you want to see where the action is in my neck of
the woods, go visit the Tuckahoe Library. I dropped
by one afternoon, and there were 140 cars parked
outside -- at least as many as there were at the new
$15 million facility, which opened last fall, is
handsome on the outside, spacious on the inside.
Plate-glass windows let in abundant natural
light, but they're set at just the right angle so
the late afternoon sun doesn't stream through and
blind the patrons. Near the front entrance, you can
buy espresso, pastries and box
lunches at Lola's Library Cafe. There are banks of PCs for surfing the Web, and loads of
comfortable chairs where you can settle down with a
book. If communing with nature is your thing, you
can step onto the gravel trails out back and wander
past ornamental trees, flower beds and a
complete with ducks.
book comes equipped with an RFID chip, so you can
check it out automatically. If you're too busy to go
into the library, just pull up to the drive-in window and
pick up the books you ordered over the Internet.
Library connects with the community. There are
reading programs for tots and book clubs for
grown-ups. A section of the first floor is set aside
as the "Teen Planet," where activities are
geared to tumultuous tweens. Small businesses and
civic groups can use the library conference rooms
new facility seems to be a hit with Henrico County residents.
In June, the library saw nearly 39,000 visitors --
more than 1,000 people per day -- and it circulated
96,000 items. That's about twice the activity of the
old library it replaced.
conventional measures, the Tuckahoe Library is a
huge success. But when compared to what it could have
been, I deem it a great a disappointment. What a shame. What an
understand what Tuckahoe Library could have been --
what the $15 million public investment could have
accomplished -- it helps to
visit the Shirlington area of Arlington County,
where a new library opened about the same time.
one would expect from a wealthy, tech-savvy
community like Arlington, the Shirlington bookery has
embraced technology: It's got the rows of PCs,
the Wi-Fi hot spot, the RFID chips and the automated
check-out. But it's got nothing over Tuckahoe.
What's more, the facility is
considerably more cramped -- 15,000 square feet compared to
Tuckahoe's 53,000 square feet -- with space for
fewer books. Yet -- get this --
the Shirlington library generates
way more visitors: some 2,000 per day.
difference between the two libraries lies not in the
competence of the library staff or the quality of
the facilities. It's the setting. While Tuckahoe
stands like an island in a jumbled commercial strip,
surrounded by a sea of asphalt and accessible only
by automobile, the Shirlington Library is integrated
in what Arlingtonians call an "urban village,"
where half the visitors arrive by foot. Woven tightly into the
fabric of the village center, the Shirlington
facility helps sustain the
theaters, restaurants, shops, office buildings and
apartment complexes located within easy walking
Shirlington Library both adds value to the village center
and draws energy from it, Tuckahoe Library stands alone.
Unplugged from the activity all around, Tuckahoe
Library perpetuates the auto-centric culture of
Henrico County. People come by car, leave by car and
interact with few of the business establishments
around it. The economic value it creates
dissipates like a stream in the desert sand.
Tuckahoe Library: Handsome, state of the art,
with the community -- and totally auto-centric.
2000, Henrico County voters approved a bond issue to
construct, among other things, two new libraries.
One would serve the new community of Twin Hickories
in the far West End, while one would replace the
aging facility in the frayed-at-the-edges
commercial corridor running along Parham Road.
county held a series of meetings to determine what
citizens wanted in a new library, recalls Jerry
McKenna, director of Henrico County libraries.
People expressed a desire for a cafe, study rooms
where visitors could escape distracting PCs and cell
phones, and more varied, more comfortable seating.
But most of all, he says, people wanted more
parking. "The old library had only 92
spaces," he says. Finding a parking space was a
hardship. "People were angry."
Henrico County gave the people what they asked for:
the cafe, the plush chairs, the meeting rooms, and
the parking -- more than 300 parking spaces.
county purchased two otherwise useless lots on a short, dead-end road leading to the
neighborhood post office. Where in some communities
the post office functions as a community center,
this one was invisible from the main road and
accessible only by car. For all practical purposes,
it was a social dead zone. You park your car, you
stand in line, you conduct your business and you
landscaping can't hide the fact that
Tuckahoe Library is surrounded by parking lots
accessible only by car.
library project upgraded the dead-end road and
replaced the vacant lots with an
attractive, landscaped building. But the
improvements didn't change the fundamental nature of
the place. The architects surrounded the library
with a massive parking lot, leaving it disconnected
from the handful of buildings around it. Typical of
the pod style of development so pervasive in
Henrico, the county built a wooden wall to seal
off the library from a neighboring residential area.
We certainly wouldn't want kids walking to the
Library: All landscaping, no connectivity.
fence walls off the library from the neighboring
of single-household dwellings.
could such a precious asset be squandered so? It's
not as if Henrico librarians were unaware that
libraries have spurred revitalization in other
communities. "There's been a lot of research
done on libraries," McKenna says. "They're
a very vibrant part of the community. They're a
draw. St. Louis found that improving a library
improves the area around it. [Businesses] see a lot
of foot traffic. They reinvest in the area."
brief conversation regarding the role of the library
in the Parham commercial corridor did take place when Henrico was planning
facility, McKenna says. But nothing much came of it.
reason, I would surmise, is that there was nothing
to build on. A library can't transform a
neighborhood all by itself -- it must be part of a
broader initiative. But there was no move afoot in
Henrico County to transform
the business corridor, a string of disconnected
properties linked only by their mutual access to
Parham Road, into anything different. There was no talk of creating
an "urban village," or of increasing density, or
pedestrian-friendly streetscapes to serve that
easiest way to serve library patrons was to
shoe-horn the library into the available space,
surround it with parking lots and add curb-side pickup for the books. So,
that's what happened.
in Virginia, people are thinking creatively
about the role of libraries in real estate
development. The Fairfax County library board
takes the position that libraries need not be
stand-alone institutions, says Sam Clay, head
librarian for the county. "They can be in
leased space, they can be mobile, whatever meets the
needs of the community."
County looks to the retail world for business models
and best practices, says Clay. "Fairfax is very dependent upon vehicular
traffic. We see the CVS [drug store] with a drive-up window. ... We build a branch with a
county is also open to public-private partnerships.
Fairfax developers have latched onto the fact that
libraries are major traffic generators -- some of
the county's busiest libraries get more than 50,000
visitors per month. A people magnet of that
magnitude has economic value to real estate
now routinely initiate proposals that allow the
country to construct new libraries without the need
to issue bonds. Says Clay: "We
have been approached in four different instances by
developers interested in swapping property and
building a new library."
an example of the kind of deals that Fairfax County
is closing, the
Dwoskin Development Company is providing 15,000 square
feet in its Kingstowne Shopping Center for a
county-supported library. The development company
also threw in the rent from two adjacent stores,
worth $750,000 over the life of the leases,
to pump up the library endowment. In exchange, the
county gave Dwoskin a density bonus and spent $1.2
million outfitting the library. The symbiosis has
worked out wonderfully, beams Clay. "A couple of
months, we were the main
draw of the shopping center."
understands what librarians in Henrico and many other
Virginia counties fail to fully appreciate: By
generating traffic, libraries create
real estate value. In the courting of developers to
underwrite the expense of building new facilities, Fairfax
is far ahead of Henrico. But in one important
respect, the Fairfax and Henrico models remain very
much the same and fall short of their potential: Both localities are
adapting libraries to the prevailing auto-centric
human settlement patterns rather than using them to
transform their communities into something more
County planners think about libraries very
differently. Instead of using the economic value
created by libraries to offset construction costs, a
la Fairfax, Arlington is harnessing the economic
value to drive revitalization. Nowhere is that
strategy more clearly illustrated than in the Shirlington
1980s, the Shirlington area of Arlington County was
what might charitably be called an "aging
suburb." It had been the site of one of the
Washington, D.C., region's first auto-oriented,
suburban shopping centers. As growth surged out to
Fairfax County, the shopping center decayed. Despite
a superb location off an Interstate 395 exit, the
area was slow to attract much commercial
developer purchased the old shopping center and gave
it a make-over as a mixed-use, pedestrian community
but with only modest success.
Center did have many of the components that
Arlington County planners thought it needed to serve
as the core of a vibrant urban village: seven or
eight city blocks arrayed in a grid-like street
structure, a mix of residential, office and retail
buildings, and streetscapes that favored pedestrians
over automobiles. A block-long restaurant row was
particularly inviting. But
the center just wasn't clicking. It lacked the round-the-clock activity the planners
and civic leaders were
looking for. They wanted busy streets -- busy with
pedestrians not cars. They wanted a village center
with a strong "sense of place" that
captured people's imagination as a desirable place to
County has committed itself to provide those missing
elements. Running at 15-minute intervals, 400 buses go through
Town Center every day. Plans call for building an attractive bus
depot in the town center. To reduce the uncertainty of
when the buses will arrive, GPS transponders
will track each vehicle's exact location. The bus
initiative is critical to creating a quality urban
place: It takes people out of their cars, reducing
automobile congestion, and it puts them on the
streets, where they can interact.
critical element is the neighborhood grocery
store. After lengthy negotiations, the county has
coaxed Harris Teeter, Inc., to build one in the
town center. That was no easy task given the
difficult conditions the county set:
Harris-Teeter had to reduce its normal
50,000-square-foot footprint to 25,000 square feet,
and it couldn't surround the store with a vast
parking lot. The grocer addressed the first
challenge with an innovative design, which included
putting its drug store and wine selection on a
mezzanine floor. And the county dealt with the
second by providing free parking in a municipal
parking deck next door, says Tom Newman, director of
the county's real estate development group. The
grocery store, a major traffic generator that keeps
people in the "village" and puts people on
the sidewalks, will open this fall.
Shirlington Library and Signature Theater are
integrated seamlessly into the urban texture of the
Shirlington Town Center. A small plaza out front
creates a public space where people can interact.
Although structured parking is available, many
library patrons access the facility on foot.
but not least, Arlington County had set aside $5 million,
raised in a bond issue earlier in the decade, to
build a new library in the community. As luck would
have it, the Signature Theater, an up-and-coming
theater producing off Broadway-caliber shows, was
outgrowing its old location a mile or so away. The
library people and theater people joined forces to
build a new facility together, with the library on
the ground floor, the theater above, and the parking
deck next door. The theater raised more than $10
million in support of the project. The arrangement
has been wildly successful.
Signature brings in big night-time crowds, up to 500
to 600 per night, to see spectacular productions
like "The Witches of Eastwick," in which
actors swoop out above the audience. Many patrons
are locals, says artistic director Eric Shaeffer,
but 40 percent come from Maryland and Washington,
D.C. "The theater has changed Shirlington,"
he says. "It's become a night-time hub."
theater also puts on programs in the library like
the Arlington Speaks series, in which actors,
playwrites and production crew talk about their
craft. In a symbiotic relationship, the Signature
provides program content for the library, and the
library promotes the theater.
library also contributes to the vision of a
community where things are happening 24/7. "We
have a regular flow of traffic on the streets during
the weekday but especially during early evening and
the weekends," says director Susan McCarthy.
Many of the visitors arrive on foot. "Most of
our traffic is through the front door," not
from the parking deck connected to the side door.
"We have a lot of people who come over from the
offices during the day, checking out a book for the
weekend or using the wireless."
the library is reaching out to other arts and
theater groups like Washington Shakespeare and
Busboys and Poets, says McCarthy.
"We're really pleased to be part of the
emerging arts enclave."
sees the library as much more than a repository for
books, or even a community gathering spot. It's an
engine of economic development. "People talk
about the rise of the creative class," she
says. "Well, [the creative class] is beginning to
emerge in this area. Arlington has become a place
where people can express themselves through the
In sum, by fostering a nexus of
artistic and theatrical groups, the Shirlington
library is stimulating the growth of the creative
class in Arlington that contributes disproportionately
to innovation and entrepreneurial vitality.
years ago, libraries were struggling for identity.
Who needed them when vast repositories of knowledge
were available online, Amazon.com was delivering
books to your doorstep, and Google was digitizing
thousands of books for access over the Internet? By redefining
themselves in an increasingly depersonalized society
as community crossroads where real, live people come
together and interact, they have emerged as
relevant as ever.
through their ability to generate traffic, libraries
have demonstrated that they create real economic
value. Local governments, like Fairfax County,
leverage that value to gain financial concessions.
Others, like Arlington, harness that value to
transform communities and stimulate capital
investment. Yet others, like Henrico, are satisfied to provide a worthwhile
service to citizens without capturing any of the
economic benefits. It's high time for Virginians
to re-think the contribution that libraries can make in creating better places to
July 30, 2007