Community debates Buncombe library plan

Black Mountain library
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL: Although a proposed plan for the Buncombe County library system would replace the current Black Mountain branch with a larger, better-equipped regional facility, many residents say they'd prefer to keep the more modest library in its current location. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County

Is bigger always better, or is less sometimes more? Those two design philosophies are colliding in discussions over an $81 million slate of recommended changes to the Buncombe County Public Libraries.

As outlined by architect Maureen Arndt, principal of Dallas-based consultancy 720 Architects, in a Library Master Plan commissioned by the county, the proposal would shift Buncombe’s system away from a hub-and-spoke design centered on Asheville’s Pack Memorial Library. The libraries would instead use a regional branch model, in which bigger, newly renovated facilities throughout the county provide patrons with more services.

Such an approach, Arndt says, would boost the county’s overall library square footage and programming while increasing access for all residents. “One of the most important considerations was to address the buildings that are in the worst physical condition from an architectural, structural, mechanical/electrical/plumbing perspective,” she adds. “The regional system can solve other major challenges as well — including safety concerns for libraries that have a single staff member working at a time, libraries that lack adequate parking and less duplication of books and services.”

But to focus resources on these regional branches, the plan would close three existing libraries in Black Mountain, Oakley/South Asheville and Swannanoa. Neighborhood groups in those areas fiercely oppose the changes, as they’ve made clear in recent community listening sessions hosted by the county.

“Even though things are, in some instances, pretty desperate in terms of facilities, this attitude that we prefer what we have over something new is different in my experience,” says Ruth O’Donnell, chair of the county’s Library Advisory Board and a former library consultant. “A lot of people we’ve talked to have interest in smaller, neighborhood libraries. The thinking amongst the people, certainly half of them or more, is that it doesn’t matter how big it is, how many resources it has, just that they are very opposed to change.”

Second thoughts

Oakley library
WALK RIGHT UP: Representatives from the Oakley Neighborhood Association are concerned that closing their neighborhood library could disadvantage residents without reliable transportation to reach other branches. Photo courtesy of Buncombe County

Arndt first presented the library plan to the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners on May 18. “The team began by looking at the physical condition of each building, the projected population growth and gathering community input regarding what a 21st century library should look like in Buncombe County,” she says about the process behind that proposal. “We were tasked with looking into the future to design a system that will serve the county well into 2035, making sure the library is able to grow along with the community it serves.”

720 Design, Arndt says, took into account library usage data, 13 focus groups and an online survey with over 1,400 participants to shape its proposal. But that input process, claims Elisabeth Wallace of the recently formed Oakley Neighborhood Association, was flawed from the start.

“The firm did a terrible job,” Wallace says. “It all happened in 2020, and nothing was done in person. The focus groups were not well attended, their survey was not well distributed, and the [Oakley population] numbers in the report are incorrect. The proposal is poorly informed.”

In response to similar concerns from throughout the county, Buncombe launched a new listening tour on the library plan in July. Wallace’s was one of 75 households that showed up online for an Aug. 10 session focused solely on the branch that serves Oakley and the Shiloh/South Asheville communities. A parade of residents shared concerns about the proposed closing during the 60-minute session and lobbied to keep the branch at its current location.

“The branch is an anchor in our community and is a center of learning and connection in a vulnerable neighborhood,” Wallace says, having noted at the listening session that 25% of Oakley/Shiloh residents are people of color and that nearly 10% have no access to a vehicle.

Multiple participants referenced the county’s Strategic Plan 2025 while arguing for the Oakley branch’s future. The long-term plan advocates for walkable and accessible neighborhoods, as well as a focus on equity for underserved county residents. Removing the branch, Wallace claims, would be against that plan.

“If you eliminate walkable branches,” she says, “that all goes out the window. We are in favor of changes if they are inclusive and supportive of our communities, and in line with the equity model that the county purports to uphold.”

720’s plan calls for current Oakley branch users to commute to the new East Asheville branch or other library facilities. For most neighborhood residents without cars, that could mean multiple transfers on the city’s bus system or walking on roads with inconsistent walkability, according to Michael Stratton, co-leader of the Oakley Neighborhood Association.

“The idea that people from Oakley and Shiloh are going to make the commute to the East Asheville branch is a tall order,” Stratton says. “The consensus is that we want a walkable and livable community. When you take those focal points out, it’s a step in the wrong direction.”

Renovate or relocate?

The library master plan was designed, Arndt says, to meet the community wishes as expressed through user feedback. She believes that fulfilling those goals requires new construction and a rethinking of the system’s current model.

“​​The survey respondents believe it is most important for public libraries to offer areas for children and teens, space for reading and small group meetings, family restrooms and outdoor access to Wi-Fi,” Arndt explains. “Nearly 90% of the respondents indicated that the top reason for going to the library was to check out books — and books require a lot of space.”

Arndt says the Oakley/South Asheville, Black Mountain and Swannanoa branches were targeted for closures, thus making way for this new construction, due to their current physical state, which is worse than that of branches in the rest of the system. But Stratton argues that this disrepair is due to years of low funding and inattention, admitting his frustration that the recommendations would close a facility he claims has been neglected. “Rather than take it away, we would rather have more funding directed to it,” he says.

In the eastern part of the county, the plan recommends closing the smaller neighborhood Black Mountain and Swannanoa branches and replacing them with a new, larger facility, designed to serve both areas and located between the two communities. Renee Hudson, president of the Friends of Black Mountain Library, says her group gathered over 900 signatures on a petition opposing the move; a standing-room-only crowd of over 100 people, mostly in support of the current libraries, attended a listening session at the Black Mountain branch in July.

“The Black Mountain library serves as a community hub, with many people walking to the library or riding their bikes. People would like to see improvements made to the current building to encompass many of the updates proposed in the county plan,” Hudson says, including areas for students to study and complete group projects, improved workspaces for librarians, and making the building more accessible to users with disabilities. “A regional model that moves the library out of downtown Black Mountain does not take into account those who do not have transportation. I think it decreases some of the personal interactions the community has with librarians.”

Arndt says the data offers another perspective. “What we were seeing in the data is that people who lived near Swannanoa, for example, were driving past that library to get to a bigger, more full-service library,” she says, noting that state library standards permit a maximum 30-minute drive time for rural users. “In addition, our market segment analysis suggests that there is a large portion of retired library users at many of the libraries. The ability to walk or ride a bike is great, but having the option to drive and park when its physically necessary is also important to a large portion of the [county library] users.”

In Weaverville, thoughts of a newer facility have received a warmer welcome, according to Stuart Lamkin of the Friends of Weaverville Library. “Weaverville needs a library that can accommodate the many families who use it. That includes not having a constantly leaking roof or constantly spreading mold problem, like it does now,” he says of the town’s current branch, formerly a church, which was built in 1924.

When visiting the new East Asheville branch, Lamkin was struck by how impressive that space was. “I admit I had library envy, but I was happy for them. We’re excited about the prospect of the Weaverville library one day having a modern facility, to truly bless and resource our great community,” he says.

More to the story

O’Donnell, the library board chair, emphasizes that the recommendations from 720 are not definitive and that the county hasn’t yet made final decisions. In her experience, she adds, large-scale library system overhauls can take up to 25 years; she characterized the consultant’s 15-year timeline as “overly ambitious.”

As director of the county’s 13-branch system, Jim Blanton echoes O’Donnell’s comments about the current debate being one step in a longer process. Although in-person input sessions have been paused in response to increasing COVID-19 trends, online input sessions are scheduled through the end of September, and funding for any changes has yet to be approved. (A current schedule of input sessions is available at avl.mx/aas.)

“It’s critical feedback to hear from the community about what they need and want. One thing that is clear is that there are improvements to be made,” Blanton says. “We are grateful to the community for being so passionate about their libraries and to share feedback. We want them to continue to be engaged when we restart the process.”

During the online Oakley session, resident Althea Gonzalez asked Blanton if the current branch could be improved instead of closed. “Everything is on the table,” Blanton said, but he added that providing the new services residents have asked for would require additional square footage somewhere in the library system.

As the public input process continues, resistance from the Black Mountain and Oakley communities seems to be a certainty. Their efforts may have already found an audience with Board of Commissioners Chair Brownie Newman. “I do not agree with the proposal to close the Black Mountain Library and to diminish services at other branch libraries,” he says. “I think the public involvement process has been flawed.”

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16 thoughts on “Community debates Buncombe library plan

  1. Marcianne Miller

    Okay, let’s see if I got this right…
    1) There was not ONE qualified architect in the entire area of Buncombe County who could have been hired to be the consultant on this plan? NOT ONE? You had to go to Dallas, a large spread-out city that has nothing in common with Asheville?!! Wow!
    2) You did it all during COVID when nobody is living their usual life, library and otherwise, and whose responses to questions are not normal — they’re Covid -responsive.
    3) Completely ignored the fact that the library serves a huge number of customers with its online order service that has nothing to do with its physical space.
    4)You completely ignore the truth that a library is NOT just a place to get library books –it’s a place to use the computers, enjoy the fantastic displays in the community rooms, buy new books from the shelves of donated books, attend library sponsored events like we used to have – and just as important, it’s a place to meet others, old friends and new ones, and chat with the library staff and tease them about whatever is happening in their lives and yours.
    5) Okay, go ahead and design a better Oakley Library without all those horrible stairs — but to get rid of it?! A library with a playground next to it so you can take your kids and your dog and have fun on your weekly Library run? Improve the place, don’t remove it!!
    6) Sure we all want kids and teenagers to use the library more but has anybody factored in the Obvious Fact – that a large number of library users are Senior Citizens who have different needs — all served by the library. And who do you think is donating all those books to the library? Downsizing baby boomers, of course. And those baby boomers, ask me I’m one, do not want to drive all over the place to get our library experience every week! Sure we all LOVE the big new spacious East Asheville Library but we go there not because it’s gorgeous but because that is where we go every single Saturday afternoon!
    7) We need MORE nearby community places, not necessarily bigger ones.
    8) I’m not against change, I’m just against plans that don’t t take into consideration what the numerous and important purposes of libraries in a community are and what the needs are of the PEOPLE who use the library are and what the needs of Buncombe County neighborhoods are!
    7) Go home, Dallas consultants– and to those clueless people who hired them — go get your heads examined –and look out your window — you’re in Buncombe County in Western North Carolina –not in Texas!!

  2. Curious

    The views of those opposed to the plan were well-represented. Did the reporter seek and interview Oakley, Black Mountain, and Swananoa residents who were in favor of the project? Could the reporter provide the survey? Do the libraries keep user statistics? Could some of this data be provided? Is the plan and the supporting documentation/research available online? If so, a link would be helpful to those who are undecided about this issue.

    • luther blissett

      “Did the reporter seek and interview Oakley, Black Mountain, and Swananoa residents who were in favor of the project?”

      I wouldn’t be that surprised if the consultants from Dallas didn’t supply that data.

      Expecting Oakley residents to travel to the (wonderfully-designed) East Asheville library is absurd unless the city builds a road through the golf course and runs a bus route along it. Taking the Black Mountain library out of downtown is absurd: it’s legitimately a community hub. The Swannanoa branch is perhaps the odd one out here. The Master Plan suggests that most Swannanoa library users prefer to travel to Black Mountain, which makes sense, because if you’re in Swannanoa or Riceville or thereabouts you pretty much have to drive to get from anywhere to anywhere else. Putting a new branch somewhere in the middle is a solution to a problem nobody has… unless you’re an architecture firm wanting a commission to build a fancy new library near the Ingles depot. (The same map shows that a lot of people in Southside and the Chunns Cove area live closer to Pack Memorial but go to East Asheville, to which locals will say “well, duh.”)

      As the first commenter notes, the study assumes a pattern of land use and tolerance of driving that may make sense in sprawly bits of Dallas or Atlanta but has no relevance to Buncombe County. The firm’s architects build very nice libraries, but reading through the plan I wonder if they even spent time on the ground here and instead just applied a cookie-cutter model based upon spreadsheets and maps. Why were these consultants chosen? I have no clue.

    • dyfed

      Judging by lawn signs and conversations in Black Mountain, literally nobody supports losing their local library. (I can’t remember, outside of national and local elections, seeing lawn signs in Black Mountain before. It’s dramatic.) This makes sense because if you’re going to drive to out of Black Mountain anyway, the location of the library you have to drive to doesn’t matter.

      Personally, I go to and support my local library, and so does my family. If we didn’t have a local library, we would not go or support it. Simple as that.

  3. Library Patron

    The Library Board, who is facilitating these sessions, approached their role with contempt for those opposing this behemoth plan that includes 25,000 sq ft facilities. Outside, unbiased, facilitators need to be called in to provide an objective foundation to these “listening” sessions.

    I witnessed Ruth O’Donnell’s facilitation at one in person session, and she was incredibly rude, divisive, and disrespectful to the community that turned out, over 100 people, impassioned and ready to protect the heart of their neighborhood. Ms O’Donnell shut down comments from a young boy and he fled the microphone in tears. Shame on her, shame on Mr Blanton, and shame on the Library Board at large for trying to fly this under the radar during a pandemic.
    Ms O’Donnell makes her agenda clear when you read between the lines of her comments. It’s plain that what makes our libraries great is not the facility, not even solely the collection, but the librarians who operate the branches. The are paid among the lowest salaries in their field in the state, yet help scores of people every day find information, access services, and provide comfort and solace to our neighbors. ALL DURING A PANDEMIC.
    Shame on BC Libraries for valuing buildings and status over people. I call on Ms O’Donnell to resign from her role as chair of this board.

    “Even though things are, in some instances, pretty desperate in terms of facilities, this attitude that we prefer what we have over something new is different in my experience,” says Ruth O’Donnell, chair of the county’s Library Advisory Board and a former library consultant. “A lot of people we’ve talked to have interest in smaller, neighborhood libraries. The thinking amongst the people, certainly half of them or more, is that it doesn’t matter how big it is, how many resources it has, just that they are very opposed to change.”

  4. Marty DeLaney

    My 4 year old granddaughter lives very near Oakley .Library. While her mom is at work, we often go there on cold or rainy afternoons, or after a visit to the playground.
    She is a “book-a-holic “ and adores that facility, as do I. The stairs are a challenge for a 70-something, but they are totally worth climbing. PLEASE find a way to keep it open.

  5. Taxpayer

    “As outlined by architect Maureen Arndt, principal of Dallas-based consultancy 720 Architects, in a Library Master Plan commissioned by the county, the proposal would shift Buncombe’s system away from a hub-and-spoke design centered on Asheville’s Pack Memorial Library. ”

    Is there any situation in which Buncombe County and/or the City of Asheville does not seek an outside consultant from out of state? Ever? Why do we have large county and city payrolls if we can’t even come up with a plan for libraries? Is no one anywhere in the city or county capable? It’s ridiculous.

  6. Taxpayer

    I wonder if on close examination we would find some relationships with some of the many outside consultants from out of state hired. Who’s sister-in-law or cousin or uncle or fraternity brother might these consultants be? The Wanda Greene/Jon Creighton brigade has taught us not to trust without question. Rightfully so.

  7. NFB

    “Even though things are, in some instances, pretty desperate in terms of facilities, this attitude that we prefer what we have over something new is different in my experience,” says Ruth O’Donnell, chair of the county’s Library Advisory Board and a former library consultant. “A lot of people we’ve talked to have interest in smaller, neighborhood libraries. The thinking amongst the people, certainly half of them or more, is that it doesn’t matter how big it is, how many resources it has, just that they are very opposed to change.”

    Ah, the old “we know what’s best for you rubes, so shut up, sit down, and do what we want you to do” attitude.
    Such arrogance. Such condescension.

    Many people expressed WHY they are “opposed to change” yet Ms. O’Donnell can’t hear the reasons. All she knows is that people don’t like what she thinks is best for them. She didn’t get the response she wanted from the local yokels so they are now the problem.

    Shame on everybody involved in this disdain for the public.

  8. oakley_dad

    I live in Oakley, and have two kids that have grown up with the library. When they were babies we were there once a week for story time. Now, they are read-a-olics and love going every week to check out a big pile of books. It’s a wonderful community resource that should not be closed down.

    My main criticism of the plan that was put forth, especially about the Oakley library is that it used flawed logic to justify it’s closure. The authors noted that of the 60 or so people surveyed living within a three mile radius of the library, a major portion of them did not consider the Oakley library to be their neighborhood library. Well here’s a news flash for the authors- if you travel east of the library three miles you are in Oteen well past the VA hospital; if you travel north of the library three miles you are in the South Slope and can get pretty far in to Haw Creek; if you travel west of the library three miles you are in to West Asheville; and if you travel three miles south of the library you are at the southern end of Biltmore Forest. So yeah, a major portion of those people probably don’t consider Oakley Library to be their neighborhood library BECAUSE THEY DON’T LIVE IN THE OAKLEY NEIGHBORHOOD!

    • luther blissett

      This is entirely because the “consultants” brought with them the idea that 3 miles is meaningful in defining neighborhoods, which makes more sense in big sprawly metro areas like Dallas or Atlanta.

      The state standards may be what they are, but they’re irrelevant when you can get from downtown to Black Mountain or Weaverville in 20 minutes.

  9. Big Al

    The biggest change that needs to happen with Buncombe County Libraries is to get the main branch out of the middle of downtown. Access is sub optimal, especially parking.

    And why is there a “main branch” anyway. There does need to be a North Carolina Room / Special Collections location, but that could be anywhere. It would also be a good idea to incorporate the resources of the Buncombe Genealogical Society instead of them throwing away so many items when their room gets too full.

    • luther blissett

      You can park in the Civic Center lot. I know that paid parking is considered offensive to some people, but the first hour’s free.

      The historical thinking behind a “main branch” is that it had enough space for a large reference section containing information-dense materials that patrons weren’t allowed to borrow: dictionaries and thesauruses; atlases and gazetteers; legal journals; every telephone directory in the nation. That was a major function of the Carnegie Libraries built either side 1900. During the mid-20th century a lot of those materials — especially things like newspaper archives that are hard to preserve — were put onto microforms or microfiches and the main branch was where they and the readers were stored. I still remember the eye-strain from those readers.

      Since you can find most of that stuff online — in much more accessible formats than a big ol’ book — there’s definitely less need for a reference section, but there are still going to be some materials that are important for reference and aren’t digitized or not easily digitizable because of copyright restrictions. (I’m not sure where Thomas Calder goes for his excellent pieces drawn from newspaper and other archives, but I doubt they’re widely available.)

      You also make a good argument that special collections could be housed in a different location, but those collections also need archivists and preservationists to go with them.

  10. Lou

    Yes let’s all definitely create an uproar because the county wants to update library facilities to make them more digital AND most importantly, more accessible to people with disabilities, which ALL of you will probably someday experience, if you don’t already. In the meantime, Raytheon is building a huge factory to make fighter planes used to kill millions of innocent people, right on the edge of our beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway and directly adjacent to the French Broad. My god, you people are ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous.

    • JT4784

      ‘Millions of innocent people”…really? You think Raytheon is another Hitler/Stalin? Such hyperbole. The library issue has nothing to do with the Raytheon factory.

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