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.
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.
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. ↩