malls, it's a quarter-million people within a fifteen-minute drive. Wheaton Plaza's trade area contains literally all of Montgomery County east of Rock Creek Park and a large portion of D.C. as well. This could also apply to small, "destination retail" stores - places like Bonifant Books or Barry's Magic Shop, which cater to a niche audience and thus have to draw from a wide area to gain customers.

The same metric exists for foot traffic - except it's about having X number of people within a fifteen-minute walk, for instance. This could apply to establishments that appeal to a wider audience - a bar or restaurant, a book or music store, etc. In order to provide enough people walking by a store window, you need to have a lot of density in that area. I wouldn't say building townhouses in Downtown Wheaton provides enough density to sustain a lot of these businesses, but there comes a point when you raise the density high enough that it's foot traffic, not auto traffic, that runs the show. As it stands currently Wheaton is somewhere in between.

So, long story short: Wheaton needs to think regionally in terms of accommodating visitors, but additional density downtown will put people on the streets, giving local businesses an extra boost.

Dan Reed said...

if you were interested: this is a map of Wheaton Plaza's trade area, which overlaps quite a lot with Montgomery's trade area.

Thomas Hardman said...

I'm still hoping that someone from "the County" -- or one of the candidates in the Special Elections -- will stop by and explain why it's okay for them to drive Bonifant Books out of town and out of business. Then they can explain why, having done that, they want to build a new public library more-or-less where they drove privately-owned business out of competition.

"Lucy, you got some 'splaining to do..."

Anonymous said...


Do you have knowledge that the rest of us don't have? How exactly did the county force Bonifant books out of business? I really think you are talking out of your . . .

If I was a MoCo exec I would definitely put Bonifant Books out of business rather than the XXX Porn Store/ Head shop that is right next door - Cadamus III.

Anonymous said...

You can't blame all your problems on Montgomery County. With Amazon's Kindle, the Border's in Silver Spring, the Barns and Noble in Rockville and Bethesda, I am sure the used book stores in this area were feeling some pressure. While I love books I would rather put my money in AIG stock.

While I am ambivalent about moving the library, I am definitely against the NIBY'ism that has been a part of this debate.

The fact is that a library might or might not help to anchor a vibrant downtown. But I am all for trying to vitalize Wheaton's downtown.

In my opinion all of the problems in Wheaton's downtown get solved by more foot traffic. The crime rates in downtown Wheaton are actually very low, but the perception is that they are high. That perception comes from people feeling unsafe. They feel unsafe because they don't see other people.

If the library increases foot traffic and people feel safer then I am for it.