Dave Pinter of PSFK shows the new McAllen, Texas Main Library, a huge 124,500 square foot conversion of a vacant Walmart. It is designed by Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle, Ltd. of Minneapolis and is indeed a lovely thing, worthy of its 2012 Library Interior Design Competition award.
Dave notes that it is also successful; "Within the first month following the opening, new user registration increased by 23%" Everyone thinks it is a wonderful example of adaptive reuse. But one of the problems in reusing big box stores is that they are usually in lousy locations for uses like libraries; they are in places for cars, not kids and seniors who often depend on public libraries. And indeed, the new main library gets a car-dependent walkscore of 49.
Now again, not knowing McAllen, I looked up where the main branch, now closed, was before it moved to the Walmart, and it was in the historic downtown district at the corner of Main and Fir.
It had a very walkable score of 74.
Now it is true that a cruise down McAllen's Main Street doesn't show what we usually think of as old historic districts, and is mostly one storey buildings that look pretty suburban themselves. But still, we have a move from a historic district three miles north to a Walmart that is surrounded by more big box stores and a bunch of light industrial. From the air, it is nowhere. The old downtown library is now closed.
Why am I whining about this? Because everyone seems to think this is such a wonderful thing, converting a Walmart into a library. But big box stores are not in wonderful locations for public use. They have, for the most part, lousy walkscores. They are not easily accessible to seniors and kids. Now the historic downtown has probably lost one of its main draws for citizens, as public life is sucked out and sent to the mall.
As I have said, I don't know McAllen. But I do know that context matters, and that adaptive reuse isn't always the right thing to do, if it is in the wrong place to do it.