Op/Ed

Editorial: Ilsley drawings must be seen to understand project’s potential

ANGELO LYNN

Next year, in 2024, the stately Ilsley Library building — adjacent to Middlebury’s newly built town hall — will celebrate its 100th year. And it shows. Take a tour through the three and a half-story facility — counting the overcrowded basement that hosts the children’s section, bathrooms and a community meeting space, and the attic, which hosts MCTV — and you quickly understand it’s an old, somewhat dank and moldy building that’s in serious need of an overhaul.

The question is how much needs to be done? And that leads to other questions: what’s the right approach, how expensive will it be, and is it worth it?

Through the Ilsley’s 100 Project Team, which has been ongoing for the past couple of years, committees have considered questions from every angle, and asked Middlebury residents for extensive feedback on what they want in a community library, where it should be located, and whether the current site should be renovated as is, built anew somewhere else, or rehabbed on site with expansions to meet the community’s needs.

The most important question — renovating onsite or anew somewhere else — was determined quickly: the original building is too beloved to abandon, and it’s almost twice as expensive to build new elsewhere.

 The other answers came through a thorough study of the library’s services, community feedback, and a cost-conscience look at value between the bare minimum (never enough) and a realistic assessment of meeting the community’s need. 

That extensive process has the community and the Ilsley Library board and building committees at the threshold of action: choosing an architectural firm to help them crystalize ideas into a building design the community will support and love. 

The first step in this process happens on Wednesday, Aug. 9 starting at 6:30 p.m. at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. At that meeting, three architectural-design firms will present their designs and concepts to the community and answer questions from those present.

The genius behind this approach is that the building committee, led by Joe McVeigh, gave the firms a very basic set of parameters and then asked them to use their expertise and imaginations to meet the library’s mission. The parameters included: renovating and expanding the existing building on site; designing to about 24,000-square-feet at a cost of about $14.8 million, and staying relatively within the building’s current site. The rest was up to their imagination.

The result is three imaginative, forward-thinking and exciting plans that are bold and unique. Inspecting such drawings and architectural renderings show us all how ill-equipped the current facility is, and how much greater a community asset the library would become with such renovations.

Words fail to tell that story. Without seeing what experienced architects can illustrate, area residents can’t fully understand how such transformations of a building can add so much more in value than the cost. That’s why the Aug. 9 meeting is so important to attend. It’s not just a choice between the three firms, it’s understanding how a redesign creates new opportunities for the library and the community. To get an inkling of what those possibilities are, don’t miss the front-page story that jumps inside to pages 10-11 for a sneak peak of just some of the drawings. (Each firm has multiple pages of drawings to review, so know these are showing the bare basics.)

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For some residents worried about the cost, such excitement may be jumping the gun. And it’s natural for many to linger on the question of why, or if, an extensive renovation is needed.

Granted the oil furnace is 30 years old, terribly inefficient, and spews carbon dioxide at a sinful rate. True, the basement takes on water during rainy days, smells of mildew and mold, and requires constant attention to eradicate both. True, the children’s space in the basement is cramped, dank and insufficient for the need — and, perhaps most concerning, has a side entrance to the outside, and a public bathroom, that can’t effectively be monitored by staff. (Police will tell you that unseemly things happen there that this family paper won’t report in detail.) And true, staff space is scattered, storage is limited, a fourth-floor attic hosts the community television station, and a creaky elevator fails on a regular basis stranding patrons between floors and requiring first-responders or firefighters to come to the rescue. 

The building, lovely and historic as it is, is almost 100 — and it needs more than a facial.

But $14 million, you say? That’s a lot of books! But, of course, it’s not the books. It’s the imaginative use of community space that makes such a renovation uplifting. It’s understanding how youth use the library after school and before parents can pick them up after their work; it’s understanding how childcare centers use the library’s programs as part of their daily routines; it’s understanding the need for everyone to have public access to high speed internet and computers; it’s understanding how public spaces help build togetherness, attract new families and businesses, and enhance our quality of life.

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Another consideration is to imagine how the Ilsley renovation could help jumpstart a resurgence of what is the one downtown area that is sorely lacking. Currently the space behind the library to the Otter Creek is a split-level, inefficient parking lot. The riverfront is an unattractive weed bed that discourages people from enjoying what should be one of the downtown’s most attractive assets. 

A few years ago, plans for an EDI (Economic Development Initiative) building sited on 1.42 acres beside and below the Cross Street Bridge raised the prospect of making this area a dynamic hub for commercial and retail space, along with residential units. Any similar project would mesh nicely with plans of a renovated Ilsley with its current backside presenting a modern entranceway and a more dynamic use of the parking area facing the river. The library, and this area of downtown, is one of the last pieces of public infrastructure in Middlebury that desperately needs a do-over, and if done with just half the imagination as shown in these architectural drawings, it’ll create a dynamism (along with the improvements projected at THT) that could further enliven the downtown in ways we all have dreamed of but haven’t seen for decades.

The hard work has mostly been done. It’s now up to the community to see it through. Supporters and doubters alike can start with a thorough review of the plans to be presented Aug. 9. We hope to see you there. 

Angelo Lynn

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