Big Updates Coming for the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County

The library's plans include improvements for all 41 of its branches across the county — including some potential big changes for the Main Library downtown.

Jan 10, 2020 at 12:25 pm
click to enlarge Renderings for a renovated Vine Street entrance at the library's downtown main branch - Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
Renderings for a renovated Vine Street entrance at the library's downtown main branch

Roughly a year after successfully asking Hamilton County voters to approve a $19 million-a-year, 10-year levy increase, the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County this week unveiled plans for how it will spend that money to revamp its 41 branches throughout the county. 

Every branch will get some updates, according to library officials, but some will see more extensive improvements — or even entirely new construction.

The north building of the library's two-building Main Library downtown — once considered for sale by the Library Board of Trustees — will stay put. That will be good news for activists who railed against a proposal to sell the library's north building downtown three years ago. The library's board later opted against that decision. 

Meanwhile, other big changes will likely come to both the Vine Street and Walnut Street sides of the southern building.

The library spent more than a year drawing up its facilities master plan, and library officials say they engaged more than 3,000 patrons by administering surveys and holding more than 40 public listening sessions and 15 focus groups, the latter facilitated by Cincinnati consulting group Design Impact.   

The efforts to revamp the system — expected to cost more than $150 million over the next 10 years — launch this spring with the roughly $7 million renovation of Price Hill's historic 111-year-old library building and the construction of an addition that will double its size. The building has been closed since 2018 after plaster fell from the ceiling there, and a smaller temporary space nearby has housed the neighborhood's branch since.

The 115-year-old Walnut Hills branch will also receive its first-ever renovation and expansion starting in the fall at an expected cost of up to $12 million.

The Reading branch of the library will get some maintenance work in the form of new paint and carpet and the Elmwood branch will get technology upgrades this year, including laptop kiosks.

The 540,000-square-foot downtown Main Library location will see a "reimagining" of its Vine Street entrance starting this year. Currently, steps lead up to an elevated fountain area at that entrance. The plan would create a new plaza for patrons at street level.

Significant maintenance work on electrical systems as well as skylight and elevator replacement will also occur at the downtown branch's south building starting this year. The flagship location will also seem some "small scale reorganization," according to the plan, including a rethinking of the library's atrium to make it more welcoming to patrons.

Further down the line, the library is considering big changes to the Main Library's Walnut Street side. The library's plan includes three scenarios for currently-underutilized space east of the main branch's south building. Presently a fenced-in parking lot, according to the plans, the area could become a 250-space parking facility with ground-level retail, a 500-space parking facility with a 250-350-person auditorium and retail, or a high-density mixed-use space including retail, event and residential space.

Proposals for the Walnut Street side of the main branch of the public library - Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
Proposals for the Walnut Street side of the main branch of the public library

It is not yet clear which, if any, of these options the library would take up.

"In any case, modification will likely be explored for the Walnut Street frontage of the downtown Main Library, including relocating one of the library’s entries back to its previous orientation toward Eighth Street," the plan reads. "There are a variety of project funding structures that could be explored, such as a public-private partnership or land lease, either of which could provide funding for library construction projects improving public service spaces and funding systemwide improvement efforts."

The library won't be closing or consolidating any spaces, according to the plan. 

"Readers will not find closure or consolidation recommendations in this 10 year plan," library Director Paula Brehm-Heeger writes in the document. "While we may consider consolidations at some later point, our year of careful study revealed that locations sometimes considered for closure or consolidation provide a very high impact for communities in need without consuming significant resources and funding."

The library's plan doesn't just outline improvements — it creates a new system of classification for the library system's branches.  

The Main Library exists in a category of its own under the plan as the central facility providing support for the entire system.

Three other categories are also proposed: There are 15 "next generation" library branches like Price Hill that will be between 12,000 and 25,000 square feet and will contain both traditional and cutting-edge features and serve as regional destinations for library patrons. The plan also lays out four "big next generation" branches, including the one in Walnut Hills, which will be branches more than 20,000 square feet.

Under the plan, another 19 "neighborhood libraries" between 6,000 and 12,000 square feet will provide vital services to each community and six "focused libraries" at less than 6,000 square feet will provide services tailored to the specific needs of their neighborhoods. 

At least six relocations and replacement building projects are planned for "big next generation" sites in Forest Park, Deer Park and Delhi Township and "neighborhood" branches in Mount Healthy and Miami Township, along with another potential replacement in Madisonville, though that one hasn't been decided for sure yet. A "focused" library in Blue Ash could also get a replacement under the plan.