New Library vs. Renovated Library: What would Santa Cruz get?

Renderings of the proposed new library (top) and the renovated library in downtown Santa Cruz.
(Via Jayson Architecture)

Let’s do a side-by-side comparison. The new downtown branch library will make a statement, and for a long time, about downtown Santa Cruz. Whether built new on a current parking lot or renovated where it’s sat since 1969, it’ll cost more than $40 million for the best possible of each. Wallace Baine talks with architect Abraham Jayson, giving us a virtual tour of what each would be like.

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Measure O, on the ballot in the city of Santa Cruz in November, contains an array of different components, from trees to parking spaces to vegetable stands. It offers two contrasting visions of what downtown might look like in the near future.

But to library lovers, one question is primary. All other considerations are just accessories:

Which option gives us the best library?

Of course, there’s a lot of wiggle room in that term “best.” Does it mean the grandest, the largest, the least expensive, the most familiar, the most impressive architecturally, the most compatible to a voter’s idiosyncratic vision of what Santa Cruz is or should be?

No matter if Measure O passes or fails, downtown Santa Cruz is certain to get a new library to serve as the main branch for the county’s 10-branch library system. There is about $27 million earmarked for it, thanks to the passage of Measure S in 2016; either for brand-new construction or renovation, the city will have to spend additional funds. But the differences between those two ideas of a new library are enormous — different addresses, different sizes, different construction jobs, different price tags.

At the center of Measure O is what’s known as the “library/mixed-use project,” a proposed three-in-one complex featuring 123 units of affordable housing, a three-level parking garage, and a new library built from the ground up on Cedar Street in the parking lot that currently holds the weekly farmers market. A “yes” vote on Measure O is, in fact, a “no” vote on that particular project going forward. Instead, Measure O proposes that the current library, at Center and Church streets across from Santa Cruz City Hall, be renovated on the same site.

So, in comparing the dueling projects, we’ll refer to the “New Library” and the “Renovated Library” — though, to be fair, both libraries, at least from the experience of community users, will feel new.

Time and money

Costs are, of course, a moving target. What’s true for a gallon of milk is true for a major construction project — today’s price is subject to change and likely to increase over time. Plus, for each project, there is an estimated cost for a “base” model, and an “alternate” model, with more amenities. But according to the most recent estimates from Jayson Architecture, the San Francisco-based firm that has developed plans for both projects, the costs for the alternate (or best possible) version of each plan breaks down like this:

  • for the New Library, including some extras like a roof-deck patio, costs would be $42,573,876;
  • for the Renovated Library, including extras like acoustic enhancements and other improvements, the price is $40,305,883.
A rendering of the New Library project seen from Lincoln and Cedar streets.
(Jayson Architecture via City of Santa Cruz)

There’s also a significant difference in the square footage between the two projects. The New Library would come in at about 38,000 square feet; the Renovation at about 30,000 square feet. So by the per-square-foot calculations, the price per square foot is greater for the renovation. The Renovated Library would cost $1,333 per square foot. The New Library would cost $1,118 per square foot.

A crucial distinction in cost calculation, said Jayson Architecture principal architect Abraham Jayson, is time. Plans for the New Library are about a year ahead of plans for the Renovated Library, he said. That’s because plans for the New Library are closer to the “design & engineering” step of the process that would lead to construction to begin in 2024. The renovation plans, derived from a 2019 feasibility study by Jayson, are in the “cost assessment” phase, earlier on the project timeline.

The opening of a Renovated Library would then be a year behind new construction, with construction starting in 2025. Both projects would take roughly two years before they would open their doors.

A rendering of the Renovated Library at the site of the current library, looking from across Center Street.
(Via Jayson Architecture)

In both cases, any delay is going to increase costs. The estimates for the Renovated Library, at this point, already include the extra costs of that time lag. “The longer things go,” said Jayson, “the more expensive it gets, or the smaller the library gets, if you want to look at it that way.”

Another cost for the Renovated Library — one that is included in that $40,305,883 projection — would be the construction of a temporary library that would be open during the two to three years of the renovation; such a cost isn’t necessary with the New Library.

These kinds of comparisons are complex and contain a lot of variables, said Jayson, and the differences between them is not only size and scale, but of kind: “These are two different projects. They do not contain the same things.”

What is a library in 2022?

The current downtown library on Church Street opened in 1969, obviously another era altogether in the Information Age. Santa Cruzans whose experience with libraries doesn’t go much beyond the downtown branch, or who are infrequent users of libraries in general, might not be aware of the revolution that has gone on in the arena of library design and use in the Digital Age.

Once primarily a repository for books, the library today has taken on several other different roles in a community: a place of discovery for kids, a hangout spot for teens and young people, a node of access to information beyond books, a gathering place for small groups or formal meetings, a free and public place for relaxation and social interaction, even a reflection of a community’s self-image in the same way that university libraries are an image of an institution’s image of itself.

The recently renovated Garfield Park library branch.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“Books remain really important,” said Jayson, whose firm specializes in library design. In Santa Cruz County, Jayson Architecture also did the recent library renovations in Boulder Creek, La Selva Beach, Garfield Park and the children’s annex of the Live Oak Library, all funded by the 2016 Measure S. “Books are a really important part of the knowledge ecosystem, but they’re only a part of that ecosystem now.”

Inside the recently renovated Garfield Park library branch.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Jayson, who graduated from UC Santa Cruz and lived in the area for several years in the early 2000s, said that libraries have taken up the role that old-fashioned “community centers” (like London Nelson in Santa Cruz) once held in the 1970s and ’80s. New libraries — like the recently opened Capitola branch library, designed by Oakland-based Noll & Tam Architects — regularly include a big children’s section, a teens’ section, and separate meeting rooms that might have different open hours than the library itself. And libraries continue to adapt in their flexibility.

“We’re seeing now a transition in libraries,” said Jayson, “from fixed computers, in a computer zone in the library, to laptop checkout carts. So you don’t necessarily sit at a computer area, and instead you can check out a laptop, go find a comfy lounge chair somewhere.”

Inside the recently renovated Garfield Park library branch.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Modern libraries have also rediscovered the benefits of high ceilings, for instance, both as a functional way to maximize natural light and as a symbol of the library’s stature in its community. “We firmly believe that libraries should have a civic stature, that these are buildings that are representations of our society and what we value,” Jayson said. “And there should be a sense of grandeur when you walk into a public library. That scale, that sense of awe that draws the eye up, I do think there’s a sense of power and respect for what we value in society in that architectural decision.”

The New Library

Jayson said that the library proposal that is part of the city’s library/mixed-use proposal — the proposal that Measure O would stop — has more inherent flexibility than the Renovated Library plan simply because it is starting from scratch, not having to adapt to a preexisting structure.

Natural lighting through floor-to-ceiling windows will be a central component of the new Cedar Street library.
(Via Jayson Architecture)

The plan, as it exists now, calls for two main levels, plus a mezzanine level, covering the length of Cedar Street, between Lincoln and Cathcart streets. The first floor would have entrances on Cedar and at the back from the parking garage. The first floor would feature the library’s main lobby and entranceway, plus staff offices and the library’s ample children’s area, as well as a couple of meeting rooms, one with an outside entrance.

The second floor constitutes the library’s main room, with its fiction and nonfiction sections, a genealogy/local history room, info and reference desks, and a teens’ room. A mezzanine level overlooks the second floor in a kind of atrium design. On the mezzanine level would be a more informal, cafe-like room with lounge chairs, a small art gallery, even a piano. That room opens out onto an outdoors library deck divided into a shaded area and a sunny area, with a view of downtown from the corner of Cedar and Cathcart. Visible but not accessible would be a “green roof,” a gardenlike area of native plants and greenery.

The proposed roof-deck patio on the mezzanine level on the new library, overlooking Cedar Street.
(Via Jayson Architecture)

“This would absolutely be the most significant project we’ve completed to date, and it would be thrilling,” said Jayson, who worked almost a decade at Noll & Tam before founding his own firm in 2017. The design for the New Library, said Jayson, will allow for the continuing evolution of the library, with maximum flexibility.

“In the center of the space,” he said, “there’s nothing fixed. The stacks in the middle of the room, the information desk, all of that, it’s all on wheels so it can be moved.”

The design is meant to embrace many different ideas of what a library should be. “Currently designed libraries are not a place where librarians are shushing people,” said Jayson of the library’s most common lingering stereotype. “We think about designing the library in zones. If you want a place to go study and concentrate, there’s going to be a place for you. If you want a place to gather with your friends, and kind of be a little more social and bubbly, there’s a place for you, too.”

The Renovated Library

Measure O proponents say that the spirit of Measure S funds was to renovate the existing library, not to build a new one altogether in a different place, and indeed most of the improvement projects at other library branches have been on the same site as the older library.

The Renovated Library plan does not have the kind of detailed design as the New Library, because it is well behind it in the development process. That 2019 plan is more a feasibility study, calling for a partial rebuild of the current library. By its nature,the architects will be working within limits they wouldn’t have in new construction.

The lobby of the alternate (upgraded) version of the renovated library at Church and Center streets.
(Via Jayson Architecture)

“With an existing building, there are choices made that are beyond your control,” said Jayson. “Floor-to-floor height, for example, is outside of your control, which restricts ceiling height.”

The renovation would include the removal of asbestos that is contained in the old library, and a rebuild of sections of the library that are seismically unstable. The 2019 study included two designs, one which kept to the budget restraints of the Measure S funding. That design does not include things such as a new roof, new sidewalks, parking, new windows on the second floor, acoustic ceilings and landscaping, among other amenities. The “alternate” design — the one that costs $40,305,883 — includes all those things.

“We did it to say, ‘Here’s what you can afford,’ which is going to be, I think, disappointing to the city and the community,” said Jayson. “And then, [in the alternate design], here are improvements within the constraints of the site, but not constrained by the budget that would make this a better project.”

Though the site and the basic structure of the Renovated Library would be the same, the design calls for entrances on both Center and Church streets. But the main purpose of the 2019 study was to determine whether it was feasible to renovate the library within the $27 million budget of Measure S.

The study concluded that it was feasible, but “the community will have to compromise on program, quality, and sustainability.” The alternate design takes away many of those compromises, but brings the budget up to within shouting distance of the much larger New Library’s budget.

Abraham Jayson said he cannot comment on Measure O specifically. But whichever choice the community makes, and whichever library it ends up with, it’s important to note that libraries remain a critical reflection of the community it serves.

“The foundational mission of libraries is always about knowledge,” he said, “rather than being about something more limiting, like the sale of a certain type of thing. If the underlying mission is not oriented toward the public good, then it’s not going to survive and be adaptable. And libraries are one of the few spaces in this world that are free for all, for the community and for the greater good. And there aren’t too many spaces like that in this world.”


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