Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | April 19, 2004

In praise of downtown libraries

I love the idea of a downtown library. What could be better than spending a pleasant hour selecting books, then strolling downtown to shop and eat lunch or sip iced tea at a sidewalk café?

Both Morgan Hill and Gilroy have unique opportunities to place centers of literacy in their city centers. I hope both cities seize their chances to build new libraries downtown.

Morgan Hill’s downtown library opportunity is more specific than Gilroy’s. Developer Rocke Garcia presented the city’s library commission his plan to build a new library at the southwest corner of Third and Depot streets, where the former Sunsweet Packing Company was once located. It’s an intriguing proposal.

Depot Street is poised to become downtown’s second main drag. The Caltrain station is already there, and soon the county courthouse will be built just across the railroad tracks from the proposed library site. Restaurants and a tae kwon do studio call the block between Third and Second streets home. On Saturdays year-round, a bustling farmers market fills the Caltrain station parking lot. The city’s beautiful new community center sits at Depot and Dunne, and Weston Miles Architects are busy turning the former Isaacson Granary on Depot into a mixed-use facility featuring office, retail and restaurant space.

The Sunsweet plan is competing with a proposal to build a new library adjacent to the current facility at the civic center at Peak and Main avenues. Not only is that site more expensive, it is also hidden in a residential neighborhood.

Morgan Hill’s library belongs downtown, where the patrons it draws can boost downtown businesses, in a prominent location inviting passersby to explore its literary treasures.

I’m mystified, though, by those who suggest that a library doesn’t fit with the recently adopted downtown plan’s vision of retail for Third Street.

A library is retail – it’s just that no money changes hands. A library does everything neighboring businesses want: It draws people close to their shops. The library’s “free” retail has a bonus for neighboring businesses – it won’t compete for patrons’ disposable income dollars. Because patronizing the library is free, potential customers will have more money to spend on toys, gifts, cards, coffee, bagels, ice cream, beads, art and every other type of item sold downtown.

But if that’s not enough for folks who insist on cash registers with their retail, a café or gift shop could easily be incorporated into the library plan.

No question about it: With or without cash register retail, a library would help create a vibrant downtown filled with pedestrians.

Other spurious objections have been raised to placing a library in downtown Morgan Hill. Some have cited concerns about the nearby railroad, raising the specter of children being killed by oncoming trains. My historical society source tells me that no pedestrians have been killed by trains in Morgan Hill since the railroad arrived in town in 1869. Now, with the wonderful new at-grade pedestrian crossing across the street from the Sunsweet site, pedestrian safety should be even more assured.

Flooding is another red herring. It’s a technical problem that’s easily addressed, and the competing site has water table issues that, if memory serves, are more expensive to correct.

For my money, the most exciting opportunity to put a library in downtown Gilroy rests with the cannery deal South County Housing is trying to seal. When first announced in October, officials envisioned a mixed commercial and housing project for the former cannery at Lewis and Railroad streets.

It wasn’t clear from last week’s article if mixed commercial and housing is still the vision South County Housing has for the cannery, but I certainly hope so. A library would be an ideal neighbor, I would think, for apartment dwellers. You don’t get much quieter commercial neighbors than librarians and book lovers.

A library at the old cannery would complement the arts projects planned for downtown Gilroy and could be an important catalyst for revitalization in a city that doesn’t have the luxury of a redevelopment agency to help fund construction.

Most experts agree that libraries belong in highly visible, retail-friendly locations. Most Gilroy and Morgan Hill residents agree that downtown is the heart and soul of a community. A library and downtown are the perfect complement – they benefit each other.

As reporter Carol Holzgrafe noted, many other Bay Area cities with vibrant downtowns – San Mateo, Danville, Sunnyvale and Mountain View, for example – have placed their libraries downtown.

Developers, city leaders, library lovers and library officials: Let’s work together to make downtown libraries realities in both Morgan Hill and Gilroy.

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