New Castle County (NCC) officials unveiled renderings for a 41,000-foot
library and innovation campus, the centerpiece of a broader effort to revitalize a struggling corridor of Route 9 in Wilmington.
“This is a library of the future,” said Sophia Hanson, general manager of the NCC Department of Community Services. “We’re going to give people access to all levels of art and literature and technology.”
The Library and Innovation Campus will be an assortment of ideas Hanson and a team of library managers culled from researching leading libraries in Denmark, Colorado, Brooklyn, N.Y., as well as Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute.
According to county officials, the state will fund $9 million of the $21 million price tag for the Library and Innovation Campus. About $1.5 million will come from private donors and the county will pick up the remainder. It’s an investment Hanson and county officials said will be a catalyst for change in an underserved target area of about three square miles.
That’s where officials are focusing their revitalization efforts, which include the rehabbing of existing homes, creation of additional opportunities for home ownership, integration of pedestrian-friendly walkways, and potential redesign of roads within the district.
County Executive Tom Gordon said the library will be a wide draw for residents of New Castle County, but closer to home it will offer services and opportunities for local children and adults.
“What’s going to attract the kids? They aren’t necessarily going to school, so how do we get them to go to a place that’s very exciting, that offers coding, computer science, and math?” asked Gordon.
The targeted area around the innovation district is home to four neighborhoods: Rosegate, Simonds Gardens, Mayview Manor, and Dunleith, the first subdivision to offer suburban housing to African-Americans in the 1950s. But besides the Rose Hill Community Center and Garfield Police Athletic League, the unincorporated stretch of Route 9 has little to offer but crime, truancy, and foreclosures.
Lifelong Dunleith resident Sandra Smithers said the Library and Innovation Campus will bridge an important gap between tech-based classes offered by Colonial School District and residents with little access to technology.
“If our young people don’t have an opportunity to apply what they learn, there’s always going to be an achievement gap,” said Smithers, a retired educator and president of Dunleith Civic Association.
“We have a high high school dropout rate, extremely high unemployment rate – this area is almost like an island unto itself,” said Smithers. “It’s seen almost as extension of city so people believe it’s like the city but it’s not.”
Smithers said the area is bound by distance from activities associated with higher learning, particularly cultural development, but that the new library promises something more than a swimming pool and basketball courts and the existing lending library housed in the Garfield PAL since 2008.
County officials said they still have a long way to go. They recently launched a farmers market at Garfield Park and would like to move that to the new campus once it’s opened. In addition, county officials said they hope to improve pedestrian traffic, particularly in front of the library location.
The Wilmington Area Planning Commission (WILMAPCO) hosted a Walkable Community Workshop in the spring to identify trouble spots for safe walking and bicycling.
“The main concern the county had was just how to access the new library,” said Senior Planner Bill Swiatek. “One of the key issues this corridor has is that there’s not good inner connectivity between the neighborhoods.”
Swiatek said some parts of the corridor offered adequate sidewalks, whereas others, including the area around the library site, offered none.
“Crossing route 9 is a key concern,” he said. “DelDOT (Delaware Department of Transportation) has an active project for countdown intersections in the area, including Hillview Avenue and Route 9, right where the library is going.”
There have been five pedestrian crashes between 2011 and 2013, said Swiatek. Another occurred during the workshop.
“We have a grant for food and a farmers market. We’re spending a great deal of our focus on housing and improving the housing around the library,” said Gordon. “We’re addressing hotels and crime. We’re taking all of our resources in government and focusing on this.”
In the last year, the county spent nearly half a million dollars in state funding to purchase and rehab 39 properties. According to Hanson, they sold the properties at market value.
“These aren’t deteriorating neighborhoods,” said Gordon. “These are good families that live in these areas. The shootings and drugs — we’re turning them around.”
Hanson said that the county has received support for the program and that residents have turned out in droves for meetings about the Library and Innovation Campus.
Community Services Manager Diana Brown said the role of libraries has been instrumental in bridging education and social gaps — from raising literacy rates to introducing the computer to patrons who didn’t have access to one.
“As jobs are changing dramatically, libraries are being looked at as a way to introduce skills needed in today’s world,” said Brown. “We’re providing people with the ability to see programs services and software they (would) see if they were working in the job market.”
“Libraries are transforming across the country,” said Brown. “We used to talk about basic literacy, and now its computer literacy and financial literacy.”
Brown said that technology rentals and use are quickly eclipsing books at libraries, and the new library on Route 9 will meet the new demand.
Hanson and Brown praised Gordon’s vision for the innovation district and said they were given latitude in designing the new library.
“He really lets me thrive and dream,” said Hanson, who added that the new library will house a Scriptorium for writers, as well as a children’s area that includes a Lego room complete with two Lego murals featuring Eric Carle’s “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and Ezra Jack Keats’ “The Snowy Day.”
Another feature touted by Brown and Hanson is the Makerspace, part of a dry/wet lab area that will house a 3-D printer, robotics, even a space for video editing. A multipurpose room will house a café while a black box performance space will be available for poetry readings.
The main library space will house books, and small spaces carved into walls will offer cozy reading spaces. The marketplace will showcase new library materials, e-books, and audiobooks, and the Scriptorium will offer a quiet space for reading and writing.
Services will include ESL classes, as well as a number of writing workshops, tutoring, and small-group work.
The campus could also include a space for state services and skills training.
Builder EDiS will break ground on the project September 22, with completion scheduled for December 2016.