Just as large cities like Seattle and Minneapolis have used new public library projects to revitalize downtowns, suburbs that are becoming denser also can draw on the catalytic power of libraries, using them to increase foot traffic in commercial areas and help create a sense of place.

In evolving suburban or edge cities, libraries often occupy a storefront in a small shopping mall, an affordable solution until the city can raise enough money to build a stand-alone facility. In older suburbs that have outgrown existing stand-alone libraries, local governments are opting to build replacement facilities in new, strategically selected locations. For example, in 2009 in Castro Valley, California, an unincorporated but urbanized portion of Alameda County, the Alameda County Redevelopment Agency completed a new library on Northbridge Street, backing onto a site on Castro Valley Boulevard that is earmarked for future commercial redevelopment. The agency’s master plan is to create a large, shared parking lot between the library and the new commercial development. The project is part of larger redevelopment efforts, which include streetscape, facade, and public art improvements to Castro Valley Boulevard, transforming it into a “main street” for an area that lacks a civic center and other basic community facilities.

The Castro Valley Library project was started long before the redevelopment effort began. The library had selected a site, but its funding plan included a requirement for matching funds. At the same time, the redevelopment agency’s vision was to create a new heart for Castro Valley, but there was no existing civic institution that could fill that role: no city hall, no downtown. The redevelopment agency saw the library as becoming “the place to be” and created a specific plan for the area that included, besides the library, rejuvenated neighborhood services and retail. “We felt the library would be a huge draw in that category and would even draw people in from outside the area, who would then utilize the local services,” says Eileen Dalton, director of the Alameda County Redevelopment Agency.

One of the key features of the new library is a large community meeting room, which draws large numbers of people to the library from across the community, and which can be accessed even when the facility is closed, helping to increase activity downtown after work hours. Since it was built, the number of people visiting the new library has increased 220 percent, a trend that is common in library construction projects. Safeway opened a large remodeled grocery store on the street nearby last year, and other recent developments have added even more activity. The library’s lobby was used to display the finalists for a large streetscape art project, and more than 500 surveys were filled out at the library—by far the most the art commission had ever gotten on any county project. In addition, over 1,000 “Boulevard Bucks” were handed out in the library to promote the businesses downtown during the streetscape disruption. The site is a short walk from the local Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station, providing an opportunity for the library to serve high-density, transit-oriented development.

In many suburbs, libraries were originally placed in parks, which provide a peaceful, bucolic setting, but tend to be cut off from downtown or commercial areas. Relocating libraries even a short distance can have catalytic effects. In the suburb of Hayward, California, for instance, the existing main library currently occupies the center of the park, breaking up sight lines and acting as a barrier between the underused southeast side and the more heavily patronized northwest side. In selecting the site for a new library, the city chose a vacant city parking lot across the street, which will free up room to enhance pedestrian linkages within the park and create a central meadow as a community gathering area. Meanwhile, the new library will be half a block closer to downtown and to the BART station and will connect to the adjacent parking structure, adding strength and vitality to the commercial area. The existing building is primarily a one-story structure, while the new one will be three stories—more than twice the size, but occupying a smaller footprint.

With the recent elimination of redevelopment agencies in California, libraries are losing a key funding source for the construction of new buildings. Some of the money the state seizes from redevelopment agencies will be returned to city and county general funds, but elected officials are likely to spend it on operations and filling current budget gaps, not new construction. Projects thus will have to be smaller. And if other states follow California’s lead in eliminating redevelopment agencies, they, too, will need to look for new models. “Public/private partnerships might be the best model,” says Roger Torriero, president and CEO of the program and construction management firm Griffin Structures in Laguna Beach, California. “Libraries would be a good fit for a public/private partnership, particularly in integrated mixed-use projects that combine libraries with retail, housing [senior housing in particular, either market rate or affordable], and parking.” Torriero notes that other community uses, such as community centers, senior centers, teen centers, or multigenerational community centers, would also work well alongside libraries, but careful selection of compatible uses is necessary to avoid conflicts between different types of users. In Watsonville, California, Torriero led a public/private partnership that included a library, courts, city offices, and a parking structure, and faced challenges with keeping the various user groups separate.

The private sector is one place to which to turn for funds. A number of developers recognize that having a library close by can be an asset to commercial development, drawing people to shops in the same way community centers and recreation centers can. Libraries also draw on a diverse demographic over the course of the day: seniors as well as parents with children may come in the morning, teenagers arrive in the afternoon after school, and those with full-time jobs show up in the evening. “A library could be used to enhance the density of a development while creating a community benefit,” says Brad Krouskup, president and CEO of Toeniskoetter Development in San Jose, California. Toeniskoetter has included libraries in previous development projects and considers a library a good asset in a downtown retail development, particularly in a mixed-use development.

In Rockville, Maryland, a northwestern suburb of Washington, D.C., the Rockville Memorial Library opened in 2006 as part of Rockville Town Center, a redevelopment of a defunct shopping mall into a transit-oriented mixed-use center. Rockville Town Center fills a vacuum left by urban renewal efforts that razed the downtown in the 1950s. One of the library’s two towers is visible from the busy nearby arterial called Rockville Pike, giving the otherwise low-rise mixed-use center a crucial presence for passing motorists. While massive redevelopment projects such as this one are unlikely in the new economy, owners of failing shopping centers should consider ways to bring in library facilities. Even big-box retail can be repurposed: in Denton, Texas, for example, a derelict Food Lion building was renovated to house a branch library in 2003.

Developers can create synergy with libraries in other ways. The San Mateo, California–based Bohannon Companies, which is redeveloping the San Lorenzo Village Shopping Center in San Lorenzo, California, has been actively supportive of the small county library directly adjacent to the property. Bohannon has worked to incorporate the library into its planning, working closely with the Alameda County Redevelopment Agency to reorganize parcels, development, and open space to enhance both the library and the retail development. “Libraries are a wholesome and good land use, and they bring the sort of people who are the right fit to complement the retail uses,” says Scott Bohannon, the company’s senior vice president. “People coming to the library will also shop, dine, get some pizza, or access the services that are in close proximity.” The development plan also includes housing for seniors—another use that Bohannon feels is a “great fit” with the library. The centerpiece of the San Lorenzo redevelopment is an open plaza that creates a public gathering space shared by the library, retail, and senior housing uses. It will be the only public space of its kind in San Lorenzo, and, as such, has the potential to create a new social hub in this unincorporated community. The list of organized community events is already long and includes a farmers market, library book sales, and holiday events.

Despite the uncertain economy and strapped governmental budgets, growing counties and suburbs alike will continue to find ways to upgrade and enlarge their libraries, essential components of thriving communities. Pairing them with economic development in central business districts is only common sense.

ULI–the Urban Land Institute