By David Pendered
The fate of the Central Library in Downtown Atlanta will be the red herring at a meeting Tuesday. The real issue that’s not on the agenda is much more significant – the long-term viability of the Atlanta-Fulton Pubic Library System.
The one item on the agenda is what’s to become of Central Library. Members of the library board decided in May that two options exist – renovate the 1980 structure, or build a new library somewhere else in the downtown area.
The situation facing the library system and, by extension, the Fulton County Board of Commissioners that funds the library system, is that the system still has money to spend from the $275 million bond issue that voters approved in 2008.
The second phase of construction is to begin this year. Projects include the Central Library, for which $85 million has been earmarked. An unspecified number of other projects are pending, according to information the system has released. The library system has already opened seven new libraries.
However, even as facilities are built, the county is cutting library services, according to a letter library board Chairperson Stephanie Moody sent a letter to Fulton County’s Board of Commissioners.
The laundry list Moody drafted includes these two items:
- Total operating hours each week have shrunk by a third since 2014. That represents a drop of more than 500 hours, from 1,562 hours in 2014 to 966 currently, on weekdays and weekends;
- The budget for materials was cut by more than half, to $1.6 million. Moody’s letter notes: “As one patron put it, ‘Can’t something be done to rethink the county’s priorities and bring back what was lost?’”
Declines in spending to operate the library system are evident in Fulton County’s budget. Fulton commissioners approved $27.6 million for the library in the current 2016 budget cycle. That’s 4 percent below the 2012 actual budget of $28.8 million, according to Fulton’s budget documents.
Against this backdrop, rumors have swirled that the library system intends to close and sell the Central Library As so often is the case in Atlanta, the building was designed by a noted architect. The prospect of losing the building has ignited a backlash – small to date, but precedent suggests the fire could spread. Moody emphasized at a board meeting that no plan has been made regarding the future of the Central Library.
A petition to save the building already is being circulated by the non-profit Architecture and Design Center, member Nathan Koskovich told the library board in March, according to minutes of the meeting. He said organization was founded to promote architectural heritage in Atlanta and Georgia.
Koskovich told the library board that it’s not too early to start an effort to save the building:
- “It’s a significant building. It’s a building been studied by architects and scholars all over the world. It is by a significant architect, Marcel Breuer. This is one of his last projects he completed. In many ways, it’s a sibling project to his Whitney Museum in New York. … We’d also ask that the building be renamed for Marcel Breuer, the architect, who, as far as we know, doesn’t have a library named after him. “
The current interest actually continues an effort that dates to 2008.
At that time, some in the architectural community expressed concerns that the Central Branch would be demolished. They launched an outreach effort, including a website, that was headlined by Isabelle Hyman, a professor of art history at New York Univerity. Their website laid out a case for keeping the existing building.
Breuer’s name may be unfamiliar outside those who follow the Bauhaus school of design. But two of his students at Harvard University have become household names in metro Atlanta.
Philip Johnson designed One Atlantic Center, aka the IBM Tower in Midtown.
I.M. Pei designed the Gulf Oil Building in Midtown that was built in 1949 and demolished in 2013. Pei, incidentally, had agreed to design skyscrapers near Perimeter Mall in the mid 1980s, but DeKalb County’s Board of Commissioners declined to rezone the property from residential to dense commercial and the project was abandoned.
The library board is hosting a public meeting Tuesday from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. on the main floor of the library, located at One Margaret Mitchell Square, in Downtown Atlanta.