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Library plans new $100 million main branch. What will that mean for uptown Charlotte?

The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library will unveil design plans and a public fundraising campaign Thursday for a modernized main branch at its historic location, an over $100 million endeavor aimed at galvanizing economic development in uptown’s North Tryon corridor.
The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library will unveil design plans and a public fundraising campaign Thursday for a modernized main branch at its historic location, an over $100 million endeavor aimed at galvanizing economic development in uptown’s North Tryon corridor. Charlotte

The Charlotte Mecklenburg Library will unveil design plans and a public fundraising campaign Thursday for a modernized main branch at its historic location, an over $100 million endeavor aimed at galvanizing economic development in uptown’s North Tryon corridor.

The county’s capital improvement plan proposes an 80,000-square-foot new Main Library building, outfitted with community meeting rooms and interactive technology. It would be a smaller, sleeker structure — scaling back from the current 157,000-square-foot building, according an April 2017 Observer story.

The design is part of a massive push to reinvigorate the North Tryon area of uptown. About 15 years ago, uptown development centered on the northern end of center city, while the southern edge lagged. That changed with the opening of the Levine Center for the Arts at Stonewall and South Tryon streets.

On the North Tryon corridor, the Foundation For The Carolinas is working to bring back the historic Carolina Theatre with an Intercontinental Hotel above it.

“This library in particular will combine all forms of media, and all forms of civic engagement, and the opportunity to convene people — and that never goes out of style,” said Cathy Bessant, the North Tryon Advisory Committee chair and chief operations and technology officer at Bank of America, in a phone interview. “Having it be open, and accessible, and inclusive is exactly the type of spirit we’re trying to set for North Tryon.”

The county has committed $65 million in public funding to the ambitious overhaul, according to the capital improvement plan for fiscal years 2019 through 2023. It is unclear how other funding sources, including the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library Foundation’s campaign, will cover the rest of the building’s $100+ million cost.

Ann Stawski, the marketing and communications leader at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, said that about 3.4 million people visit the system’s 20 branches each year. Nearly 6 million items are borrowed annually, with an additional 1 million items accessed digitally, she said.

But the current Main Library, Stawski said, can no longer accommodate shifting technological and space needs.

“What we see is that libraries are more popular today than they’ve ever been,” Stawski said. “It’s really showing how Charlotte and how the new library can lead the way to this corridor of knowledge.”

Stawski would not comment on funding or design specifics ahead of Thursday’s press conference, where architectural renderings will be displayed. The presentation marks the culmination of focus groups to gather community input, she said.

Situated at 310 N. Tryon St. since 1903, the Main Library was replaced in the 1950s and expanded in 1988. Beyond this new building, the project calls for a 22,565-square-foot temporary space to “support essential library operations during construction,” according to the capital improvement plan.

“It was important that the library remain in a prominent space in our community,” Mecklenburg Commissioners Chair George Dunlap said in a phone interview. “The library is outdated...there’s just wasted space. The hope is that the modernization of the library will make it accessible to people all throughout Mecklenburg County.”

He emphasized the North Tryon location’s proximity to the light rail, adding local leaders hope to increase affordable housing options in the area.

The North Tryon Vision Plan, released in 2015, outlined economic opportunities — particularly among arts and cultural institutions — to rejuvenate a large swath of uptown that has remained underdeveloped compared to the city’s core.

County Commissioner Susan Harden, of District 5, said the Main Library will serve as an important anchor — and destination — for North Tryon, surrounded by other cultural institutions.

“It’s literally a once in a 50- to 100-year project,” Harden said in a phone interview. “When you think about all the things you want to encourage in a community, having a place where people can go to learn and study, and it’s open to everyone, that’s a really, really good thing.”

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