Is moving the Shepherdstown Public Library a problem?

Have we considered moving the town?

David Rosen, Shepherdstown Town Council and Planning Commission member, posted a question on Facebook, in the “I ♥ Shepherdstown, WV” group: “what are your thoughts on the proposed library move?”

The post is from 16 May 2012. As I write this, 19 comments have been made, along with a variety of upward pointing thumbs. Some of those (perhaps all, I’ve not sifted through them) are “likes” from people who have also commented in the thread.

I’ve had too many thoughts about this topic over the years to share fully in a Facebook discussion. Let me start with the short answer which I might have given three years ago:

“I am not happy with the proposed library move.”

That my time-traveling self was unhappy is now insignificant, as many discussions — public, not just private — have taken place over the last 5 years¹ addressing the needed expansion of the Shepherdstown Public Library (SPL). That discussions about the site cannot be put to rest is testament to the passion of Shepherdstown residents, with the Old Market Building at their heart. Unfortunately, feeling a certain way about a place does not always mesh with available resources and solutions. With that, I answer the question again:

“I will not be happy when the bulk of library activity moves to the western side of route 480 but I know the full background regarding the move; I see a great deal of potential in the proposed site.”

That’s quite a change; let me explain.

The Shepherdstown Public Library & me

I was part of the library design committee that selected the architect for the current phase of design work. After the selection, I chaired a Focus Group & Outreach Committee to gather a “wish list” with respect to the design of an expanded library and to encourage community involvement from populations not always well represented.

I met many members of the greater Shepherdstown community as part of the focus group work. The library location was always discussed, even though this was not part of the goals and objectives for our focus groups. In particular though, assurances that the Old Market Building would remain within the library system were always included.

The mention of a system is important here: while it might sound strange that a town of less than 2000 people has a library system, it is important to know that the Shepherdstown Public Library is part of a county-wide system. And, despite its name, any survey of potential users and opinions — as well as discussion on how these will be met — goes beyond the town boundaries. I say this while also recognizing that the corporate limits of Shepherdstown do not truly define what one might consider to be “in town.”

Being on the focus group committee meant setting aside opinions and questions regarding the site. It was important to both remain objective as a listener and note taker but also, as a volunteer for the library board, move the conversation forward.

The work of the focus groups would have been similar even without a known site. Regardless, keeping the site out of the discussion was not a question: much work was done well in advance to even know if the site was feasible when it was offered for sale by the town to the library.

Additional disclosures (yes, more about me)

While I do not actively practice, I can still legally call myself an architect but I am not an urban designer or planner. A number of courses in the education of an architect focus on urban design and planning and I devoted two semesters of graduate school to focus on urban design and urban history. As a result, I received an award upon graduation in recognition of outstanding academic performance in the fields of urban planning and development from Yale University in 1990.

I, with my wife (a longtime off-and-on resident of Shepherdstown), own property on the other side of the railroad tracks from Southern States. As adjacent property owners, we have a great deal of interest in any future development on this site. That site’s “back” is, in fact, our “front”. Our property is not within the corporate limits of Shepherdstown but it is at the edge —or the edge — of town. (People might be surprised to see exactly what is not in the corporate limits of Shepherdstown. Indeed, more than half of the acreage of the whole Southern States property is outside the town’s borders.)

I miss Southern States. I miss the hardware store. Having these resources within walking distance was a great resource for many of us. In a different life I would have done all I could to ensure their continued existence but, even without the recent changes in the economy, the writing was on the wall for years: these institutions would not survive as they were.

I started this blog after discussing the Southern States site with a member of the Shepherdstown Town Council (who is also on the Planning Commission) at a Thanksgiving dinner. He suggested I lead a conversation instead of following one. What I learned about Shepherdstown, and how deep this would take me into the library project, came as a surprise.

Here come the vultures (is this still about me?)

When I was able to predict that Southern States was going to close (based on the hints seen long before it was publicly evident), I waited no longer than 1 second to pester my wife (this is what life is like living with an architect) about what should happen on that site: a new library and park with studios for artisans (e.g. Dan Tokar).

I was so set on this idea that I spoke to a realtor, also a long-time resident, to learn something about the future of the site. This conversation revealed an idea proposed long-ago that Bill Knode, owner of Southern States, donate part of the property to the town (albeit a parcel not within town limits) as a park. That idea, more than 10 years old, came to nothing but the land in question, south of the bank parking lot, was used a great deal by residents as if it was a public space. It is not, now clearly evident since Mr. Knode has built a house on part of that land.

In my blog, I recognized one important aspect about the Southern States site, driving further my desire to see it put to good use. This idea came not simply out of me being a property owner nearby (although as an urbanist, it helped that I walked past it daily) but as a way to improve the grid of Shepherdstown and the role of Princess Street.

Princess Street long ago lost the role which it once bore — it was one of two players at the Shepherdstown crossroads, what the “4-way stop” is today. This explains the presence of such buildings as the Yellow Brink Bank and the Blue Moon Café (a former filling station) and the lack of commercial buildings at the four-way stop.

Placing an important village anchor at Washington and Princess Streets would renew the role of Princess Street, keeping it from simply being a route through town, and bolster its urban village character. I also considered that this anchor could be balanced at the river by continued interest in a community park coupled with redevelopment of the stone building adjacent the boat launch.

As a newly minted father I knew the library well by this time and was acquainted with the head librarian, Hali Taylor, who I now call a friend. (The disclosures don’t seem to end in our small community.) I knew by then that the library was looking at the former town dump site for a new facility. It was featured in a seminar addressing development of brownfield sites in West Virginia.

But there’s a twist here: the manner in which I became involved with the library design committee was because I spoke to Hali Taylor about the Southern States site — that it would be the perfect site for a new library and, even though work had been done for studies and grants on the other site, an opportunity like this would not occur again in our lifetimes. Few buildings are suitable institutions to be catalysts for far reaching changes in the landscape of a small town. No other large tract of land is going to become available within or adjacent the town limits soon — some might suggest never².

While my wife is a regular library user, having a child shifted us into the demographic of very frequent library users and we love the fact that we can walk there. We are an urban family at heart, who happen to be in a small village that is also urban at its heart. This is a quality upon which people focus when they speak of living in a college town. Personally, I wanted desperately (and in some ways I would selfishly still prefer) to have a new library at the Southern States site.

But then, I looked westward…

As I was continued thinking about Princess Street and the Southern States site, I encountered and asked many questions regarding the viability of the parcel: availability, affordability, and suitability. Then, along came the news of Rumsey Green.

Part of my understanding of the Shepherdstown “urban village” meant understanding traffic; anything of the scale being discussed at Rumsey Green would create a huge impact. After attending an information session on that project, my focus shifted westward and, while I am fuzzy on the timeline as I write this, other ideas started to churn which would change my point of view regarding the library site debate.

The pendulum swung: my position on library location changed to neutral. I explored and, as a designer, exploited the distinct potential in both sites, pitching either location as once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. My blog and research reflected this shift, with a massive new effort on my part that resulted in putting forth a grander vision for a new Shepherdstown, one which expands westward with a relish not unmentioned but, to the best of my knowledge, never so concretely put forth. The new library, as an important cultural institution, becomes a lynchpin for that plan, bringing much more to this new neighborhood than one typically finds in contemporary development.

This bears repeating: I think either location is as good as the other. Weaknesses in one analysis are offset by strengths. I fear now that a greater missed opportunity is afoot: the library will be built near the Clarion but loose the force of impact which might resonate throughout that area to the south-west of the four-way stop, what I affectionally call the “Green Triangle.”³

The entirety of Shepherdstown

Thinking about western Shepherdstown shifts the library site debate in the sense that it changes the concept of the town: with the move of the library, the town needs to move with it. Carrying this further, without the library, the expansion of the town gird is significantly less appealing.

I do not advocate, nor do I assume, this would have a negative impact on the center of old Shepherdstown. This is a long range vision (50-250 years) which should enhance Old Shepherdstown — it has the potential to be an expansion of its spirit. Without it, we will spend years with nothing to do but complain about how late 20th and early 21st century development detracts from the character of our place. A truly walkable new expansion of Shepherdstown to the south-west even has the potential to ease parking issues in the existing center, as more residents could live within a safe and easy walking distance and more on-street parking could handle more visitors.

Library on a village green

The library green. See more of this plan.

Not only did I then remove myself from the debate regarding the new library location but I started to advocate, through participation on the library design committee, a certain kind of library: one which becomes a lynchpin and sets precedents for a particular way of developing the western expansion of Shepherdstown; one which impacts how old and new Shepherdstown connect for pedestrians and enhance traffic flow; one which unseats the dominance of the automobile as the driving force at the four-way stop and the area to the south-west. This went so far in a proposed master plan to show a library design where its dedicated parking spaces are part of a village green, not just a lot on a lot, as is typical of suburban style development.

The content of the Facebook thread is familiar. The discussion that the library must move will not likely end. It is a testament to the passion of the townspeople. It is difficult or impossible in this age to resolve collective planning issues. Individuals property rights are considered trampled upon at the slightest mention of a shared vision.

Thomas Shepherd had collective power, privately held mind you, when granted this land on the Potomac. The town of 250 years young, as we know it today, was created by a singular force when scale and grid were staked out, sized and populated with development reflecting the character of the 18th and 19th centuries. Finding that force to bring disparate opinions and property owners together, to create a New Town — West Shepherdstown — which will be lauded 250 years hence, requires a will and force yet uncovered.

In the end, I leave the debate of the new library location unquestioned but instead look to any new library to fulfill a mission which enhances the character of the current and future Shepherdstown.

·

For additional consideration, I suggest posts in this blog which include the walkability and library tags, in particular the “10 minute walk hexagons”.

¹In fact, this has been a topic of discussion for many more years than 5. Has it been 15? 20?

²Never is a strong word; change happens: likely long-range candidates for change include the poor apartment block adjacent the strip shopping center, the strip center (note the oxymoron) itself, the Jefferson County Bank parking lot and even the bank. The Post Office, while a very small parcel in comparison, is not immune to future change. I’m talking long term here — most of us will be compost.

³This is a gentle poke at the “Golden Triangle” of Paris, the city I currently call home. The Green Triangle is a roughly triangular area to which I refer (anchored by the four-way stop, bordered by Rt. 480, Rt. 45, and Potomac Farms Drive), it is currently fairly green in color, and it also could become a model for “green development,” both from the standpoint of architecture and urbanism.

Commission receives Rumsey Green update – News, opinion, resources | Shepherdstown Chronicle

Dick told the commission he believed it was a “good start” to consider a consultant to assist in the Rumsey Green project; however, he believed there needed to be leadership in the entire planning of the triangle, which would eliminate planning it parcel by parcel, lot by lot.

This, times ten.

via Commission receives Rumsey Green update – News, opinion, resources | Shepherdstown Chronicle.

Parking master plans — on deck(s)?

Envisioning West Shepherdstown involves creating a master plan. Shepherd University has a master plan. The University master plan presents lessons for the town, if not the University itself: don’t spend time making a master plan only to summarily ignore it.

Make no small plans

When I went to college for my bachelor degree in architecture, the campus was, at the time, possibly one of the ugliest universities in the United States, if not the world. We loved it all the same, especially the corner occupied by the College of Design, Architecture, Art & Planning which was at one time part of Burnett Woods, a large park located just opposite the north edge of the campus “super-block”. We were especially fond of our building: it was in terrible condition and lacked air conditioning in most of the spaces — one might think a modern mechanical system would be considered an essential component for a facility holding a year-round program in the climate of Cincinnati, Ohio.

Now, thanks to a master plan by Hargreaves Associates and the initiative (and funding) for thoughtful implementation, the University of Cincinnati has found its way onto lists of noteworthy campuses around the world. It’s hard for me to imagine it deserves such consideration but it does at least qualify as a masterful transformation.

— then ignore them

The Shepherd University master plan by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates (now Pfeiffer Partners) from 2004 is, apparently, already obsolete. Seven years from inception is not long enough to implement a master plan — such plans are made for 10, 25, 50 year timelines (longer for megalomaniacs).

Perhaps it’s not a good plan? It is certainly possible. I doubt I could offer a review of worthy measure but I’ve not given it any measure. I have used it for reference when reviewing issues which impact Shepherdstown. Even without a thorough assessment, one thing jumps out: the planners are trying to give the campus cohesion and a sense of place.

When I was interviewing Shepherd students with regard to the new library project, they asked that the town library provide a comfortable and inspiring place to gather. In their view, the Shepherd campus provides no such place. The master plan for the campus tries to address this issue. One item in particular reflects that effort — to make east campus less car-centric and to create a “quad” at its heart.

Anyone familiar with the campus might wonder how this is even possible. This quad, as it turns out, is an ellipse (similar campus geometries exist). A “critical mass” of buildings might not be present to support the effect but it is a start. The location of that ellipse? — the low bit of ground between Sara Cree Hall and the Student Center. The planners went so far as to suggest that King Street, north of High Street, be closed to regular traffic. Looking at the rest of the plan, it appears to be the smartest and perhaps only option for creating a sense of place similar to what other universities enjoy.

A portion of the Shepherd University Master Plan by Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates. Note the ellipse to the north of the current Student Center.

Wither Sara Cree

Confession: I like Sara Cree Hall. Q: Why? A: Swimming in room with wall of glass. I don’t know the history of Sara Cree Hall and why it has few, but nonetheless intriguing, architectural touches — the building stands just on the edge of thoughtfulness. Would that building make an interesting edge to a campus ellipse? Possibly…but no one is keeping this building (although I would love to have salvage rights on some of its parts).

The master plan calls called (?) for a new college center/dining hall in place of Sara Cree. Instead a conversation is occurring to raise money for a parking garage (“parking deck” for those driving from Maryland) at that site. The master plan does/did not neglect the need for parking nor would I suggest ignoring the need. For as much as I and others enjoy life outside automobiles, private vehicles are, at this time, a fixture of life at Shepherd University, Jefferson County and beyond.

Nor do I reject parking garages outright. As an architect, I can see the design potential in parking garages — they need not reflect the same lack of aspiration often presented. With some thoughtfulness, they can improve a landscape as much as the next building, not least by removing seas of asphalt.

Where the master plan called for the parking garage is (or was — who can be certain now) very thoughtfully adjacent the Frank and Butcher Centers. Sensible when considering massive, singular event parking periods, that location maybe falls apart when scrutinizing traffic flow. (Show me what corner of campus does not make the town shudder when considering traffic flow. Let’s ignore the traffic issue for now — the Sara Cree site can not possibly be better. If someone can show me a study/argument demonstrating otherwise, please do.)

Does the same lack of consideration for the master plan accompany this proposed parking garage? Has thought been given to traffic flow with the same lack of conviction that rejects the idea of an effective north-west bypass of the four-way stop at German and Duke? My apologies for forgetting the source but I heard it said of this proposed garage location — it will reduce the traffic traveling south at the four-way stop on North Duke Street. Wow. I look forward to being surprised when someone shows me that the bulk of commuting students at Shepherd are Maryland or Shepherd Grade Road residents. Perhaps primary access to the garage will be via King Street? I would then invite you to observe the intersection of King and High some morning for another conversation about pedestrian-vehicular interaction at a four-way stop.

Given the Shepherd University reliance on commuters who arrive by private vehicles (again I lack statistics but I’ll go with this based on the urgency for meeting parking needs) one might even argue that it is appropriate to have a parking garage adjacent to the singular student gathering place on campus. Let’s run with that. The design of the garage could respond to this idea — giving stature to the cars and the act of parking, allowing a lucky few vehicles to become part of the façade on that side of the ellipse. Perhaps the garage could encroach upon or occupy the space of the ellipse, addressing that unique West Virginia problem where flat land is in short supply. Imagine a new heart of campus — I’m going with an agora as a model here — that could occupy the top of the the parking garage. The dip of King Street could be removed; traffic using the lots to the west could interface with the garage — potentially all the way to Route 480; vehicles going through to the residence halls to the north could slip under this new campus green as well. That’s a lot to cram under there but I’m improvising here.

As Kinsella wrote: if you build it, they will come. This has become a mantra for forward thinking traffic planners as a means of limiting the amount of resources and space given over to the accommodation of private vehicles. Here, it might as well serve as a mantra for this misplaced garage — in a negative sense, not a positive one. People will park Ray, they most certainly will. Shepherd University has, as far as I can see, only one chance — one place — to supply its campus with a heart and soul. Build a garage, yes, but build it elsewhere. Moving vehicles and students is the essential circulatory system of the Shepherd University campus but a circulation system is nothing without a heart.

Focus on: Back Alley

Much has happened since I completed this drawing which lacks a title — let’s call it Envisioning West Shepherdstown. I am reluctant to share those discussions now —  not to say that secret plans are brewing; it’s just that I am not certain that everyone involved is on board with me sharing everything via the worldwide forum of this weblog.

Envisioning West Shepherdstown

This plan is one of many iterations which have come from my desktop — in the hands of someone else, more ideas would undoubtedly emerge. What is interesting as part of exercises such as these, for me as an architect, is that while I know I am looking at this plan from a considerable height, I can not help but imagine some of the smaller details that go unmentioned in meetings. So let’s zoom in a bit, with words.

Aside from all that has been stated already regarding the big picture (the importance of creating a sustainable, walkable community) one significant gesture drives this plan above all: to connect the library site north-south and east-west with existing major roadways. The extension-connection of Lowe Drive accomplishes this from east-west, starting as it does from Rt. 480 and connecting westward to Potomac Farms Drive (the bypass). From north to south, the connection is a staggered part of the grid being introduced, where a route through Rumsey Green moves south to catch Lowe Drive at it’s southern termination; immediately to the east of the library is then a street which connections again to the bypass, in a place different than the aforementioned Lowe Drive connection.

A suburban style traffic plan would have only one connection to Lowe Drive but the while point of this proposed plan is to create multiple paths and connections, as evidenced by the numerous other streets comprising the grid to the north and east of the library site. Washington Street is by far the most critical of these but I want to focus now on the extension of Back Alley.

The extension of Back Alley (not unlike any proposed  extension of Cherry Lane) has the potential to meet with as a great deal of resistance from residents and the lay  of the land, geographically speaking and with regard to property lines. Arguably though, it a is more important element for any successful, sustainable and walkable development to the west of Shepherdstown’s existing core: it represents our best hope to move pedestrians conveniently and safely from “town” into Rumsey Green.

Will Back Alley be a through street?

Back Alley currently has some restrictions for its use and the extension of it can play well with those restrictions. It could move local residents along its length in similar fashion to its use today (with physical controls to keep it from being a through street) and serve as a pedestrian/bicycle way for all. Those bordering the lane might cry foul at this, but the way already is public, and the residents there stand to benefit the most, gaining access to new shopping and services to the west at distances that are easily walkable. (Recall that at best the typical development would not even have a connection from the existing Back Alley at all. At worst, a physical barrier might impede what could have been an easy connection.)

Those two lines (the limits of Back Alley) to the north of the Catholic Church might appear to be minor but they represent just one of many important aspects of a interconnected and distributed grid. Even without that grid, the town would do well to at least enable that single connection of Back Alley when considering the annexation of the Rumsey Green parcel. That gesture alone, even without any impact on the walkability within the Rumsey Green development, grants it some status as a pedestrian accessible place, as viewed from the existing core of Shepherdstown.

The importance of being earnest

I’ve written much about preservation issues in the past — maybe not here, maybe not for the public — and always seeming to focus on one idea. That the new work of architects and builders need not (should not) mimic the context in which they are placed. Mockery is not flattery.

What is important in any context, historic or not, is that insertions into that context serve to compliment and enhance. Always leave something better than you found it. As a designer, this dictum ranks at the top of my list.

With regard to Shepherdstown specifically, much is often made of the town’s preservation efforts. It is not an inaccurate statement as such but viewed with a different lens one must pay deference to some accidents of history. Shepherdstown was a critical commercial center at a key period of growth and richness for the region and then…time passed. The railroad brought no greater impact than what was first wrought (see Martinsburg and Hagerstown in contrast). In the late modern era, much historic fabric in towns and cities throughout the US (and the world) was lost but no compelling force effected change to Shepherdstown — a college town with a loyal population, the minor development in the area had little impact on economy  which was “steady on”*.

So blessed by chance, eyes turned to saving that which is. But let’s be realistic — part of what makes Shepherdstown is a quirky collection of structures where few, in and of themselves, have deep architectural significance. But importantly, as an ensemble and composition, they hit many of the right notes.

At times, contemporary (and I don’t mean that in the sense of an architectural style) insertions into this fabric seem to work even though these break Department of Interior guidelines for preservation, when viewed within the entire context of the town. These insertions work not because of their architectural detail but do work because of their respect for the town fabric: scale, materiality (not strictly a choice of material but their qualities) and detail. This is felt most importantly in terms of how we interact with mass and how masses interact with one another.

Adapting a random moment in architectural history as a guideline for any inevitable expansion of Shepherdstown will underserve Shepherdstown. We will serve the existing context best by allowing for a complexity of organic growth — a similar effect that made Shepherdstown what it was in 1860, 1890, 1920, 1950, 1980 and 2010. At its core, the strongly predefined grid and “rules” for how buildings interact with that grid define that which makes us “relate” to the town.

The New Town to the west needs to capture the spirit of this organic growth without being saddled by architectural restrictions which would disallow it. Given the modern elements of development, we know already that the scale will be different: let us then allow for modern building technologies, different offerings in ratios of open to solid facades, and a dynamic “brow” on the street facade (where building facades meet the sky, much like any street in the core of Shepherdstown).

We do need to pay strict attention to the rules of town planning as are already defined — this core principle will link a New Shepherdstown the Old. Allow an owner or developer the choice to mimic a 19th century building if they wish but let this not be a diktat. It serves neither us nor our ancestors well.

Notes:

*That compelling force was an increase in private traffic and the instrument of destruction was road design. While a river crossing proves important, the lack of significant destinations on either side meant no traffic and no overzealous road planning. Having happened later (continuing through now) meant that our sensitivities were allowed to catch up to our zealotry. Still have doubts? Think about how long the Yellow Brick Bank and the Bavarian Inn maintained their position as the only games in town.

Enhanced flow for your arteries

Planning efforts over the last 30 years or so have concentrated on reducing the number of intersections and curb cuts onto arterial roads. Anyone familiar with US 1 north of Boston knows why.

At the same time, alleyways have been planned out of existence.

These two things, working from opposite directions, have resulted in arterial roads which are scaled to be more like interstate highways than local roads — both in content and their nodes (intersections). The distortion of a what was once a neighborly, pedestrian scale is felt all the way down to the front drives of many — little human scale interaction is achieved  in many approaches to the typical american suburban home. Our cars have become in some instances literal extensions of our homes, as we dock them into garages which open directly into our living spaces.

I digress. To the issue of scale and movement is linked an important point I have made before. In a distributed grid, it would be wrong to have a driveway — a curb cut, in effect a mini-intersection — for each lot. Shepherdstown does not allow driveways along street frontage for a reason. This is where the alley becomes important.

Alleys enable traffic flow in the distributed grid to occur with the same efficient distribution of intersections as arterial roads. The constriction of individual vehicles/ways is restricted to the alley where flow is not important.

But we do need coagulation

While increased arterial flow is good, we don’t want to bleed to death — or have such traffic flow that impedes or even prevents the sensible maintenance of other systems. For both our blood and traffic flow, we need something to keep things in check. Our blood coagulates so we do not bleed to death and pressure is kept in check for good health. We must do the same for traffic. If you’ve heard some discuss traffic calming this is its essence. Accidents, especially serious accidents, are kept in check as speed is kept in check and alertness is raised.

Roads can be designed to calm traffic and enhance alertness. Anyone who has found themselves at the end of an “unfair” speeding ticket might already have sensed that something else aside revenue seeking municipalities at work — the road itself might have contributed to the excess speed. It was designed for it.

One of my favorite traffic calming efforts I’ve seen is the tree planted in the center of a road in Denmark. Speed bumps are a favorite of the DC metro area. One of the easiest and with an additional benefit? On street parking.