Library vote Tuesday

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I love books, and I love libraries. The first really impressive library I ever set foot in was the Central Library downtown, and it is an awesome sight for a small fry as he walks down the center aisle of the plaza level to the main staircase.

Some kids are latchkey kids; I was a library kid. When I was in middle school, Central Library was where I went every Wednesday, when school let out early at 2:20. I took the MTTA bus from 26th Street and Birmingham to 5th and Boston, walked down 5th to watch the construction work on Bartlett Square and the Main Mall, got a 7-Up and a fig bar at the sub sandwich shop next to the Christian Science Reading Room on the west side of Boulder between 5th and 6th, then headed to the library, found a desk on the east side of the reference section on the mezzanine level, and spend a couple of hours browsing through maps and newspaper microfilm, before heading to the Cities Service Building to meet Dad at 5 for the ride home.

My wife and kids make heavy use of the library -- so heavy that I sometimes complain that I feel bound to read the library books to the kids first, rather than that books we already own. My wife loves the fact that she can search for and request books online and have them delivered to the local branch, and then renew them over the web. We have a good library system, a true civic asset.

That said, I've got some heartburn with Tuesday's bond issue. When a new Grand Central Library was first proposed, it was going to be an urban building -- something that looked like it belonged downtown -- located in the "East Village" area as a catalyst for development, and tied in with the Centennial Walk, the Tulsa Tablets, and other urban amenities. Now it appears we will be approving a suburban-style spaceship building, complete with useless plaza, designed for easy expressway access -- and that means no likelihood of stimulating nearby redevelopment, as patrons will zip back home on the expressway rather than venture out on foot.

The original proposal for Grand Central Library had it within a few blocks of Tulsa Community College, several churches, the Village at Central Park, and existing commerical development in the Blue Dome district and around Home Depot. In that context, it would have helped to connect several disconnected, but important, islands of activity downtown.

The location chosen by the library commission is 11th and Denver -- decades ago a bustling commercial corner at the crossroads of US 66 and US 64, but decimated by urban renewal. It is near residential areas -- Riverview Neighborhood just across the IDL, Central Park Condominiums, and Renaissance Uptown apartments -- but the nearest commerical development may be the QuikTrip at 15th and Denver. Sitting as it does up against the Inner Dispersal Loop, the edge of downtown, the 11th and Denver location won't be as effective as the East Village area as a connector between centers of activity.

There has been some discussion of the fact that Dan Schusterman, donor of the land on which the new Central Library would sit, also owns (or rather, various companies and LLCs connected with him own) a considerable portion of the land between Denver and Cheyenne, 7th and 11th. He may be hoping that the new arena at 3rd and Denver and the new library at 11th and Denver may enhance the perception of the area enough to allow him to sell his other land at a premium to developers. Paul Wilson, president of Dan Schusterman's Twenty-First Properties, was a member of the Dialog/Visioning Leadership Team.

For what it's worth, I understand the complaint that a new Central Library should be located closer to the population center of Tulsa County. I disagree. It makes sense for the main city-county library branch to be near the seat of government for both city and county, especially in its function as repository of government documents. Tulsa needs one densely developed urban district, and within the inner dispersal loop you have the land, the street grid, and the zoning rules that are most hospitable to that kind of development, and you don't have to worry about offending the neighbors. A well-designed and well-sited library could make a significant contribution to creating that kind of place. Better at 11th and Denver than in the middle of a massive parking lot at, say, 51st and Mingo.

I guess I had hoped for something more like this -- Chicago's Harold Washington Library Center, the Chicago library system's main branch. We don't need that much space, but it is a beautiful building. Built in neo-classical style, it's proof that modern public buildings don't have to look like flying saucers or Dr. Seuss inventions. You can build something stately and dignified if you pick the right architect and give him the right instructions. And you can build something that will last you not 40 years, but hundreds of years, if you do it right.

Something else Chicago is doing right -- free WiFi in the libraries. Instead of waiting on a library computer to open up so you can access research databases, you can BYOL (bring your own laptop), freeing up the library computers for those who don't have their own computer. What I'd really like is a secure way that would allow Tulsa County residents to access research databases, such as Tulsa County land records, for free from home, 24/7, rather than having to get to the library during normal hours.

Two more things that bug me about this bond issue: (1) It could have gone on the November ballot and saved us the cost of an extra county-wide election. (2) The Tulsa City-County Library system has its own property tax revenue stream. That's good for the library system's independence, but it makes it impossible for public officials to balance the desire to expand and improve the library with the need to take care of public safety and deteriorating roads and water lines. The library didn't have to consult with city or county officials before launching their effort to keep their current share of property tax, build more facilities that cost money to maintain and operate, at a time when maintenance and operation money is hard to come by.

Bobby Holt has some thoughts over at Tulsa Topics, and he links to a discussion on TulsaNow's forum.

Here's a PDF of the sample ballot. There are actually two ballot items -- one to increase permanently the library's property tax rate for operating costs, the other to authorize bonds for library construction and capital improvements. So you can pick and choose.

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Michael Bates applauds the idea of a new central library in Tulsa, but he's not all that happy with the location: When a new Grand Central Library was first proposed,... Read More

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on December 13, 2004 12:59 AM.

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