Post #1263: Patrick Henry Garage and Library progresses

Posted on September 23, 2021


Back in early June, in Post #1155, I noted that the Fairfax County had chosen an architect for the new Patrick Henry Garage and Library.  This has now been formally reported, in the August 18 2021 Tyson’s Reporter.

I keep posting on this issue for a few reasons.

First, this is right in the center of Vienna, Center and Maple, literally 101 Maple Avenue West.  And the existing Patrick Henry Library is, by far, the classiest building at that intersection.  That’s not saying a lot, as the competition is a gas station, a small shopping center, and two nondescript (and until recently, disused) medical services buildings.

The only publicly-available design does not much inspire confidence.  The only design shown to the public so far, for the new library, could easily result in the library losing that distinction as the classiest building at that intersection.  It is very aggressively a parking garage first, with the library tucked away under the upper parking deck.  My contention is that it was initially designed that way to be compatible with the then-in-force MAC zoning, which mandated 15′ tall retail space on the first floor of every building.  But that’s just a guess on my part.  I’m not a Town insider.

Second, this is shaping up to be quite a crowded site.  Right now, that property has 62 parking places and a 13,800 square foot library.  The proposed building will have 3.4 times as many parking places (213) and 1.5 times as much library floor area (21,000 square feet).

Source:  Google Earth.

It’s pretty much a given that all the existing green and open space is going to go.  That is, I think, more-or-less to be expected as a standard part of redevelopment along Maple.  (Honestly, if parking is so tight there, it makes me wonder why they hadn’t paved over all that green space already.)

Right now, parking-and-driving accounts for the majority of the lot.  Given that, and given the planned expansion, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that things are going to be packed in pretty tightly at the new Patrick Henry.  Say the existing car-dedicated portion is 60%.  Then (3.4 x 60%) + (1.5*40%) = 270%.  But you have to fit that into 200% (two floors).  Mathematically, everything needs to squeeze in 25% closer than it is now, to get it to fit.

The point being that this is no easy green-field site with adequate room.  This is a parcel that appears to be a fairly tight fit for what’s being planned for it.  And so, the architects — who have clearly designed a lot of very nice libraries — may find themselves making some compromises.

A third concern is that if you take the time to look pictures of all the Fairfax County public libraries, it’s clear that Fairfax has a clear predilection for putting all of the stacks on one floor, if not the entire library on one floor.  Consistent with this, the Fairfax County representative at the Vienna Town Council meeting where the Town approved moving ahead specifically praised the library-under-parking-garage design, which is the design that the Town was using as the basis for its approval.

Couple this with Fairfax’s own library design standards (pdf).  As a design criterion, Fairfax wants no less than a 20′ floor height in urban/mixed use settings.  (FAIRFAX COUNTY LIBRARY DESIGN MANUAL, April 7, 2017, Page 19).  Which, I would argue, the combination library/municipal garage is.  Fairfax could not adhere to that design criterion with a two-story library under the existing zoning’s 35′ height limit.  Plausibly, if they want a two-floor library here, I guess they’d get Town Council to pass an exception to the height limit (which I’m not even sure is possible), or they are counting on Town of Vienna rezoning having been passed before the library is built.  Even with that, it’ll be a squeeze to fit two 20′ floors into the proposed new 42′ height limit, inclusive of all architectural features.

So, again, not only horizontally, but also vertically, this is going to be a tight fit.

What I’m saying is that if you listen scuttlebutt, that current design is just a place-holder.  I sincerely hope that it is.  I hope that the Fairfax County representative at the time it was used as the basis for approval was merely being polite.  But with a lengthy decision process spread across two governments, several agencies within those government, and then the private architectural firm … well, sometimes stuff happens.  Particularly when it looks like it’s going to be a something of a squeeze to get everything to fit into the lot and height limits.

Finally, as near as I can tell, Fairfax County has no plans to consult with Town of Vienna users to ask what they’d like to see.  Maybe it’s a bit too early for that.  But after doing a fair bit of internet search, I don’t see where they’ve ever consulted with the local population about a stand-alone library design.

There are numerous references to community meetings for community center design. And sometimes these community centers incorporate libraries.  But I have yet to find even one reference to a meeting in which Fairfax County invited citizen input on a library design.

So, we may just find out a couple of years from now what the design is.  However it was that the County’s architect chose to squeeze all the required library square footage and and all parking onto that existing lot, under whatever height restriction is in place at the time.

Maybe if the site turns out to be extremely crowded, they might consider putting the parking underground.  That’s what I’d like to see.  Even if there’s some additional expense.

Fairfax taxpayers are paying more than $1000 per square foot for this new building.  (More than twice the norms established by the Commonwealth of Virginia for typical library structure costs.)  For that, we really ought to get something spectacular.

But I think that’s going to be tough to do. The hard fact of the matter is that somewhere around three-quarters of this new building is going to be an above-ground parking garage.  I can’t say as though I have ever said,”what a lovely parking garage”.  So it’s going to be … well, interesting, I guess … to see if our parking garage ends up being markedly nicer than the average.