A group of Wheaton residents confronted Montgomery County Executive Ike Leggett at Tuesday’s county budget forum with what they see as an unacceptable delay for the badly needed renovation of Wheaton Library.
The renovation project would combine the library with the Wheaton Neighborhood Recreation Center; Hermitage Avenue serves as the current dividing line between the two properties on Georgia Avenue.
Leggett’s Capital Investment Program (CIP) recommendations designates $191,000 in Fiscal Year 2012 to the Department of General Services for early planning stages, but no more money is allocated until Fiscal Year 2015. The estimated start to construction? Fiscal Year 2018.
That is too long of a wait for the library’s supporters.
“The Wheaton facility is really in need of a total renovation,” said Diana Dubrawsky, who lives in Kemp Mill. “It is just essential that that happen very quickly.”
The Wheaton Library is the fourth most used library in the county, according to Dianne Whitaker, the library’s general manager. The justification for the renovation project in the CIP notes that the last Wheaton Library renovation occurred in 1985, 25 years after it opened. “There are serious moisture problems and the building does not meet current mechanical, safety and building codes,” according to the CIP document. “The mechanical elevator and HVAC systems are outdated and worn, and they are not energy efficient.”
At the budget forum, Dubrawsky underscored the important role the library plays in the community by talking about the results of an informal survey that the Wheaton Library Advisory Committee has been conducting. The survey shows that many people use the library as a place to study for college degrees and professional certificates--which translates to a big impact on long-term growth in jobs, she said.
“It’s not a question of the need,” Leggett responded, but he added that there are other competing needs to consider, other libraries in other parts of the county that also need renovation--and some parts of the county with no libraries at all.
“We just feel like Wheaton is getting put on the backburner again,” Kim Persaud told Patch at the budget forum. “We feel like Wheaton is not a priority.” Persaud, the president of the Wheaton Regional Park Neighborhood Association, wore a yellow badge that said, “Fund the Library and Rec Center.”
Although the CIP’s Fiscal Year 2013 and 2014 projections do not include funding for the library renovation, there is still that initial $191,000 from Fiscal Year 2012, which has gone toward and will continue to go toward preliminary planning efforts this year.
Beginning the renovation planning process
The department’s director, David Dise, told Patch that the initial site fit has been completed. That is, an architect has determined that the combined properties where the library and recreation center currently sit would be adequate to support the new building. At this point, Dise foresees a potential need for additional parking structures to handle the increased traffic.
There’s also the problem of the road that bisects the two properties, Hermitage Avenue. To combine the two properties into one lot would require “vacating the right-of-way” that connects Hermitage to Georgia Avenue and “dedicating” a new right-of-way that would divert Hermitage behind the lot to link up at a right angle with Arcola Avenue.
Dise said that initial feedback from the community approves this re-routing of Hermitage because of the calming effect it would likely have on cut-through traffic.
This road adjustment adds transportation to the list of departments that must coordinate on the renovation project, which according to the CIP documents also include the state highways, the Mid-County Regional Services Center, WSSC and Pepco.
Dise said he has not yet had a conversation with the Department of Libraries about whether the designs for a new library would be in keeping with the concept of all that a modern library should be. He expects that this conversation to update what is known as the program of requirement will take place this year.
Leggett addressed this issue at the budget forum, saying that one of the vital questions in moving forward is determining what shape the library will take to meet future needs. “What will the libraries of tomorrow look like?” he asked.
Another step that Dise hopes to accomplish this year is a land swap with the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (M-NCPPC), which owns the property on which the recreation center sits.
So, what happens between the completion of the facility concept study in 2012 and the start of the design phase in late summer of 2014?
“Nothing,” Dise responded. This is the delay period that the Wheaton library supporters are so concerned about.
Maintaining the Wheaton Library
And in the meantime, the library still continues to have excessive moisture issues, which leads to mold problems.
“You can’t keep the library going as it is now without major repairs,” Dise said. “If I can’t build a new one, at least I can fix the old one.”
Dise said that Leggett has indicated interest in restoring the facility maintenance budget, which has been cut 50 percent over the last three years. But with funding pressures such as Gov. Martin O’Malley’s proposal to shift half of teacher pension costs to the local level, it is difficult to tell what will make it into the executive’s operating budget recommendations come March.
The library once considered in CBD redevelopment
To Leggett, the Wheaton Library seems a prime example of how the county government’s own efforts to redevelop Wheaton’s downtown have failed--and why it is now necessary to hand the reins over to private developers such as B.F. Saul.
According to the county’s website, the library’s renovation was scheduled to begin in July 2009, but a county panel had recommended moving the library into Wheaton’s Central Business District as a centerpiece of redevelopment.
When the county suggested moving the library downtown, “people thought World War III had happened,” Leggett said at the Jan. 17 county budget forum.
The community around the library fought back, and even though the move never happened, many people, such as Montgomery County Councilmember Hans Riemer, see that struggle as a contributing force to the renovation delay.
“More than anything, that’s what knocked it off track,” Riemer said at a library meeting earlier this month. Riemer promised his support for the library in budget negotiations.
“I’m serious about the library,” Leggett said at the budget forum. “I want to do it.” But not if it means borrowing more money, or pushing out another budget item, he concluded.