Quietly — but energetically, and with great excitement — an entirely new library is taking shape downtown.
It’s got the same footprint, at the same wonderful riverside location. But that’s the only part that Westporters might recognize.
Since arriving as executive director 14 months ago, Bill Harmer has been speaking with patrons, staff members and town officials. He learned that the 30-year-old facility is no longer state-of-the-art. Even worse, it’s ill-equipped to offer what 21st-century users want and need.
“It’s hard to believe that even though it was built in 1986 — the year I graduated high school — the library did not focus on human interaction,” Harmer says. “The physical layout is very static and fixed.”
The Westport Library offers more than 1,700 programs a year. But there is only one real function area — the McManus Room — and with 140 seats, it’s sometimes too small.
The Maker Space is a huge success, but noise often disturbs folks looking for quiet contemplation or study.
The building lacks electrical outlets — a must in today’s wired world — and the HVAC, plumbing, elevators are failing.
A previous plan would have involved a major renovation of the entire structure. The new design will address all the challenges, creatively repurpose the building — and keep it open during the 2-year renovation.
Best of all: It’s just half the cost of that earlier proposal.
Harmer’s eyes light up as he describes the new design. “We’re going to flip the library upside down,” he says.
Not literally, of course. But it might as well seem that way.
The books that now fill the main floor will be moved down to the river level. In their place, Harmer envisions a new, flexible, people-dominated Great Hall that includes an intriguing “Forum.”
Blowing out all the walls downstairs opens up 10,000 square feet of flexible space. That’s enough space for most of the books. New windows, natural light — and a new entrance — will connect people much more closely to the river right outside.
Removing the book stacks opens up enormous room on the main level. The new plan takes full advantage — with the added advantage of flexibility.
The large “program space” accommodates up to 400 people — and includes a Times Square-like tiered grandstand, plus an LED screen behind the stage.
Everything in the area is on wheels, for easy movement. That makes the newest addition to Westport’s public space also the most flexible.
A “new” 130-seat McManus Room, a green room for presenters, several small- and medium-sized conference rooms, 7 small study rooms, an AV media lab, acoustic tiles and improved lighting are also planned for the main floor.
The very popular MakerSpace, meanwhile, will be relocated — and becomes mobile. It can be moved anywhere in the library (as needed) from its new corner spot.
Next to it is a “hacking space.” A laser cutter, lathes and other machinery will allow users to actually machine ideas they create in the MakerSpace.
A separate entrance to that area allows it to be used 24/7. Harmer envisions this as an “incubation space” for makers, authors, or any needing after-hours access to computers, printers and other technology. He’s not aware of any library anywhere that offers anything like this.
Oh, yes: There are plenty of electrical outlets everywhere.
Harmer says that the “Forum” area is perfect for “work, study, play, learning, enhancing skills and incubating idea.”
But that’s only part of what’s planned for the main level. The other side — “the Hub” — features a curated collection of popular books, Blu-rays and the like.
A new entrance — fronting Jesup Green — will bring users directly into the main level, adding to what Harmer calls the “energy” of the Forum.
The large reading room in the northwest corner remains, but with more flexibility to accommodate 90 people for programs. The smaller reading rooms will be renovated too — and their river views enhanced.
But wait! There’s more!
The cafe will expand threefold. An outdoor terrace, and after-hours entrance, will add to its appeal.
On the upper floor, the narrow balcony will be expanded by 5 feet. That allows up to 40 people to perch, looking out on the energy of the Great Hall.
One element will not change: the children’s library. “We like it where it is,” Harmer says. “It anchors the library. The river views are spectacular. And it’s safe and secure there.”
Harmer and his board of trustees hoped to bring the new plan in for under $20 million. The current estimate is $19.5 million. They’ll ask the town to contribute $5 million — a figure that has been in the long-range capital budget for a while — while the other 75% will be raised by the library.
For the past few months, Harmer has been talking to elected officials, and current and prospective donors.
“Everyone loves the plan,” the director says. “If we raise $5 million privately by June, we’ll get it done. The momentum is here. We’re already well on our way.”
The Planning and Zoning Commission and Architectural Review Board both gave preliminary approval in June. The Downtown Plan Implementation Committee approved it unanimously.
An initial meeting last week with the Board of Finance went well, Harmer says. He’ll ask for an appropriation in early November, following hoped-for final approval by the P&Z next month.
Contracts are already in place with an architect, construction manager and owner’s agent.
If all goes well — and so far it has — Harmer says there can be shovels in the ground next August. Construction would take 2 years. The library would remain open throughout — something that was also not possible in the previous plan.
Harmer calls this library proposal “creative, opportunistic, energetic and transformative.”
Exactly like the Westport Library itself.