Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Library Chronicles – Part 1

This post is the first of three marking the 10th anniversary of the Eugene Public Library. Robertson/Sherwood/Architects pc led the team responsible for its design. Find Part 2 of this series of posts here and Part 3 here

It’s hard for me to believe it’s been a full decade since the new main branch of the Eugene Public Library opened its doors. Library services director Connie Bennett recently sent me an invitation to attend the building’s 10-year birthday party on January 4. Time truly does fly. The library’s milestone celebration is the ideal occasion to reflect upon its design, construction, and impact on downtown Eugene since its completion. 

The project benefitted from favorable timing, a supportive community, an enlightened client, a very capable general contractor, and an outstanding team of architects and consultants led by Robertson/Sherwood/Architects (RSA). I had the good fortune to be involved with the commission from start to completion as project manager for RSA. My experience in that role would prove the most satisfying of my career. 

The $36.4 million project inspired broad community discussions about the role of the library and how it might contribute to the rejuvenation of Eugene’s moribund core. Many invested great hopes in the project, while others openly challenged the continuing relevancy of the public library as an institution. 

The Long and Winding Road
RSA assembled a team ideally suited to contend for the right to design the Eugene Public Library. It included the esteemed Boston firm Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott (SBRA), which (with TBG Architects & Planners) previously designed the expansion of the University of Oregon’s Knight Library. SBRA’s sizable portfolio included numerous academic libraries, but its experience with municipal facilities was comparatively limited. Regardless, our faith in SBRA’s design abilities would be richly rewarded, thanks in no small part to the skill and talent of the firm’s lead designer for the project, Alexander (Sandy) Howe.(1) 

The City of Eugene selected our team in the summer of 1998. We bested a who’s who of nationally and regionally prominent library designers to win the coveted commission. We immediately set to work, organizing and facilitating countless programming and design sessions with EPL staff, as well as a series of well-attended public meetings to solicit input from library patrons. Programming and design consumed two full years. Construction occupied an additional two years after the project broke ground in December 2000. 

The project's history actually dates back to the late-eighties, when our firm assisted the City of Eugene with identifying possible locations to site a replacement for the woefully undersized 1959 facility located at 13th Avenue and Olive Street. The City subsequently engaged RSA in 1989 to develop a conceptual library design utilizing the abandoned Sears department store building. However, voters repeatedly failed to pass ballot measures to authorize financing for the adaptive reuse of the Sears building.

Eugene Public Library (image: Eckert and Eckert Photography)

In the end, the City earmarked the half-block across 10th Avenue from the Sears site for the home of its new downtown library. Mostly given over to surface parking (with the exception of a small, concrete block building occupied by the “Rice & Spice” Asian food store), the location wasn’t even among those identified by the Library Site Selection Study. The City assembled a combination of urban renewal and reserve funds, plus contributions from the Eugene Public Library Foundation, to finance the design and construction.

The prolonged gestation resulted in the best possible outcome. Had construction proceeded ten or more years earlier, the new Eugene Public Library would certainly have been different and perhaps not as successful as it is today. 

Standing four stories high, the building emphatically marks the southwest corner of Eugene’s downtown and injects a welcome dose of density within predominantly low-rise environs. Across the street, Lane Transit District’s Downtown Station offers convenient access to the library for all Eugene residents. 

Four times the size of the outdated facility it replaced, the library houses 500,000 print volumes including children and young adult collections, as well as an impressive assortment of audio disks and DVDs. Additionally, it features conference rooms, Internet terminals, a used book store, a coffee shop, and 75 public parking spaces in a basement garage. Wireless access is available throughout the building. 

Double-height reading areas, a sky-lit spiral stair, and a glass-enclosed glass "entry garden" create open, light-filled spaces that contribute to the building's energy efficiency. Behind the scenes, an automated book return system eases the sorting and shelving of books. Ample green spaces around the building, including a walled children's reading garden, help to minimize heat islands and reduce storm water run-off. 

The library currently occupies three of the building’s four floors. The top level, presently occupied by the City of Eugene’s Finance Division, provides expansion space to accommodate future growth of the physical collection and patronage. The City’s expectation is for the library’s useful life to far exceed the 43 years in service of its predecessor. RSA principal Jim Robertson, FAIA, FCSI, hopes for no less than the project achieving historic landmark stature down the road. If we’re fortunate and wise enough, the new library will stand for many, many years to come, serve as our legacy to future generations, and become a sustainable piece of Eugene’s architectural heritage. 

. . . Next: Part 2: A Library for the 21st Century; Traditional or Cutting Edge?

(1)     Sadly, Sandy passed away too young at the age of sixty-three in 2009 after a courageous bout with cancer. The roots of Shepley Bulfinch Richardson & Abbott date back to 1874, when Henry Hobson Richardson founded the firm. Today, it is known simply as Shepley Bulfinch. 


Anne Carter said...

Thank you. I really enjoyed the reflections since it took so long to get the beautiful new library building. It is functional, lovely, and well used. Anne Carter

Randy Nishimura, AIA, CSI, CCS said...

You're welcome Anne! It was an honor for me to be part of the design team. I'm glad so many are proud of our library.