Atlanta Central Library seeks space for the future to meet new needs

VIDEO: In this AJC Flashback Photos installment, we look back at the history of the Atlanta Public Library building.

What is the future of the library? Whatever it is, the director of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System wants the city's Central Library to be able to adapt to it.

A plan to renovate the Central Library, unveiled Wednesday, seeks to modernize the downtown library by adding more technology, a flexible events space including a demonstration kitchen and leasable space inside, so a restaurant or other business could help draw patrons.

"It's going to be a dramatic transformation, for sure," said Gabriel Morley, director of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System. "It's a long-term design. Whatever happens to the library in the next decade, it can maneuver with those changes."

Not just about books anymore

Throughout the country, libraries are making adjustments to reflect the changing nature of how people use their services. Because more people are reading on e-readers or requesting books online to pick up at the branch, there's less of a need for shelves upon shelves of books for patrons to browse, said Felton Thomas, the immediate past president of the Public Library Association and CEO of the Cleveland Public Library. Instead, he said, libraries are trending toward more of a bookstore feel, with low shelves and adaptable, flexible spaces. That's a setup the Atlanta plan will echo.

Edith Wallace, (left) the adminstrative specialist, Marcy Meyers, (center) the volunteer coordinator, and Heather Staniszewski, the volunteer services manager, carry materials off the elevator bank in the middle of Atlanta-Fulton Public Library’s Central Branch in downtown Atlanta. The library is planning to eliminate the elevator bank in the middle to open the area up. (Rebecca Breyer for the AJC)

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In Cleveland, Thomas said, the state’s unemployment agency is often co-located in the library. Other uses, like labs with 3-D printers or other community work spaces or tools, are becoming more common as libraries focus on creating more active spaces, instead of just holding books. And Thomas said more central libraries are getting smaller, as is Atlanta’s. That library has nine floors including a basement; in the renovation, it only intends to use six of those floors, leaving the top three to be rented out.

“We want it to be a place that brings more people to the library,” Morley said. “We have to design this building to be versatile. We can’t replicate the same mistakes (architect Marcel) Breuer made in building a 1980s library that’s not useful anymore.”

Under the proposal, the library would add computers and classrooms to the second floor, increasing the number of computers available to 100, from between 40 and 60. The adult collection and special collections would move to the third floor, while children and teens’ areas would be on the fourth. On the fifth floor, an under-used terrace would become part of an indoor/outdoor flexible events space, that would also include a demonstration kitchen. The basement theater would be redone. Artist-in-residence work areas would be added to the first floor. And in addition to renting out the top three floors, portions of the first and second floor would also be available to be rented out.

The proposal calls for some concrete on the first three street-facing floors to be replaced by banks of windows. Inside, an elevator shaft in the middle of the building would be relocated to the back. In its place would be an eight-story vertical atrium, and another large staircase on the lower floors.

The renovation plan also calls for the outdoor plaza to be flattened, to make the area feel more open and connected to other plazas downtown.

“It gives the library opportunities to do new things that we had in mind and new things we hadn’t had in mind yet,” Morley said. “It’s going to be more enlivened.”

What about architectural history?

Mary Lu Mitchell, the chairman of the library Board of Trustees when the library was built, said she found the boxy, Brutalist structure “a lot more inviting and welcoming” with the proposed changes. Dorthey Hurst, who lives downtown, said she approved of adding more computers and other technology. And Susan Roe, who also lives downtown, said she thought the skylight and atrium might help open up the structure.

But they, and others, questioned the decision to alter the exterior of the historic building, the last designed by Breuer, a famed architect who also designed the Whitney museum in New York.

“I think they’re defacing it,” Roe said. “It’s damaging history.”

Morley, the library director, said before the meeting that the renovation plans had been done thoughtfully, and had taken into consideration the strong feelings some residents have about the structure. After, he said in a statement that the proposed changes are compatible with both the form and intent of Breuer’s design. The windows, he said, help the library connect with the outdoor plaza and the rest of downtown. Ellis Kirby, the head of real estate for Fulton County government, said he thought the final product was a good compromise that minimally altered the building.

Atlanta-Fulton Public Library’s Central Branch (Rebecca Breyer for the AJC)

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But not all residents agree. Hurst said she didn’t think adding big windows was a good use of the county’s $50 million renovation budget. Kyle Kessler, who lives downtown, challenged the community engagement process, which he said was inadequate.

“More than what is shown, I’m concerned about how they got to the point they’re at now,” he said.

Kessler questioned how well the existence of a community survey was publicized — it only got two responses over the three weeks it was live last fall — and said the number of community meetings was lacking. There were seven, most of them in October, and all of them held before any plans had been developed. Two, in Alpharetta and South Fulton, had no attendees.

The community meeting Wednesday was advertised as the final public meeting on the building’s redesign. Following pushback from residents and local leaders, library spokesperson Claudia Strange said the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System was planning other opportunities for residents to weigh in.

“This will not be the final meeting,” Strange said. “We will continue to gather more input.”

Roe said there are parts of the proposal that she supports, and that will help the library thrive. But like others who appreciate the building’s aesthetic, she said the library is iconic, and its facade shouldn’t be altered.

“There are people coming to see that building because it is that building,” she said. “You have to keep the physical structure. It’s a beautiful building. It would be like taking the columns off a classic southern building. You wouldn’t do it. Like taking the steeple off a church.”

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