Carrboro Public Library: Support the project

A number of op-eds and listserv messages have been circulating in recent days that oppose the new library in downtown Carrboro.

I am really excited for the library in downtown Carrboro. It’s on three bus lines, and walkable/bikeable from many parts of town. It’s close to nearby businesses. And in recent years, many public libraries have incorporated things like:

  • Tool libraries for DIY projects and home improvement
  • Telemedicine booths to make it easier for people with low broadband to access healthcare services
  • Energy meter check-outs for homes
  • Telescopes and art to check out
  • Free tax preparation
  • Seed libraries and yoga classes and museum passes and quilting classes and FAFSA help and coupon exchanges

It’s exciting to think about the programming opportunities in Carrboro – and ways to serve the population that we have. It’s also exciting to know how much more accessible this library will be for people without transportation, who currently face a lengthy bus ride and then a half-mile walk if they want to visit the Chapel Hill Public Library, which doesn’t accommodate buses out front.

In short, it’s really exciting for our town to have a *public* space in 2022 that will be open to all.

Some background: The library project has been under discussion for three decades. There have been years of workshops, public hearings, drop-in sessions, and design meetings. There were road signs and banners on town hall, inviting people to give feedback. It has been a very long, very open, and very public process.

Where is it going to go: The library is slated to be built in what is now an empty parking lot next to the coffee shop Open Eye. Most people will be able to walk, bike, or take the bus to the library. I fully expect my family – I have two little kids – to use the library as a jumping off point for exploring downtown, hanging out, and becoming more invested in our community. As I said in a previous column, there’s a large body of research that shows adding a library to a town increases both home values and business foot traffic.

On March 15, the library passed its final hurdles – the county and town both signed off on final costs, which rose due to unexpected supply chain issues during the pandemic and are now capped.

This was a long time coming. In 2017, the county and town agreed that the library was a shared priority and one they wanted to pursue. Concept drawings were released in 2018. When the ArtsCenter decided to pull out of the project, the town and county had to then reallocate costs for designing and constructing the building. That took us into 2020. And we all know what happened in March of 2020.

But the planning of the library never stopped. Town Council switched to Zoom. There were 12 meetings over the past two years, detailing parts of the project and giving updates.

The opponents to this project have made a variety of arguments: that they didn’t know about the project, despite the years of meetings and calls for participation.

That the town-owned land should be used for something else, like affordable housing. To this I say: Yes, our town needs affordable housing. But we shouldn’t paint affordable housing against the library project. This can be a both/and instead of a “pick one.” There are already discussions underway about other places to put affordable housing — and the same listserv where people are encouraging opposition to the library is the same place where people are writing to oppose the affordable housing projects underway. Carrboro has a long history of homeowners opposing any efforts to place affordable housing near them; the site of the library would be no different.

These ongoing efforts to delay projects create obstacles which then prevent construction of affordable housing. These tactics are detailed in the book Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America’s Housing Crisis by the political scientists Katherine Einstein, David Glick and Maxwell Palmer.

That the project will be costly. Yes, and it sucks that costs have gone up due to efforts to delay this project already, and because of supply chain issues during the pandemic. I’m both glad that costs will not go up anymore – because the costs are now capped – and that the town has a plan to pay for this project that doesn’t involve raising taxes. (The town’s share of the cost will come from a combination of debt financing and cash from the general fund, as detailed in a presentation on March 3.)

And that our town doesn’t need a library because Chapel Hill has one. Chapel Hill does have a great library. I love it. My family uses it. We also have to drive quite a ways to get there. Residents of neighborhoods surrounding that library opposed plans in 2011 to move it to make it more accessible to public transit. (Currently, there’s a bus stop a half-mile away, but buses can’t stop at that library.)  There are residents of Carrboro who have to travel over an hour one-way on public transit to reach the Chapel Hill Public Library. The new library is both accessible on public transit and will cut down that transportation time by half, if not more.

I am also disappointed that privately, opposition to the library is about who might use the library. In a town council meeting on April 6, 2021, one of the opponents to the library used the phased “preserving the character of the town.” She also said this:

“How are you going to handle the situation, there’s already talk of the homeless people shifting from Franklin Street in Chapel Hill to the library location…how are you going to protect people when this happens?”

Similar remarks have been made on a petition that’s circulating. Here’s one:

Libraries serve everyone. They’re a space where everyone is welcome. They’re a space where everyone can learn, and access services and computers.

Weaver Street Market is currently a block away. There’s free internet on the lawn, and people sit all day long using the free internet. I have never seen opposition to providing free wi-fi there.

I strongly encourage you to advocate for the library, and let town council know that you value and support this in our community. As one resident said:

203 will greatly enhance the lives and livelihoods of residents of the county, particularly the youth. The colocation of a county library branch together with a job skills center, park & rec facilities, community radio studio, town offices, community meeting space and more, all easily accessible by public transportation, make 203 add up to much more than the sum of its parts, which is why scaling back the programming would be particularly disappointing. The project will take an underutilized lot in the heart of downtown Carrboro and transform into a center of culture, recreation, education and economic empowerment, and a foot traffic magnet that will help keep our commercial district thriving.

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