We need more gathering places in our urban neighborhoods

In 1998, Seattle voters approved a plan to build 22 new branch libraries, siting them with care. Now we should apply those lessons to our community centers, whose current locations don't help create lively urban centers.
Crosscut archive image.

The modern Northgate Library sits next to a community center.

In 1998, Seattle voters approved a plan to build 22 new branch libraries, siting them with care. Now we should apply those lessons to our community centers, whose current locations don't help create lively urban centers.

In 1998, Seattle set itself on a path to develop 22 new branch libraries. In the wake of the unprecedented program, library use is way up — reinvigorating our desire to actually go to a library and bringing communities together. Can lessons from this success be applied to new programs, such as for neighborhood community centers or other facilities?

With the arrival of light rail and the associated transit-oriented neighborhoods, the city is actively altering neighborhood zoning strategies to draw more people into these "urban centers," "residential urban villages,'ꀝ and 'ꀜhubs.'ꀝ As neighborhoods densify, we will need common spaces for people to gather and come together; we need community centers.

As we consider how to apply these lessons to other services that are needed in our neighborhoods, it's helpful to understand the context of the library projects and how they became so successful.

Twelve years ago, a small group of impassioned individuals recognized the need to do something about Seattle's crumbling stock of branch libraries and developed an ambitious plan of change. Fortunately, they were successful in passing a levy that changed the landscape of our library system and has had an enormous impact on our neighborhoods.

Sadly underused and heavily worn back then, most of our city's libraries desperately needed help. The needs could have been addressed piecemeal but instead a well-organized campaign, which drew an overwhelming 69 percent approval for the $196.4 million levy, ushered in a vision unmatched in modern American cities. This high approval confirmed what many people already suspected: Seattle'ꀙs strong attachment to books and reading had deep roots throughout our community.

Then-City Librarian Deborah Jacobs, who was placed in charge of the program's implementation, had a strong appreciation for modernist architecture and more importantly believed that good design could make these new branches not only functional but also memorable places to gather and read. The completion of the Northgate Branch in 2006 marked the end of the ambitious program, which resulted in 14 new neighborhood structures and seven that were substantially renovated, plus bringing the ambitious Central Library designed by visionary architect Rem Koolhaas of the Netherlands. The Central Library, while controversial because of its unusual sculptural forms, soon earned its position as one of America'ꀙs iconic modern structures. The Central Library has provided reading and research facilities for thousands of new users each year, and has become a major draw for visitors, adding millions of dollars of added revenue to the local economy.

Instead of having Koolhaas whip out a few quick designs for the various branch libraries, the library selected a brace of talented local architects all well known in their own right. They included Miller Hull, Olson Kundig Sundberg Allen (now Olson Kundig), Cutler Anderson, Weinstein A|U, and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. As a group, the Seattle architects did not disappoint and the overall quality of design was enviable.

Thus, the library project became an important opportunity for Seattle's emerging mid-sized firms to display their design skills. While this process of selecting a different architect for each structure was definitely the right way to do it, it was also the most challenging. Adding to the mix was a public review process where each neighborhood was invited to participate and provide input allowing the architects to layer in particular needs. Additionally, even though there was a commonality of programmatic requirements, each architecture firm hoped to distinguish itself with their own particular vision.

It was up to Jacobs and her staff to ensure that order was maintained and the buildings got built in a timely manner. One of the lessons learned by using so many architects was the need for more buy-in for the whole process. Here Jacobs demonstrated a savvy use of local resources and sensibilities to bring architects and neighborhoods together and create a stunningly successful building program.

The building program was not a total design free-for-all, however. Each project shared common traits that acted as conceptual anchors for the resulting design. For example, each new building was organized around a dramatic, light-filled central interior space. In an effort to respond to a lack of public meeting rooms, each library was provided with one. While only available during regular library hours, the rooms were to be used by any local non-profit group. This was an important and insightful decision, because it turned out that the rooms have been intensely used and fully booked months in advance.

Stylistically, all of the new buildings were designed in a distinctly modernist style with steel, glass, and one additional material, usually brick, wood, painted panels, or, in one case, an impervious resin panel with the appearance of wood. While is difficult if not impossible for a modern building to avoid appearing out of place when located next to pre-World War II traditional buildings, at least in the case of the Montlake Branch a brick exterior helped to successfully weave it in with its neighbors from the earlier decades of the 20th century.

One of the most interesting projects is the Northgate Branch, completed in 2006 and designed by The Miller Hull Partnership. Sited on the Northgate Community Center'ꀙs play field adjoining 5th Avenue, the main two-story reading room faces south with open views across the playfield to a wooded greenbelt. Its structurally deterministic design fully expresses its steel frame with glass infill and deftly detailed steel canopies to provide sun protection to the two stories of glass on the south and west exposures of the reading room.

It was apparent that these facilities are being heavily used and filling an important need for Seattle'ꀙs neighborhoods, providing memorable places for local residents to gather, mingle, do homework, and read.

The results from this initiative are very impressive. Library use is up 150 percent, according to information on the library website. Last Saturday, I visited a number of branches. Lines were forming before opening time and each subsequent library that I visited seemed busier than the last. It was apparent that these facilities are being heavily used and filling an important need for Seattle'ꀙs neighborhoods, providing memorable places for local residents to gather, mingle, do homework, and read.

The neighborhoods have other needs, including community centers that serve denser populations better. There are 27 community centers citywide, mostly outdated withof limited functionality — a similar state to our library system in the early 1990s.

Perhaps more importantly the locations of our current community centers have little or no relation to our urban neighborhoods. A brief review of the listing of our community center shows that they are almost all located in public parks. Perhaps this helps parks provide more services, but it does little for the neighborhoods where people actually live.

The West Seattle Junction? No community center. Capitol Hill Pike/Pine? No. Fremont, Eastlake, or Beacon Hill? No. Ballard, MLK, Greenlake, and Queen Anne all have community centers but they are at the very edge of the urban centers, so far removed that most residents might not know they are there. Currently, there is one new community center being planned for Rainier Beach, but otherwise there is no coordinated effort aimed at building new centers in close proximity to the emerging urban villages and transit-oriented neighborhoods.

Parks are vital, but where is a community center more valuable — in the middle of the park or in the middle of your neighborhood? Where do we want go to have a community meeting, to have a caucus, to get a flu shot?

As it stands most neighborhood associations do not have convenient places to meet. Daycares, early learning, and afterschool services are inadequate. Perhaps most importantly teenagers need safe places to gather in the evening and weekends, not just during open hours at the library. And probably not at the park after dusk.

To be successful, neighborhood community centers of a similar scale to the 40,000 square foot Northgate Community Center need to be built. These centers need to be within walking distance or 1,500 feet of the neighborhood centers otherwise extensive parking will need to be provided, driving costs up and thwarting a more sustainable future.

A citywide program would go a long way towards filling the needs of these communities while further strengthening and defining Seattle'ꀙs neighborhoods. An ambitious idea like this may seem unlikely in this age of cutbacks and unemployment, but as the library building project has shown, a well-organized campaign, correctly presented, might receive more support than one would suspect. If successful, it could have a positive re-energizing effect on our local economy and it is not out of the realm to believe that federal funding could be obtained to offset costs.

We have done it once. What is stopping us now?


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