A group of local advisors from the Back Bay met at the BPL for the second time on January 10 to look into a proposal by the Menino administration to add retail commercial space to what is by all accounts a dead zone on Boylston Street: the 1972 addition to the Central Library's McKim building, otherwise known as the Johnson building. Its cavernous street-level entry features Soviet-style security gates, a drab circulation counter and a lonely reference desk way down in the center, but "nothing that welcomes or embraces me," complained Meg Mainzer-Cohen of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay. The conference room where the meeting was held came itself under fire from Karen Cord Taylor of the Independent Newspaper Group who looked at the colorless rug, unattractive wood paneling and neon lighting and declared it all "ugly." Yet fixing the building's shortcomings by adding commercial space to attract shoppers to the library did not appear to be the logical solution to the Community Advisory Committee's (CAC) members, either. "There's no doubt about the demand. I could rent the space tomorrow," said Chris Gordon, a BPL development advisor. "But is it compatible with the BPL? Does it have to be integrated or separate? Is the mission of the BPL revenue or library services?" "Store owners don't want to feel they're passed by on the way to somewhere else, like a library," added Peter Sherin, also of the Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay. "I have an aversion to franchises," commented Cord Taylor. "Any retail here should be iconic for Boston. Another "Curious George" store puts me off."
Support for creating a conference center that would bring in revenue seemed equally lukewarm. "There's no daylight downstairs," Gordon pointed out. Cord Taylor said that a conference center is someplace you'd want to go to, not because you have to. She reiterated there's little architectural or visual interest in the Johnson building, as opposed to the adjacent McKim Building, which is filled with natural light and architectural detail. "Or like the JFK Library," piped up several other advisors, extolling the breathtaking water views from that library. How to make the BPL competitive with already available conference space in Boston was not an easy task, the consensus was, and unlikely to generate a lot of money.
A market analysis report by a consultant group, Byrne-McKinney, was not yet available for the committee's discussion, but library-mission-centered proposals seemed to generate most excitement among its members: a light-filled Children's Room; a prominently displayed exhibit about the history of libraries; a place for chess instruction or even a 'Little League of Chess centered in the library.' Architect Bill Rawn, who in the 1980s worked on a masterplan to revamp the New York Public Library and more recently designed both the successful Mattapan branch as well as the Cambridge Public Library, said his take on libraries is that they are egalitarian institutions that should be accessible to everyone and offer opportunities to all. "Parts of the Johnson building work very well, but others don't match the excitement of the McKim building,"said Rawn, whose firm heads the Johnson Improvements project. Referring to the library's Boylston Street location as a "weak retail block," Rawn suggested that "we have to think about this project as one that extends into the sidewalk."
BPL trustee, Rep. Byron Rushing, who attended the meeting as an observer, said plainly that the Johnson building was a 'mistake' that we are now 'stuck with.' "Had we had a Community Advisory Committee when planning the Johnson building, it would never have been built," he asserted. "Before there was a Johnson building, we never talked about a McKim building. It was always the Central Library or Copley Library." Rushing expressed a strong desire to change the name of the Johnson building. "The trustees are very open to this project," he said. "We don't want to hear that something is 'too cutting-edge' or even 'too expensive.' "
The next meeting for the Johnson Improvements project will be Wednesday, March 13, 8:30 am, Central Library's Commonwealth Salon. The public is invited.