Should the nation’s best library go to the mall?

Congratulations to the Howard County Library System for being selected the 2013 library of the year by Gale and Library Journal magazine. Note that the cover story in the June 15 issue of Library Journal, as well as pretty much any other story about the library system these days, highlights the new Miller Branch and Historical Center in Ellicott City.

That’s fine by me, since I live in Ellicott City less than a mile from the Miller Branch; it’s my main library and I visit it frequently. However let’s not forget that the former flagship library in Howard County, namely the Central Branch in Columbia, is not nearly so cover story worthy these days. A while ago I imagined how the Howard County Library System might work with the county government to re-imagine the Central Branch for the 21st century, building a new and larger facility next to Symphony Woods and adding a startup incubator and co-working space to the existing library functions.

However one problem I glossed over was that of parking. I don’t have exact figures, but my estimate is that the new Miller Branch has at least three times the number of parking spaces as the current Central Branch. An expanded Central Branch might need even more parking than that. I suggested using the parking garage planned for Symphony Woods, but that might be a relatively long walk.

So here’s another out-of-the-box option for a new Central Branch: Why not put it at the Mall in Columbia? Both JCPenney and Sears have been having severe ongoing financial problems, and it’s possible that either or both may close their stores at the mall in the next 10 years. If for some reason the mall can’t find new anchor tenants, that would open up the possibility of putting a new library at the mall, either reusing one of the existing store buildings or constructing an entirely new building.

Putting a new library at the mall would certainly address the parking problem. It would also provide some synergy with existing activities at the mall: library patrons could eat at the mall, and the library could provide a stream of new visitors for the mall’s stores. The existing Central Branch site could then be reused for some other purpose, for example for a future performing arts space as part of the Symphony Woods cultural district.

I’m totally ignorant in commercial real estate matters (I wish Dennis Lane were still around ask about this), so I have no idea if the economics of this might work. However I thought it was an interesting idea to think about as the redevelopment of downtown Columbia proceeds apace.

(For more information on repurposing malls see the Atlantic Cities article “7 uses for failing shopping malls”. For more information on libraries and malls see the libraries in shopping malls page from the Celsus library architecture resource.)