Worcester Library Redesign: A Recipe for Enlivening Downtown

This post is predominantly a love song to the library.  One of my family’s favorite activities almost every week is to take a trip there.  Over the years, we have developed real relationships with the librarians, especially the ones in the children’s section.  Fourteen years ago, my daughter began her weekly jaunts to the library at the singing and story time with Mr. Frank.  She has since graduated to the young adult section of the library. We cried when Bob Caldwell died and we still miss Ms. Terry who retired several years ago.  We cheered on Dita, an immigrant from Albania when she received her citizenship and when her daughter married the owner of the NuCafe. 

The library functions as a truly open, fully democratic meeting place for our city. We almost always bump into someone we know.  It’s easy to catch up briefly on our lives and find a common denominator discussing the latest readings.  More often, though, we have the chance to meet new people from all Worcester neighborhoods converging in this central spot. One can hear so many different languages whispered among the stacks.  It’s one of the only places where those with oversized West Side homes mingle with those who may not have any home.  There is no price for admission here.  There is no price for a library card.  Everything in this place is free to share – the books, the tapes, the DVDs.  If one can’t find what one wants to borrow, one can order it, getting a reminder when the book or item is available for pick-up.  How amazing is that!

Every spring, the library hosts an art show of art works made by Worcester public school students all over the city.  The whole library is dedicated to the exhibition of the art of our young people.  How incredible is this!

Every spring, the library hosts an art show of art works made by Worcester public school students all over the city.  The whole library is dedicated to the exhibition of the art of our young people.  How incredible is this!

The library is truly our space.  Out-of-towners may attend a concert or convention at the DCU Center or get healed at St. Vincents, but this library… Visitors are always welcome but this place is primarily for the people who actually live here, providing important opportunities to build community and social capital. Children story times, Lego building sessions, book clubs, English classes, gardening groups, community meetings, public lectures and book readings, vacation puppet performances, workshops in grant writing are just a few of the free offerings.  Seriously, how can a Worcester resident not love the library?

By now, it must be apparent that the activity that occurs within this building contributes to the vitality of our city.  However, let’s try to take a bird’s eye view of the building to evaluate how it interacts with the physical environment of the rest of downtown Worcester.  One might argue that of course, the library helps to enliven downtown.  Look at all the residents who go there! People have reason to enter the building at all different times of the day creating the potential for continuous outside street activity– parents bringing their children for morning story hours, workers checking out books during lunch, after work evening visits to the library.  Since the library is open several evenings until 9 pm, doesn’t it help to bring folks down after the work day is done?  Isn’t the library one answer to repopulating the downtown?

Yes! The answer is yes.  The library is a major key for helping reinvigorate downtown but we need to look carefully and understand how the design of the library promotes or prevents spillover street life.

How can we design spaces that promote walkability and street life?

Design Mistake #1:  The library was designed for drivers and cars.  It’s true that over 700,000 patrons enter the library each year.  It’s also true that most of those patrons enter through the main door that fronts the Francis McGrath parking lot.  The message here is quite clear:  The expectation is that most people will drive downtown.  Think about your trips to the library:  Most people who drive to the library will park, enter, do what they do inside the building and then exit the building to cars and leave.  There is rarely a spillover effect to the rest of the city. 

This is the view of the main entrance of the library that faces right onto the Francis McGrath parking lot. What is the message here?  Drive, enter, do what you do, leave and drive away.

This is the view of the main entrance of the library that faces right onto the Francis McGrath parking lot. What is the message here?  Drive, enter, do what you do, leave and drive away.

The same model and the same story is happening here right next door at the YWCA.  Great programming is happening here but the building faces onto the parking lot.  The consequence: Most people enter the Y, do what they do, exit, get in their cars and leave.  Most of our development post 1950s is this same kind of auto-centric development and then we wonder why our streets are not flush with lively pedestrian activity?

The same model and the same story is happening here right next door at the YWCA.  Great programming is happening here but the building faces onto the parking lot.  The consequence: Most people enter the Y, do what they do, exit, get in their cars and leave.  Most of our development post 1950s is this same kind of auto-centric development and then we wonder why our streets are not flush with lively pedestrian activity?

Design Mistake #2: No entrance on Franklin Street cuts off interaction with downtown:  This building turns its back to the downtown, almost creating its own inner island separate from the rest of the physical landscape.  This lack of entrance on the main downtown street encourages patrons just to leave and not step out to experience anything else in the rest of the city. The main library entrance fronts the parking lot!  What is the message here? After we get our books, we may as well get in our cars and just leave. 

Great window facade makes for a transparent space from the inside to the outside of the building.  The only problem: Where is the entrance here linking the library to the downtown? Uh, there is no entrance!  It's as if this building has turned its back to the main square.  This building prevents active street life. 

Great window facade makes for a transparent space from the inside to the outside of the building.  The only problem: Where is the entrance here linking the library to the downtown? Uh, there is no entrance!  It's as if this building has turned its back to the main square.  This building prevents active street life. 

In building designs, the children are always put into the safest parts of buildings away from the main entrances.  Two weeks ago, I was talking to the librarian in the children’s section at the “back” of the library that faces the Worcester Common.  I motioned to the windows.  “It’s too bad there is no entrance there,” I mentioned, “we would probably be more tempted to go out in the cold winter to ice skate on the common if there was an entrance there.”

“Oh, do you know that the City Manager agrees?” the librarian informed me, “With so much activity starting to happen downtown, there is going to be a huge redesign of the library with an entrance being built right here?”    Within the next five years, the City Manager is driving a redesign of the library to fix one of the major design mistakes. A main entrance on Franklin Street and the moving of the café to the current children’s wing with spillover seating on the outside sidewalk will integrate this building more fully into the downtown scene, creating the bridge between the activity naturally happening inside with the outside.  It’s a simple design change but one that could have major positive impact on the street life outside. Kudos to the city manager and the politicians supporting this plan!