Feeling small

The Baltimore Sun

Julie Drabenstadt lives two minutes from the Savage library, but the branch is small and often crowded. Children's classes often fill up before Drabenstadt can get her 4-year-old daughter registered, and she frequently has to wait for materials to be sent from elsewhere.

"It seems like a lot of the books I want have to come from the Central and Glenwood branches," said Drabenstadt, who often goes to the county's larger libraries.

Elkridge residents have expressed similar complaints about their branch.

"There's not enough reference material," said Howard Johnson, president of the Greater Elkridge Community Association. "The library is consistently full."

Said Drabenstadt, "Elkridge and Savage are kind of the older stepchildren among libraries."

That is why residents along the U.S. 1 corridor are eagerly awaiting library officials' plan for upgrading the two smallest branches among the six in the county system.

A long-established county plan for major redevelopment that is marked by densely populated mixed-use projects along U.S. 1 also calls for larger, improved libraries.

In response, library officials are pushing the results of a feasibility study commissioned by the library trustees that recommends keeping both branches in their current locations with new or enlarged buildings. The library board, which commissioned the $234,000 study, approved the findings last month, but library director Valerie Gross said she has not yet reviewed the plan with the Ulman administration.

Both branches opened in the early 1990s and feature 15,200 square feet of space, plus 2,100 square feet each for seniors and in Savage, for the Health Department. The goal is new branches with about 35,000 square feet.

The Savage branch could be renovated and enlarged, with Health Department offices and space for seniors moving nearby to a planned North Laurel Community Center, the study said. Another option would provide a new, two-story building with a three-level garage to achieve the needed increase in space.

Elkridge should get a new, two-story library on the existing site, according to the study conducted by consultants Regan and Associates of Herndon, Va., and architects Grimm + Parker of Bethesda.

But saying it and paying for it are two different things, especially in a recession, said County Executive Ken Ulman. The county is likely to have a tough time finding enough money to complete the most immediate library project - the $29 million combined library and Howard County Historical Society center scheduled to get under way this year on Frederick Road in Ellicott City. The county has appropriated $10.7 million through this fiscal year, but $18.3 million more is needed. The library would use more than 50,000 of the building's 63,000 square feet.

The strain reflects a chronic financing problem for Howard County: how to pay for expensive school additions and renovations while also providing other needed amenities.

"The problem still is that the Board of Education wants more money than is affordable," said Public Works Director James Irvin, who oversees the county's capital budget.

The school board has asked for $125 million next fiscal year just for school projects, but the county cannot afford to borrow even $100 million for the entire county's needs, Irvin said.

Gross said she is not asking for planning money for the Savage and Elkridge branch projects until fiscal 2011. "It depends on where the economy goes," she said.

Meanwhile, Johnson said some Elkridge residents worry that plans for new cultural buildings, including a possible library in Columbia, could pre-empt their needs.

The options laid out in the feasibility study would cost more than $20 million per library, Gross said, though they are preliminary estimates. She said the library board's first choice for Savage is a new two-story, 35,000-square-foot building with a parking garage. A second, less-expensive option would involve demolishing a portion of the existing building that is not accessible to the disabled and adding more modern space to provide 26,000 square feet. Both options would require moving the Savage branch to temporary quarters during construction.

County Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a North Laurel-Savage Democrat, said she wants the library to remain on the current site but had not studied the options.

The 18-year-old Savage branch is off Gorman Road just west of U.S. 1, and the Elkridge branch is along the highway at Rowanberry Drive.

At Elkridge, both preferred options show a new two-story building close to Rowanberry Drive.

Shoring up the existing building to hold a second story would be more expensive than constructing a new library, Gross said. Also, the new building could be constructed while the current one remains in use. Once the new quarters are ready, the old building would be demolished, Gross said. That would save moving costs and rental for temporary quarters during construction.

County Councilwoman Courtney Watson, an Ellicott City Democrat who has campaigned hard for more amenities in Elkridge, said that many patrons walk to both branches from nearby homes. Watson said that many seniors walk to the Elkridge senior center from nearby apartment complexes.

"I'm definitely pleased the library board is looking at options on the existing site," she said.

Gross said the senior center could either remain there in a new Elkridge library building or be moved if county officials determined that another site would be better.

library options

Savage

* Demolish part of the one-story building and construct a 10,766-square-foot addition, resulting in a 29,974-square-foot facility with 106 parking spaces.

* Build a two-story facility with 35,000 square feet and a 210-space parking garage.

Elkridge

* Two primary options call for a new 35,000-square-foot, two-story building with 210 parking spaces. Stormwater plans and entrance locations differ.

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