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City Beautiful 21 » Carrboro, Economic Development, Libraries, Orange County, Portland, Schools, Walking » A Little More Time and A Little More Communication Could Get Us an Awesome Urban Library that Works for Everyone in Southern Orange County

A Little More Time and A Little More Communication Could Get Us an Awesome Urban Library that Works for Everyone in Southern Orange County

Hollywood Library and Bookmark Apartments, Portland

A Library Project to Emulate:
Hollywood Library, Rain City Cafe and 47-unit Bookmark Apartments, Portland (photo courtesy Wikipedia)

This is going to be a long post, so to make it easier to use, you can either read it all the way through, or use this bullet-point summary with hyperlinks to each portion:

  • Orange County is leading a process to site a library in Southern Orange County within the Town of Carrboro. The Carrboro Board of Aldermen sent three sites for review to the county staff in November 2012, and indicated their interest in a few others as well. (Jump to Background)
  • The Orange County staff has a clear preference for one of the sites named by the Aldermen, but supports that preference with several unsubstantiated claims or in at least one case, information that is directly contradicted by publicly available data. (Jump to County Staff Response)
  • The County staff’s preferred site represents a location choice in conflict with values that Carrboro has repeatedly said are high priorities for the town. (Jump to Values)
  • The County selection criteria themselves are biased towards choosing a suburban location for the library over a more urban location. (Jump to Criteria)
  • Pursuing the development of an urban library in Carrboro provides an opportunity to address several community priorities at once, including local economic development, education, workforce housing, sustainable mobility, and social justice goals. (Jump to Opportunity)
  • The County Commissioners should reject the staff recommendation to proceed with these two sites, direct the County staff to explain fully what their values and perceived constraints are for a library, including the reasons WHY the staff believes anything is infeasible, too expensive, or undesirable, and engage further with the town of Carrboro on a mixed-use library/economic development combined initiative. (Jump to BOCC Actions)
  • The Carrboro Board of Aldermen should clearly state to the Orange County Board of Commissioners that any site forwarded by the Town for study by the County, should in fact, be studied, AND that mixed-use, multi-purpose, multi-story buildings and developments should be on the table as PRIMARY options for the library, with single-use library-only sites as fallback choices. The Town should help address County concerns about a lengthy review process by studying successful mixed-use libraries in other cities. (Jump to BOA Actions)


Orange County and the Town of Carrboro are working on a process to locate a southern branch of the county library system in the Carrboro area.  On November 20, 2012, the Carrboro Board of Aldermen reviewed and discussed (link goes to Agenda, see item D4) several potential sites and forwarded them all on for consideration to the county staff.

As WCHL reported, the Aldermen expressed additional interest in potentially siting the library even closer to the core of downtown than the three primary sites proposed, with Mayor Mark Chilton suggesting that Town Manager David Andrews look into creating a RFP for proposals on how to incorporate the library into a mixed-use development downtown, and specifically mentioned the 300 East Main St development.

While not reported in the WCHL story, Alderman Jacquie Gist also made the thoughtful suggestion of a multi-story building incorporating a library at 201 S Greensboro St (the previously proposed and now stalled Roberson Square project).

The evaluation document from the November board meeting was to a certain degree, incomplete- with several items were left unaddressed and labeled “THIS CRITERIA WILL BE EVALUATED BY ORANGE COUNTY STAFF.”

This was surprising to me as some of the items left to County staff include criteria such as “Visual appeal,” when Carrboro has an Appearance Commission, and “Alignment with planning tools” when Carrboro has its own Planning department.

County Staff Response

Friday, March 15th, at about 8:00 am, the County Deputy Clerk posted the agenda for the Tuesday March 19th Board of Commissioners Meeting, which surprisingly contained the county staff evaluation of only two of the three sites forwarded by the Aldermen to the county.

View the staff item on the library by clicking this link, downloading the March 19, 2013 Agenda, and viewing item 7-B.

The county staff dismissed the 301 W Main St site (Carrboro Town Hall) out of hand with the commentary below:

 Staff recommends the elimination 301 West Main Street site (i.e. the Town Hall) from consideration due to significant constraints, most notably the condition of the building, limitation on usable space for the library, limitations on future expansion, and potential parking conflicts.”

No further information was included about what types of parking conflicts the county staff foresees, which types of expansion would be constrained by the site, or what the specific space limits on the property were. The county staff analysis did not acknowledge or assess 300 East Main St, 201 S. Greensboro St, nor mention the RFP proposal discussed by Mayor Chilton.

Here are a few more items from the county staff evaluation:
County Eval: Visual AppealIt’s still a mystery to me why Orange County Staff is responsible for assessing what is visually appealing in Carrboro when Carrboro has an Appearance Commission, but as you can see, the county staff seems to consider single-family housing more appealing than multi-family and businesses.  Also, county staff believes that this portion of our neighborhood has a “cluttered look and feel.” I’m not sure what that means, but putting aside that confusion for a moment, if we always invested in the “better-looking” neighborhoods in the community, wouldn’t we eventually wind up with serious disparities in public investment and facilities between the richer and poorer parts of our communities?

Here’s the staff analysis for “Able to provide comprehensive library services to all county residents:”

County Eval: Yes-Probably

No reasons for explaining why there is a differentiation between these two sites.  Just one word for each site.

County staff did not address either accessibility for pedestrians or accessibility for public transportation, but they did chime in on “Accessibility for Vehicles:”

County Eval: Farmers' Market Congestion This is ironic given that one of the reasons the 401 Fidelity site was contemplated was that it could take advantage of the foot, bicycle, and vehicle traffic from the Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings. Here that context and synergy is listed as a detriment rather than an advantage to the site.  Of course, the current main County library building, in which many county employees work, is one block away from Churton Street, a road with much more significant volume-to-capacity ratio problems (PDF), so that has not deterred the county from siting libraries in the recent past.

Perhaps the most puzzling piece of the staff response in the document, however, is the assessment of Centrality of either site to Southern Orange County, in which the staff asserts that the 1128 Hillsborough Rd site is more easily accessible to more people of southern Orange County than the 401 Fidelity St site.  County Eval: Centrality

Southern Orange County

Southern Orange County

A quick series of tests using Google Maps’ Driving Directions shows this makes no sense. First, let’s review the 2010 Census Population for the two Southern Orange County Townships, Bingham and Chapel Hill. See the map to the right for orientation:

  • Bingham Township: 6,527 (7%)
  • Chapel Hill Township: 87,971 (93%)
  • Chapel Hill / Carrboro City Town Limits: 73,979 (78%) – (within Chapel Hill Township)

It’s safe to say that if you’re trying to assess whether a site is more centrally located for residents in Southern Orange County, you should mostly be checking access to a site from places throughout Chapel Hill and Carrboro.  For the following places, it’s a shorter drive to 401 Fidelity St:

  • Southern Village Town Green (100 Market St, Chapel Hill)
  • Downtown Chapel Hill (Franklin @ Columbia Streets)
  • Downtown Carrboro (300 e main st)
  • East Franklin at Estes Drive
  • 100 Meadowmont Ln
  • Fiesta Grill, NC 54 West of Carrboro


It is the same distance in miles but a minute or two longer timewise to 401 Fidelity from north of Estes Drive, but at the level of all of Southern Orange County, these sites either have the same level of drive access or there’s a slight edge to the 401 Fidelity site, probably mostly due to its proximity to denser neighborhoods and NC 54.  Transit and pedestrian access is a different story, but I’ll talk about that later.

In summary, the staff clearly prefers the 1128 Hillsborough Road site, even though several of the staff’s alleged advantages for that location are confusing, counter-intuitive based on the site’s context, or not supported by data. I’m not terribly excited by either of these sites, and the 1128 Hillsborough Rd is a bad choice. The key point is that much better analysis can and should be done to inform this decision.

Conflicts with Carrboro Values

Carrboro is a community with a strong commitment to building walkable neighborhoods, and has invested its own money to accelerate sidewalk construction in town.  The town is also working with NCDOT to REDUCE the number of lanes on Main Street to make it more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians, and easier to cross on foot.  However, when considering the sites forwarded by the Aldermen to the County and those alternative sites mentioned at the November 20th meeting, the County prefers the least walkable site according to  Here are the walkscores for the five sites mentioned in the Background section of this post.

  • 300 E. Main St: 92/100 – Walker’s Paradise: Daily Errands Do Not Require a Car
  • 201 S. Greensboro St: 92/100 – Walker’s Paradise: Daily Errands Do Not Require a Car
  • 301 W Main St: 82/100 – Very Walkable: Most Errands Can Be Accomplished on Foot
  • 401 Fidelity St: 63/100 – Somewhat Walkable: Some Amenities Are Within Walking Distance
  • 1128 Hillsborough Rd: 31/100 – Car-Dependent: Few Amenities Are Within Walking Distance


Carrboro is also a community with a history of commitment to social justice, and seeking to advance equality within the community.  The median household income of the Census Tract that the County staff prefers is almost $136,000/year!  The median household income of the Census Tract holding 401 Fidelity St is just over $34,000/year.  The median household income of the Census Tract holding the two sites above with 92 walkscores is around $43,000/year.

Bias Against Urban Outcomes

Several of the criteria used by the County are fundamentally biased towards sites in suburban or rural locations, and against urban ones.  It is possible to create criteria that answer similar questions about how effective library services could be provided without being biased against one development pattern or another, but that has not been done here.

Criteria 4 – “Meets minimum acreage.”  This requirement is pointless and should be thrown out. You don’t need minimum acres to fulfill a library’s mission.  You need minimum amounts of Gross Square Footage (GSF) for the library facility itself. You may or may not need additional new parking, but the criteria should not assume it. There was a terrific report in 2003 titled “GOOD SCHOOLS,GOOD NEIGHBORHOODS: The Impacts of State and Local School Board Policies on the Design and Location of Schools in North Carolina” (PDF) that lays out the case for why less expansive schools are a critical piece of getting more children to walk to school.  The same principles hold true for libraries.  Turn to page 6 for the executive summary and their key recommendations, which include:

  • Build smaller schools on smaller sites
  • Select school sites that maximize bicycle and pedestrian access
  • Collaborate with local planners and municipal elected officials in selecting the location for new schools
  • Promote the renovation of old schools that serve as anchors to their community.


It is interesting to note that in regards to the last bullet that the site that the County Staff dismissed out of hand, Carrboro Town Hall- is an old school.

Criteria 5 – Space for building and on-site parking. The Hillsborough branch of the Orange County library has shared parking; there is no need to assume that parking should be provided onsite specifically for library use.

Criteria 7- Space for expansion.  This criteria is not well explained, but the answers seem to predicated all outcomes on assumed horizontal expansion, not vertical, and expanded access via extra car trips, not any other modes

Criteria 8 – Setbacks and road widening are fundamentally criteria based around speeding up cars to the detriment of everything else. This criteria should also be thrown out.  I haven’t spoken to anybody in Carrboro in years who wants a road widening anywhere in town.

While road widenings are common anywhere that a significant number of left turns may occur along a rural road with few intersections, this is much less common for in-town settings where larger street grids are present, and given that Carrboro is working with NCDOT to complete a road diet to reduce the number of car lanes on West Main St, I’m sure that most Carrboro residents do NOT consider road expansion/widening for car traffic to be an “amenity.”

Criteria 11 – Access for transit.  The County staff did not provide any comments on transit service. The town comments report the locations of bus stops but do not identify significantly varying levels of transit service.  The CW bus which serves the stop nearest to the 401 Fidelity St location only has outbound service towards Jones Ferry Rd after 12:15 pm on weekdays.  The J route, several blocks away at the corner of Davie and Jones Ferry, offers service every 15 minutes for most of the day, but access is along a road with poor pedestrian facilities, though improvements are planned.  If the 301 W Main (Town Hall) site had been studied, it would have had the best transit service access of any site with nearby service from both the J and CW routes.  The F bus service, serving the Hillsborough site, is decent but the stop closest to 1128 Hillsborough makes it a longer bus ride from much more of the Chapel Hill Transit network than 401 Fidelity or any downtown Carrboro site would be.

Not capturing the frequency of transit service and its level of network access, as opposed to merely its presence, allows sites with lower levels of attractiveness for transit users to rate just as well as the highest-traffic stops in any system, which again, makes this metric as currently deployed biased against urban locations.

Opportunity Presented By An Urban Library

1. There are several great benefits to building an urban library in Carrboro, but let’s start with perhaps the least obvious benefit- building an urban library in Carrboro will make it EASIER FOR RURAL RESIDENTS TO PARK at or near the new library.

Prior to the rebuild of the Chapel Hill library, finding a space there in the afternoons was often next to impossible and required circling the lot and waiting for other patrons to leave. That site has poor access for transit, cyclists, and pedestrians and because that access is poor, people who live nearby who might otherwise walk- DRIVE to the library instead.

If we put a library in downtown Carrboro, a whole slew of potential users who are already biking, walking, and busing to downtown for other purposes will add the library to their trips that they complete by non-auto modes.  This means that parking spaces that are reserved for library patrons either in a surface lot or parking deck are more likely to be used by people living far away from the library, and not people close by who have additional mobility choices.  If we build a library in a location that has poor access and encourages more people to drive, now rural residents and people from further away driving to the library will be competing for parking with everybody they were competing with downtown, plus Carrboro residents who chose to drive because the location is hard to walk, bike, or take transit to.

A downtown library also builds resiliency into the parking system- if the library spaces for some reason fill up, there are several public downtown parking lots that may offer additional capacity.

2. The next reason that an urban library is a great opportunity is that it provides a chance to leverage public investment to incentivize private development.  There are a few projects in downtown Carrboro that would expand the commercial tax base and add jobs in service, entertainment, or office categories- if they could get enough of their space pre-leased to proceed. Having the library at University Mall clearly created beneficial spillover effects for businesses such as the Red Hen, Chick-Fil-A, Southern Season, and the U-Mall Farmers’ market. Putting a library at 300 East Main might accelerate one of their next phases of development, or help put the Roberson Square property back in play, as Jacquie Gist suggested on November 20th.

The County recently raised a 1/4-cent sales tax for economic development, and while there may be more highway-oriented development goals for county areas near Mebane, for example, in Carrboro the economic development opportunities are likely to reinforce the walkable, urban characteristics that Carrboro has that many other towns lack.  The County Commissioners should look at an urban library site in Carrboro as an opportunity to fulfill an expansion of tax base goal while also delivering on providing library services.

3. An urban library in Carrboro will have positive social justice and environmental effects.  If you have not seen the Rich Blocks Poor Blocks website, you should go check it out now. Enter Carrboro, and set it to show Incomes. Putting the library in an urban location will provide better access, on foot, the most equitable transportation mode- to some of the lowest-income Census Tracts in Orange County.  The fact that an urban location will be more walkable, bike-accessible, and transit-accessible will also reduce the carbon footprint and emissions of people of all incomes traveling to the library compared to a suburban location.

What the Orange County Commissioners Should Do

Given the state of the analysis provided for these sites, the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) should reject the staff recommendation to spend $10,000 to $15,000 studying these two sites to hasten a final decision.   Instead, the BOCC should add the Town Hall site back onto the list of potential sites along with 401 Fidelity St and 1128 Hillsborough Rd, and add 300 East Main and 201 S Greensboro St to be screened as well.  The BOCC should then engage the Town of Carrboro about how to develop criteria that do not automatically exclude urban outcomes, and consider if the RFP approach mentioned by Mayor Chilton regarding a joint library/economic development venture might generate any interest with developers that are likely to work in Carrboro.

Finally, the BOCC should ask the staff to clarify why their analysis came out like this. Does the current library staff think working next to a cemetery is undesirable? If that’s an issue, they should state that.  It would be good to know if the staff really likes 1128 Hillsborough as a site or simply really dislikes the other sites.  If County staff think any site is too expensive, too complicated to develop, or to constrained, they should explain why in clear language, i.e.: “the parking for the library and two other uses would conflict at peak times for evening book checkout based on our current patronage at the Hillsborough branch.”

What the Carrboro Board of Aldermen Should Do

Lest the County miss the message, the Aldermen should communicate clearly to the BOCC the importance of a library in Carrboro being an urban rather than a suburban project.  Carrboro Town Staff could move the ball forward by helping to proactively address county concerns about a complicated review process. The best way to get started might be to research mixed-use libraries in other cities, and see what zoning designations in Carrboro could accommodate a facility like the Hollywood Library in Portland, OR; Villard Avenue Library in Milwaukee, WI; or the Montgomery County flagship library in Rockville, MD.

What Concerned Citizens Should Do

If the picture at the top of this post looks interesting to you, or if you think that downtown Carrboro is much better place for a library than somewhere north of Estes Drive, please email the Orange County Board of Commissioners and email the Carrboro Board of Aldermen and tell them as much.  If possible, come to the BOCC meeting tonight, March 19th at 7:00 PM at 2501 Homestead Rd, and share your ideas in person.  I intend to be there to share mine.

This library is not planned to open until 2016-2017.  While we should not delay in moving the library project forward, there is certainly time to be more thoughtful about an outcome that succeeds on multiple objectives above and beyond checking the box of “there’s a library in Carrboro.”  Hopefully the Town and County can collaborate to figure out how create an outstanding project for Southern Orange County and Carrboro.

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Filed under: Carrboro, Economic Development, Libraries, Orange County, Portland, Schools, Walking

3 Responses to "A Little More Time and A Little More Communication Could Get Us an Awesome Urban Library that Works for Everyone in Southern Orange County"

  1. Blake Rosser says:

    Thanks for the extremely comprehensive and logical argument. I will be doing a small part to push for an urban library.

  2. […] of the refrains that was repeated earlier this spring in the county staff’s deeply flawed arguments for 1128 Hillsborough Rd as a library site was that there would be opportunities to co-locate the library with a park so […]

  3. […] many of the reasons enunciated in my March 2013 post on this issue, this is absolutely terrific news.  It is also exciting to see from the October 21 Chapel Hill […]

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