The Sandy Springs Branch Library will get its first renovation in 30 years in early 2018, transforming into a more flexible and modern space, a team of officials said at a June 14 public input meeting. That work will bring temporary pain: a closure of five to six months.
Improved facilities for events, children’s activities and a friends group’s bookstore were among the suggestions by about 30 attendees of the meeting, held at the library at 395 Mount Vernon Highway N.E. The ideas were well-received by Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System officials, though they emphasized that the project will only renovate the existing building, not build additions. And while Al Collins, the administrator of the bond program funding the renovation, said the project has a “limited budget,” he repeatedly refused to say what that amount is.
The project is far from a blank slate, but still has plenty of room for community input to dictate details of how the library is reconfigured, said representatives of construction and architecture firms already hired by the library system.
“We’re just starting out,” said Amy Sue Mann of Hogan Construction Group. “We haven’t drawn anything yet.”
“What we really want to understand is the personality of your library,” said Joe Alcock of McMillan Pazdan Smith Architecture, which recently worked on major library projects for Louisiana State and Kennesaw State universities. He likened the project to a giant-sized version of renovating and refurnishing a living room.
After the current round of public input, the team plans to return in the early fall with a preliminary design, then finalize the plan with more public input by year’s end. Construction is expected to start sometime in the first quarter of 2018, requiring a closure of up to six months.
The team continues to accept public input on renovation ideas at email@example.com. That address is used for several branch renovations, so comments should mention they are about the Sandy Springs Branch specifically.
A long list of needs
The meeting itself made obvious some of the needs of the library, which dates to 1973 and was last renovated in 1988. Its three relatively small meeting rooms were all booked with activities, so the meeting was held amid bookshelves and DVD racks in the “young adult” section. Some attendees fanned themselves in the overly warm air, and lobby noise interrupted the discussion.
All that activity also shows how popular the Sandy Springs Branch is. Alcock said its book circulation – about 20,000 volumes checked out a month – is consistently in the top three of the system’s 34 branches.
The team already has a must-do list of basic improvements, such as heating, cooling and lighting systems. And with this renovation possibly being the last major work for 20 to 25 years, the team is grappling with how to design a brick-and-mortar library for an increasingly digital age. The overarching theme was flexible space and a focus on perennial needs like teaching young children to read and providing study space for teens.
Alcock said that the vision of a modern library is less a “book depository” and more a place “to exchange thoughts, learn and expand our minds and trade ideas.”
“Things come and go in fad and fashion,” he said. “We want long-range, durable ideas that will go on forever.”
The list of improvements already required by the library system is long. It includes new heating and cooling systems; lighting; interior and exterior signage; accessibility for people with disabilities; new computers and Wi-Fi; renovated restrooms; carpeting; security cameras and an alarm system; new electrical wiring and outlets. Also on the agenda: better furniture and at least basic improvements to the lawn and parking lot areas.
Cramped, crowded and poorly lit rooms were a major theme of comments from attendees. The design team previously sought comments from library staff, and said they heard similar thoughts.
Two mothers of young children called for an improved children’s area focused on books and other non-digital items, and insulated from the rest of the library so noise won’t disturb other patrons.
Better furniture was another. As one man put it, the library should have chairs “that will enhance reading, but not make you fall asleep.”
Members of the Friends of the Sandy Springs Library asked for better after-hours access for such events as author readings, and better space for their bookstore, which funds many children’s programs. The bookstore is squeezed into an easily overlooked area at the back of the young adult section, and the Friends have to rent off-site storage space for $400 a month.
Marsha Holcomb, a Friends group board member, drew some exclamations of surprise when she asked about the use of a little-known second-floor room in the largely one-story library. Alcock said plans show the room was originally designated as a children’s play space, and a librarian said it was once a staff office and lounge. It became a heating-and-cooling system room in the 1988 renovation and likely will stay that way, especially since it is now accessible only by a pull-down ladder in the staff office area. Alcock gave the Reporter a brief look at the room, which still has some charms in its hardwood floor and ceiling and laminated wood arches.
The known budget and the secret budget
The Sandy Springs Branch project is part of the second and last phase of a system-wide renovation and construction program dating to a 2008 voter-approved bond. The current phase will renovate 21 branches and the Central Library in downtown Atlanta. Those renovations are being done in sub-phases called “groups,” and Sandy Springs is among seven branches starting off the work. The nearby Roswell Branch is included in that first group. Mann said the renovation closures will be scheduled so that the Roswell and Sandy Springs are not closed at the same time, so that patrons of one can visit the other during construction and avoid a local “library desert.”
The overall budget for Phase II work is $109 million, with about $50 million going to the Central Library project. The other $59 million is for the 21 branch renovations; if divided equally, that would be about $2.8 million per branch. However, Collins would not say what the actual Sandy Springs Branch budget is.
“I’m not prepared, necessarily, to disclose the budget at this time,” Collins said when a meeting attendee asked for the figure. “We’re going to try to do it as equitably as possible.”
Collins said after the meeting that the Sandy Springs project has a specific budget set, but he again would not state the amount, citing a desire to keep public opinion focused on planning and away from possible disputes over different branches getting different amounts of money.