Manchester panel recommends new library to serve growing town

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A Manchester committee recommends a new 83,000-square-foot library to serve a growing population and replace what the panel and others call a completely inadequate current facility.

The 21st Century Public Library Task Force, which started meeting in January, concluded in a report released Tuesday that expanding the Mary Cheney Library on Main Street is not feasible, nor is using one of several vacant school buildings.

Instead, the report commissioned by the town’s board of directors says the town should build a new library “with adequate parking, flexible space design for multipurpose uses, private and group meeting and work spaces and sustainable ‘green’ design with efficient building systems.”

The report spotlights three possible locations — the site of the Tong Building next to the municipal parking lot at Main and Forest streets; the North Main Street site of the current Whiton Branch Library; and the Shaw’s/Save-a-Lot supermarket building at Broad and Center streets.

The task force calls for site analyses and selection, architectural designs and cost estimates to be prepared for a fall 2022 bond referendum. The board of directors now will decide whether to seek a townwide vote.

Library Director Doug McDonough and other town officials and residents have long decried the lack of space for both quiet study and community gatherings and for parents of young children just to park strollers and sit while their kids attend activities. Lack of space for books, inadequate parking, too few public computer stations and lack of handicapped access also have been cited.

At the same time, the Manchester library has been among the top four or five libraries in the state for adult and children’s circulation. In fiscal year 2018-19, the library loaned 288,396 books, e-books and magazines from its children’s collection, the most in the state, figures from the Connecticut State Library show.

Mary Cheney Library was last expanded in 1962, but the call for a new or expanded library has risen and slackened over the past decade. In 2012, voters rejected a proposed $12.5 million upgrade to the Main Street library, in part because the expansion encroached on the adjacent Center Memorial Park.

In conversations with local, state and federal officials, the task force report said, “we have found that the potential availability of federal and state funding to support a new library facility makes this an opportune, once-in-a-lifetime chance to upgrade the current library system.”

At 83,000 square feet, the proposed facility would be about three times as large as the current library. The recommended space is based on a state benchmark of 1.15 square feet per capita. The report says Manchester’s projected 2040 population of 73,036 was used to calculate the needed space to receive state funding.

The task force rejected the idea of using a vacant school building for several reasons, including the weight of books and stacks, which is three to seven times greater than a typical school was designed to handle, the report said.

Sustaining a downtown presence for the library is optimal, either as a main or branch facility, but expanding the Mary Cheney location, the task force found, is not feasible due to the building’s structural design limitations, the proposed size of a modern library and parking requirements.

The Tong Building site had been considered in 2015 and a three-story conceptual design was floated, but the proposal withered with lack of action. Still, the task force found that the site remains promising, with an estimated 137 parking spaces. The town would have to buy the property and demolish the current structure. The Whiton branch would stay open and the Mary Cheney building would be used for another purpose under this scenario.

Another option is the area on North Main Street that encompasses the Whiton branch and the Community Y building, which the town would have to buy. This option, the report says, “would fit nicely” with town plans for a central park and recreation area. Mary Cheney Library would become a branch facility.

Finally, using the supermarket building at Broad and Center streets “presents interesting possibilities for a main public library using an existing building that has the same approximate required square footage and extensive parking,” the report says.

“This option could also help support the ongoing Broad Street redevelopment by providing a busy and attractive ‘anchor’ entrance into the neighborhood,” the report says, referring to a developer’s plan for a mixed use development on the wide open area across the street.

Nationally, the task force report says, retrofitting large commercial spaces into public libraries has been a trend, “especially since the single-story design often makes for affordable renovation.”

The report includes charts that compare Manchester’s libraries with other public libraries, including facilities in East Hartford, Vernon, South Windsor and Glastonbury. Manchester comes in dead last in the number of public computers per 1,000 people. Also, at .67 square feet of library space per capita, the town is well below the statewide average of 1.1 square feet per capita.

The report does not include a cost estimate for a new library. When the Tong Building site was first considered, an architectural firm estimated a 56,000-square-foot library would cost about $20 million.

McDonough noted that a larger building after six-plus years of construction inflation “would be some millions more.”

Jesse Leavenworth can be reached at jleavenworth@courant.com

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