By Bill Glauber, Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, September 2, 2015
MILWAUKEE – Right now, it’s just open space on the first floor of the gracious Hills building in the heart of a historic neighborhood on Milwaukee’s near south side. But by late 2016 or early 2017, there will be books, computers and furnishings in a 21st-century library that will be designed to serve as an educational and neighborhood anchor at 906-910 W. Historic Mitchell St.
On Wednesday, the public was invited to an open house to tour the site and offer suggestions for the future home of the Milwaukee Public Library branch. When completed, the Mitchell St. facility will replace the near half-century-old branch at 1432 W. Forest Home Ave.The new library is part of a trend in Milwaukee of replacing old brancheswith new ones that are part of mixed-use developments.
In mixed-use development, retail shopping is often placed on the first floor with housing on the upper floors. The city has tweaked the model by putting libraries at street level with housing above. The Mitchell St. library will be topped by 57 market-rate apartments.
“We are on the leading edge nationally of using a mixed-use model for library development,” Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said.
The model — already used at the East Branch and Villard Square — enables the city to get more bang for its buck. By 2020, six Milwaukee libraries will be mixed-use facilities.
“We are really proud of the fact that at a time when resources are strapped we continue to invest in the libraries,” Barrett said.
Gorman Co. is the developer of the $10.4 million project, which includes $4.4 million in city funding for the library. The firm is applying for state and federal historic tax credits. The apartments will be designed by Quorum. Architectural firm HGA will design the new 16,000-square-foot library. There will be an attempt to blend the old with the new.
The building, constructed in 1919 as the Hills Department Store, is on the National Register of Historic Places. It retains architectural flourishes, including decorative features at the top of columns, historic stair railings and a mezzanine.
“Those are things you just can’t duplicate in a new building,” said Jane Dedering, associate vice president of HGA. Dedering said modern libraries need flexible spaces to cater to multiple uses and patrons who range from toddlers to seniors.
“Daylight is huge,” she said. “And really connecting with the community is important so it doesn’t feel generic.”
Sam McGovern-Rowen, Milwaukee’s library construction project manager, said people constantly ask “what do we need libraries for? Part of the thing we need them for is they’re town halls of the neighborhood, a gathering place, a community center.”
The Mitchell St. site sits nearby the St. Anthony School of Milwaukee and is within walking distance of South Division High School. The library will serve one of the youngest and most diverse communities in the city.
“We want the kids in this city to be using our libraries both in the summer and after school,” Barrett said.
Paula Kiely, director of the Milwaukee Public Library, said the Mitchell St. facility is “going to be a real jewel.”
Laura Gutierrez, vice president of academic affairs at St. Anthony School, said that as an educator “it’s phenomenal” to have the library coming to the new location.
“I want every resource to prepare the students academically, and resources for the workforce,” she said.
Julio Maldonado, of the Cesar Chavez Business Improvement District, said he was eager to see the library serve as a community space for everything from children doing their homework to providing an incubator for entrepreneurs.
Adam Carr, an artist who collaborated on a “Listening to Mitchell” project, said “people want something alive again” in the space.
“Mitchell Street is where the south side happened,” he said.
And a library, Carr said, is a place that can lead Mitchell St. into a new era.