When the main branch of the New Hanover County Public Library was dedicated in May of 1981, two months after moving into its current location on Second and Chestnut, New York Times reporter and editor Herbert Mitgang spoke at the ceremony. Libraries, he said, are the most democratic of American institutions because they provide access to information to all citizens. (While this might be easy to take for granted, we shouldn’t—just 18 years before he spoke, African-American citizens weren’t allowed to check out books.) The library he stood in, built on the bones of an old Belk department store, was beginning to resemble the library we know today. In the 72 years since its official beginning in 1909 it had seen change: originally located on the third floor of City Hall, at the Woolvin building at 225 Princess Street, and then in the Wilmington Light Infantry building at 709 Market Street.
Today the library exists in a stately square building with a tall brick façade, an example of mid-century modern architecture with long, low windows and a newly-minted park at the corner of Chestnut and Third. It is a place of learning and research, and houses an extensive law collection and a room dedicated to state history. It acts as a meeting space for civic gatherings and a community hub. Lifelong love affairs with the written word, with its quiet power to transport and transform us, begin there. But they might not for much longer—at least in those physical surroundings.
In the opinion of New Hanover County, the block the library sits on is “underutilized.” Owned by the county, and populated with county structures like the library, EMS station, an abandoned register of deeds building, and a parking deck, the block is currently not generating any tax revenue. By returning a portion to the private sector, said Jennifer Rigby, NHC strategy and policy coordinator, the county could get a new revenue stream to support the construction and operation of a new library, and potentially a new museum. County Manager Chris Coudriet, operating under the directive that county economic development is the number-one priority, originally approached the NHC Board of County Commissioners with the idea last year. In January the board partnered with Wilmington Downtown Incorporated and Benchmark Planning to conduct a study about the development possibilities for the block, which they named “Project Grace.”
On Tuesday, Sept. 19, upstairs in the main library, the county hosted a presentation of four potential development models the study had returned. All of the options, to varying degrees and heights, creep skyward above the newly proposed library, with condominiums and apartments, as well as hotel, offices and retail space. Only option three would keep the present library intact. Option four, toward which the county commissioners are unofficially leaning, would relocate the Cape Fear Museum from its current spot on 8th and Market alongside the library, for reasons of synergy. (All four plans are viewable in detail on the county website, www.nhcgov.com.)
Ms. Rigby was careful to point out the four options are not an either/or choice, but rather “illustrate the choices that could be made should the county decide to move forward.”
According to Commissioner Woody White, “No decisions have been made at this time.” The county also promised library services downtown will not be interrupted, no matter what happens.
Commissioner Jonathan Barfield equates this idea to what more progressive cities like Durham or Raleigh may do. “It’s an opportunity to reimagine and re-envision this part of downtown,” he said.
Commissioner Skip Watkins mentioned the water intrusion in the basement of the current library, and said the physical structure of the building won’t allow any further upward expansion of the collection. The library actually had to modify the HVAC system to a smaller one so they could fit it on the roof, according to Watkins. “What about the 21st century?” he asked.
Commissioner Rob Zapple said the county wanted to hear the comments of the citizens.
At a meeting held in the same room a week before, on Sept. 12, the citizenry came to tell the commissioners present that, however development-drunk they might be, the tide of public opinion was against them. The crowd skewed white and Baby Boomer demographics, but not exclusively. It was standing-room only during the meat of the meeting. One of the main concerns came in the cost of the project. The county-favorite, option four, would cost an estimated $20,856,000 and take 18-and-a-half years to pay back. Could that money not be better spent to improve existing structures the library and museum are currently housed in, the public asked—or spent addressing more pressing needs of the community instead of more apartments and condominiums: the opioid crisis, for example, or the fluorochemicals in the water? Others voiced concern about increased traffic more condos and apartments would bring to an already congested downtown. Others lamented on the $70,000 spent recently on two new parks beside the library and museum, which would be lost if the development were allowed to happen.
Many people expressed frustration over the larger trend we have seen county-wide as our area grows: formerly green and wild spaces and old buildings demolished to make way for gargantuan new apartments. “The city is being sold piece by piece, and nothing is being replaced except junk,” lamented Barbara Parker, a self-described original Wilmingtonian.
Susan Bardent, who has lived here since 1967, complained about the “birdcage acres” swallowing up the town. “If people want huge buildings, they can move to Raleigh or Charlotte,” she said, which begs the question: Are more apartments and condos needed? encore called around to current complexes in the downtown area, and even ones further out, to find out if they’re experiencing high occupancy rates. Many were over 90 percent of our small, informal sample.
In a story earlier in the year, about the development at Echo Farms, we reported the city of Wilmington is anticipating 55 to 60,000 or more people in the next 25 years. Local entrepreneur Devon Scott summed up the counter-argument perhaps most succinctly: “Why are we making preparations for people who don’t live here yet?”
Perhaps the most powerful argument against a new library is the emotional attachment people have cultivated with the current one. “This library has a heart and soul,” said Ella Davie, a library volunteer. “Besides, if we build a new one, what are we going to do with our ghost?”
Local poet Tim Joyner gave an emotional account of his own experience with the space, and spoke of tough times in his life when he was homeless and came to the library every day to fill out job applications. “The library was a refuge,” he said. “Gentrify whatever else, but, please, don’t gentrify my childhood memories.”
The county commissioners will meet again on Oct. 2, at 4 p.m. in Room 301 of the New Hanover County Courthouse to discuss the possibilities of moving forward with Project Grace. It will be the last item on the agenda.