Monday, July 21, 2008

Library, Transit & Washington Square: an urban downtown

When we think about considerations for a new or remodeled library facility, accessibility is high on the list. While there are a lot of issues we can consider in the area -- including parking, ADA concerns, bicycle parking, and easy pedestrian access -- one issue that stays near the top is access to our transit system.

In our facility study, our consultants’ report on focus groups noted:
...participants talked about the perceived security problems with the transit center and its users being located between the library and the parking ramp. Some thought that threat kept people from coming downtown to use the library.
This is, unfortunately, an unfair misperception, both of security and the nature of the perceived “threat.” We believe the area is safe, and that any problems, real and perceived, are not due to transit users, nor library users, but to general downtown loiterers. The problem is complex, and pointing a finger at transit users is unjust and unhelpful.

Our current location is across the street from the Transit Center, which is the hub for all the bus lines in the Fox Cities. This is a great asset for our operations, and even if we were to have a new building, I would not want to be too many blocks away from this hub. Our facility study consultants asked members of our building committee and library staff what was most important in choosing a location for the library. One of our key criteria was: “Downtown location ... close to bus lines.” When they interviewed community leaders, Terry Bergen, our Library Board President, said it was important for the library that “you can get there in one bus ride ... every special population and children use the transit center. It’s important for the library to be close to the transit system.”

As the library is part of an urban downtown we do have a neighborhood problem with people loitering, littering and talking loudly, occasionally with explicit loud obscenities and often blocking the sidewalks. This problem is most concentrated on the sidewalk which is outside the library, adjacent to our parking lot and across the street from the Transit Center. This problem was exacerbated a few years ago when a direct legislation referendum banned smoking on transit property, which created sort of a smoking area on this sidewalk and made it into a designated hangout.

Some of the people who hang out on the sidewalk are transit users, many are not. Some are library users, many are not. Some are homeless, most are not. Many are smokers. Many are decent and friendly, if you take the time to talk to them. Some are middle class, most are not. Some are mentally ill, or cognitively delayed. Some have been banned from the library and some have been banned from riding the bus. Some know the police well. Some take their meals at the Salvation Army. Some are there for a quick smoke. Many have no other place to go, but they are hanging out on the sidewalk because that’s where they want to be. All of them are human beings.

It’s upsetting to transit supporters to have problems unfairly laid entirely at their door. It’s upsetting to us every time our staff hears the complaint about people hanging out. It’s upsetting when we get letters from parents and statements from local clergy citing the library neighborhood as unsafe. It’s upsetting when people tell us that they will use libraries in neighboring communities rather than come into an unfriendly environment. It’s upsetting when the women on our staff have to walk through occasionally hostile groups to get to their cars, often at 9:00 PM.

I think the key word in the consultant statement is “perceived.” There do not seem to be actual safety and security problems. There are problems of cleanliness and a sometimes unfriendly environment, but to our knowledge no-one has been hurt or assaulted by the sidewalk groups. People have been forced to walk in the street, and women have been subject to unwelcome remarks and taunts. Though this may not be unsafe, it is unacceptable.

The problem is that people are congregating in a place that was not designed for groups to gather, but which is needed as an effective clean, safe, and friendly passageway for the library. It is not a clean and friendly passageway. We need to give the groups who loiter on the sidewalk a better place to be and to provide effective disincentives for behaviors that create problems for others.

A group of neighborhood stakeholders has been talking for over a year about improving our area. We're working to find solutions to our common neighborhood concerns, including this loitering problem. We came up with the name “Washington Square” as encompassing our neighborhood. Appleton Downtown Inc. has assumed a coordinating role. Participants include many City departments (Library, Transit, Police, Public Works, Community Development, Park & Rec.), Harmony Cafe, the Children’s Museum, Appleton Area School District and others.

There may not be a security threat, but there is a problem. It didn’t develop overnight and we’re not going to fix it quickly either. But we’re working on it.

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