Combining public space with stores, apartments
By Scott Bellile
As the city of New London works toward its goal of constructing a new public library, one option it will consider is whether to build a mixed-use library.
The mixed-use concept combines a library with commercial and or/residential uses. Businesses such as stores and restaurants may occupy the first floor and/or residential apartments take the upper levels. Madison and Milwaukee have mixed-use libraries.
“The libraries like it because there’s just more activity,” real estate developer and New London native Todd Hutchison told the New London Economic Development Committee at an Aug. 30 meeting. “It’s getting more people in. The residents [living there] are more involved in the library.”
Joining forces with a non-public entity could help the library save on its construction costs, reach new audiences and generate tax revenue.
“A library is almost a perfect retail tenant because it’s dependable, it’s long-lasting and it’s got a built-in user base,” Alexandra Ramsey, partner and architect for Engberg Anderson, told the New London Library and Museum Board at an Aug. 15 meeting.
Building a new library is just a vision at this time. There is no timeline or site chosen yet, let alone whether to go mixed-use.
How a mixed-use library works is typically one of two scenarios: One, the library owns half the building and a housing association owns the other half. Or two, the developer owns the building and the library leases space from the developer.
“I think the people in the city will look at it differently if they know there’s some kind of a tax base revenue that might be generated, that the taxpayers aren’t footing all the bill,” said Chris Bermann, member of the library board.
If there’s housing involved, the library wouldn’t act as a landlord, but it might split maintenance costs with the owner of the housing operation.
Two sites the city is considering for a new library are a 29,000-square foot city block on Pearl Street across from the existing library, or a 6-acre plot a block west on Wolf River Avenue. Briefly considered as a third option was the site where the city garage will be demolished. An Engberg Anderson study deemed the lot too narrow and at risk of flooding.
The Pearl Street block would have the advantage of being part of a downtown “cultural center” across the street from New London Public Museum, Ramsey said. Having housing there could draw elderly tenants who want to live close to everything downtown.
Meanwhile, Ramsey said the Wolf River Avenue location’s proximity to the Wolf River could be a big draw for apartment dwellers and businesses. She said the downside is the unattractive building facades along the north bank, but added she’s aware the city is working to clean that up.
Hutchison told the economic development committee he doesn’t think the view across the river would stop a serious developer. What he said is a bigger issue is convincing a developer to build in New London when it could pay the same amount to build in a larger city and also charge higher rent there.
He told the committee the city should first do a market study to see if there’s a need for a mixed-use development. Ramsey echoed similar sentiments before the library board.
“I think the very first piece of information that needs to be verified is that it’s a viable project,” Ramsey said. “And the only person who can really tell us that is a developer. Is it going to be worth it for them to invest in it in order to build you a library?”
New London Public Library currently serves a population district of 11,000 to 12,000 people, Library Director Ann Hunt said. That includes the city of New London and the towns of Mukwa, Lebanon and Liberty.
The city would like a new library someday because it’s outgrowing its current space and as is doesn’t have the best accommodations for today’s technologies or collaborative space.
The library board decided this week it will ask to present at the Oct. 25 meeting of the New London Economic Development Committee. There the board would share its ideas with the committee and public and see where to go from here.