New Annapolis Library: Is It Good Urbanism?

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When The Capital published an article about the new Annapolis library design – you can see the site plan and initial renders here: http://www.aacpl.net/new-annapolis – my initial reaction and comment on The Capital site was the snarky “Call the architecture police!”. In our  West Annapolis Civic Association neighborhood Facebook group I ditched the snark and made two substantive comments, which I also submitted to the Library association:

  1.  Of course this is subjective, but looks too modern for the surrounding architecture. A variant of colonial revival would be much more in keeping with Annapolis.
  2. The preferred site plan with the parking in back is best and they acknowledge a “strong connection to West Street” but the MAIN entrance needs to be on West Street, not on the parking lot. Front doors facing a parking lot are counter to traditional urban architecture.

What ultimately bothers me about the design and site renderings is that this building is not sensitive to the area. It is a generic modern design that could exist in virtually any suburban location. This section of West Street is the transition from the loved “inner” and the unloved “outer” or “upper” West Street. The comprehensive plan and the Upper West Street Sector Study both spend a lot of time saying essentially, we need to extend the things that make inner West Street work out farther. Look at the renderings in the sector study. Do they look this the picture above? Architectural preferences aside, it is how the building addresses the street that is most important. We want this street to be people oriented and for that to happen we need the building to respect people on the street, making it appealing and inviting for people walking, not favoring auto mobility. This means putting cars in the back, siting the building closer to the street and having the main entrance on West Street, not turning it’s back to the street and facing the parking lot for motorists convenience.

The best way to illustrate this is with an extreme example of the contemporary schlock that passes for “urbanism” in the City of Annapolis (outside the historic district anyway): the new-ish CVS on Bay Ridge Ave (site of the old Mexican Cafe). Before you jump on me and say, yeah, but that’s Forest Drive/Bay Ridge Ave and it’s a car sewer anyway, yeah, I get that but aren’t we trying to change that?

 

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Facing north.

The CVS is chock full of check the box city planning. A little something for every interest group, trees, a wide sidewalk, gobs of parking, brick facades, stormwater management; but it all combines for a horrendous end result and this is what I want to avoid happening at the new West Street Library.

Let’s start to pick this apart: The wide sidewalk with a grass buffer from the street is great, although it needs street trees in the median between the sidewalk and roadway, but the “right in, right out” slip lanes to facilitate quick car turns off the 35-45 mph traffic are horrible for anyone walking as cars don’t naturally pause and if someone gets hit, it will not be pretty. This design telegraphs to motorists that throughput and speed are the most important things, not stopping and looking for pedestrians in the crosswalk. This is the same idea that wide lanes, straight runs and no street trees promotes. But the biggest issue is the front door is located in the far back corner of the building which you can not even see from the road.

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The view from the street.

This is the view from the road which highlights how “disrespectful” the building is to the public realm. Note the service equipment on the left. This type of stuff is usually relegated to the back of the building where people won’t see it. The faux divided light windows and faux second floor (I guarantee there is no actual second floor) are meant to be vaguely reminiscent of Annapolis’ colonial architecture (except for the CVS trademark awnings) for anyone whizzing by at 40 mph and remind people of real colonial architecture like that of the state office buildings on Bladen Street:

state office buildings

Real colonial architecture, although actually built in the 60s.

Now back to the CVS and the coup d’ etat, a drive thru pharmacy.

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Facing south. It almost looks like a prison with superficial accouterments.

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The coup d’ etat: the drive thru.

This is the ultimate in autocentric design. Yeah, yeah, I know people don’t want to get the kids out of the car to pick up a simple prescription, but jeeze couldn’t you put that in the back along with the service equipment and not have it be the predominant feature on the street? This says “don’t bother coming here unless you are in a car”. Furthermore anyone walking to the front (actually, back) door has to walk across the parking lot (there is no pedestrian path from the sidewalk to the door) and perhaps worse, the drive thru lane that is so common on fast food restaurants like my favorite new Taco Bell on West Street.

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The new Taco Bell farther out West Street. Note to walk into the restaurant, you have to cross the drive thru lane. How inviting for a pedestrian. But then again no one walks here.

Now with the sensitivities of extreme examples, go back and look at the preferred site plan along with the image at the top of this piece:

preferred library site plan

The design doesn’t completely turn its back on street but gives it the cold shoulder and is sited like any other typical suburban office park-like building. While not nearly as bad as the CVS or Taco Bell, a suburban office park-like building is not appropriate for the traditional environment of this part of West Street which at least initially celebrated the street’s public realm. Since the lifespan of this building is planned to be more than 50 years, we should make sure that it will integrate with the long term plans for the area so that as West Street is once again celebrated as a wonderful public realm, this building won’t turn into an eyesore.

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