Post #369: Library Park

Posted on August 31, 2019

This is a continuation of the writeup of the proposed replacement for the Patrick Henry library (Post #367: The Patrick Henry Library/parking garage).

After looking over the three options for the new Patrick Henry library, it seemed to me that we were missing an obvious opportunity.  This may be the best chance we’ll ever get to add a nice chunk of park land to the Maple Avenue corridor, at a reasonable cost.

Let me call that Option C:  Library Park.  In a nutshell, put in a floor of underground parking, cut the proposed surface parking in half, and use the resulting open space for a park that is about one-quarter the size of a football field. In essence, hide the parking garage, don’t make it the centerpiece of the Town.  And use the surface of the lot as much for park land as for parking.  Like so (blue = library, green = park, black = surface parking).

In a separate post, I’ll talk about the costs and the “vision” this embodies.  I’ll chastise the Town for not doing a needs assessment first, before they contracted to do the feasibility study.   (So we end up with three designs by the architect, but no clear idea of what we need or want.)

And I’ll suggest that if the Town can come up with a proper needs assessment — i.e., a thoughtful analysis of what we need or want to get out of this Patrick Henry library rebuild — then we ought to crowdsource the design.  I bet somebody in Vienna can come up with an even better design.

But for now, I’m just presenting Option C:  Library park.

If nothing else, we should not lock ourselves into thinking that the three designs presented by the architects are the limit of what we might consider. 

Detail follows.

This is it?  These are the only options?  Nah.

Let me boil down the library feasibility study, as discussed in (Post #367).  Turn to that post to see the pictures.

We were presented with one viable option.  We were given two variants of that one option (B1 and B2).  (A different option — Option A — has inadequate parking, and I think we can ignore it).

Per the architects, our sole option is to put in a large, above-ground parking garage square in the middle of Vienna.  That will cover the existing lot.  And our only choice is between large and larger — two floors versus three floors.  And as an added bonus, rather than feature the library, we’ll hide the library by disguising it as a set of shops on the first floor.  Under the parking garage.

I don’t know about you, but I was underwhelmed by that, for at least two reasons.

First, the library is an afterthought.  The goofy hide-the-library-as-shops design clearly has to be a vestige of MAC zoning, which mandated first-floor commercial space along the length of Maple.  Hence, to fit in, this had to look like first-floor commercial space.

Contrast that to all the light, airy architectural masterpieces that Fairfax builds as its libraries.  Start by looking at the recently-built Oakton library, if you’ve never been there in person.   That’s what Fairfax builds, at considerable cost (see below).

But in the Town of Vienna, we want our library to squat under a parking garage?  We want it to be disguised as a set of shops?  We want the only natural light to be what comes in those storefront windows.  We want the library to be populated by the thick concrete pillars that are a necessity if there would be two floors of cars sitting on top?  Really?  Nah.  We didn’t ask for that, specifically.  Vienna was focused on parking and MAC zoning, and what the consultant gave us was a MAC-alike parking garage.  With a library tacked onto the bottom.

I doubt that Fairfax County, with a long-standing history of truly outstanding library buildings, could be convinced to go for that design under any circumstances.  Could be wrong on that.  But for sure, if built, I’d nominate it for the ugliest and darkest library in the system.

My second objection is that what we would create, in the center of Vienna, is not so much a library as a permanent monument to the internal combustion engine.  The anchor of the Town’s public space along Maple would be a great big parking garage.  Maybe that’s who we now and forever really are.  I just think that, maybe, casting that in in-your-face concrete may not be our smoothest move ever.  Might be expedient for us, right now.  Not clear how future generations will see that.

Maybe a re-think is in order.  Or at least some expanded set of options.

Fairfax is budgeting $1000 per square foot for this.

First, Fairfax is budgeting $22M for the new Patrick Henry Library, not $91M as seems to be making the rounds.  The $91M bond issue is for five new libraries, as shown in this link (.pdf).  Thanks to Shelley Ebert for pointing this out to me.

That works out to be about $1000 per square foot of floor area, for the new library building?  This seems quite high, based on any standard for commercial construction, for the DC area, that I can find on-line.   Just as a basis of comparison, I think the proposed new Vienna police station is looking to be about $400/square foot.  But that’s going to be built like a fortress.

This document appears to be from the Commonwealth of Virginia (.pdf).  The purpose is to guide state agencies with respect to construction costs.  It lists new library construction, in Richmond VA, as $338 per square foot.

OK, with that as context, all of those beautiful library buildings now make sense.  Fairfax does not stint on library buildings.  Our newer libraries are as close as we get to public showpieces in the modern world.  So for that kind of money, the building darned well better look pretty nice.  We, as Fairfax County taxpayers, currently pay a substantial premium for our library space.  And, in return, we ought to get something fairly spectacular for that. 

Just taking a guess here, but I’d guess that’s probably not a library tucked under a parking garage, disguised as a set of shops.  Seriously, just look at the Oakton library, look at the plan for this library.  Not even close.

Option C:  Library Park.

Take Option A (Post #367), and put a floor of parking underground.  Once you get your head around that, the rest of this proposed design follows pretty naturally.

We have a market test for relying on underground parking.  Every mixed-use MAC building proposal included some underground parking.  Literally every for-profit enterprise that has looked at building on Maple has said that underground parking makes sense.  As an economist, let me say, hey, maybe we should take a hint from that.

A colleague informs me that underground parking does not even need to respect the setbacks from the roadways and lot lines, the way that above-ground parking does.  The result is that a floor of underground parking can have substantially more spaces than a floor of above-ground parking.  Looking at the initial table in Post 367, it looks like a floor of above-ground parking (B2 – B1) holds over 100 cars.  So let’s roughly assume that we could fit — eh — 130-ish cars in a floor of below-ground parking.  Ballpark.

OK, now let’s cut the proposed (Option A) surface parking in half.  So instead of 90 slots, we have 45.  For a total of 175 parking places.  Or just slightly less than Option B1 in the architect’s feasibility study.  So, functionally, we have met Option B1.  But we now have some open space, on the surface of the lot, that we can put to good use.

By eye, using Google maps, I think this liberates about 200′ x 80′ of the surface of the lot.  Or about 16,000 square feet.  (That gibes well with an estimate of 350 square feet per parking place, including drive lanes).  This is just over one-quarter the size of a football field (including end zones).  And if you’d let me close one of the entrances to the lot — either Maple or Center — I could add a material amount to that.

For now, let’s go with that.  By placing a floor of parking under the entire lot, we end up with a) about as much total parking as option B1 in the feasibility study (175 vs 188), b) one-third less of the convenient surface parking that we have now (45 vs 65), and c) a free area roughly one-quarter the size of a football field.

And my suggestion is to use that to create a little park.  And the last thing we would do is put that park land adjacent to Maple, due to the noise and air pollution.   Instead, make the new two-story stand-alone library in an L-shape, with the long arm running down Maple.  This results in a relatively narrow building with a large ratio of glass area to floor area.  Then place this new park inside the L.  While we’re at it, fence it to make it toddler-proof.

So, here’s how Patrick Henry looks now, and then how Option C might look.  I believe the areas are roughly in the correct proportion.  What you can’t see from the diagram is the floor of parking that is underneath the entire lot in Option C.  In the second drawing, BLUE = new two-story library, GREEN = Library Park, BLACK OUTLINE = new surface parking and driving areas.

Finally, let me point out the advantages of this to Fairfax County.  Mainly, with this design, the library is not some appendage to a parking garage.  Now, Fairfax is free to construct one of their little architectural gems.  With the added bonus of having a purpose-built, library-dedicated park as part of the design.  If the alternative is to disguise the library as a bunch of shops, tucked underneath a blocky parking garage, with minimal natural light, full of bulky concrete pillars to support the cars above … then I have to believe this alternative would get at least some consideration from Fairfax.  They’re not going to spend $1000 per square foot and end up with something dark and ugly.