Building a New Transportation Future at Mount Vernon Library Commons 
By Isaac Huffman (Library Director and not a transportation expert)

Four years in, I have a new worldview on transportation projects. The way I see it, if you want to build something important, you will ruin your sleep – 100% guaranteed. I don't know if your good nights will go away while raising money, designing, meeting deadlines, trying to do 12 jobs, or just being around your stressed co-workers, but eventually, horrible sleep is the result. So, if you want to construct, the choice is simple: up at 3 am making ice cream nachos because of a project you hate or up at 3 am because you really, really want your project to succeed.  

The Mount Vernon Library Commons is an oddity that I really want to succeed! It’s a mega EV charging site, a park and ride, a transit hub (next to a transit station), a 120,000-kilowatt solar array, a community center, an economic development project, and a library all in one structure. The community's general reaction: "impressive, but why not just build a library?"

"Well," I generally respond, "because we want to have multiple uses for multiple users in the same building." I hold back because my honest answer: "Look, have you seen this country? It is short on good information, honest and caring communities, work you can take pride in, and quick action on climate. If I only build a library, I haven't done enough," would likely scare them off.

The Mount Vernon Library Commons was born out of an unlikely partnership. Mayor Jill, looking at the city's goals, decided to combine a partially funded parking garage project with the city's need for a new library. She believed that parking, a dull but reliably funded project, could be improved with a library. She was correct, but not in the ways we first guessed.

Take EV chargers. When asking a library how many EV chargers do we need? You get a library reference interview question in response. Well, how many does our community want? And while you're at it, what do people need to feel confident using them? After months of feedback, the answer to that question is at least 70 chargers (we have 76, making us within the top 5 charging sites in the county), including bike chargers and a person (not an app) to help, safe lighting, and places to wait comfortably. 

We needed way more chargers and way more support to overcome the unknowns of EV charging (like app payment and charger compatibility) than first anticipated. The tech heads had their EVs already. Grandmothers, environmental-minded farmers, and finally-making-it millennials were next. Their consumer confidence, it seemed, needed the library's digital navigators to assist with the "pumps," library space to relax in, and a safe, always working network to plug into. We were surprised all the way around. 

My guiding quote: "Look, my dad taught me how to pump my gas in 1978. The last thing I need at this stage in my life is another sometimes working tech thingy to replace something I know how to do." 

Mayor Jill and the architects found many wins to match this idea. The solar array, passive house certification, low embodied carbon, and better indoor and outdoor spaces were great matches. But then came the more complicated questions. What happens when we need to replace the chargers? Who are historically underserved users, and what do they need? How much is this going to cost, and how are we going to pay for it?

Google "upgradable building" or "designing chargers for replacement," and you will find nothing. It seems everyone can design a building for 50, 75, or 100 years, but nobody has thought about the fact that we must swap chargers every 7-15 years. So, our design had to invent a way to update the wiring with an easily replaceable conduit that doesn't require removing and replacing concrete. 

Mount Vernon is 1/3 Latino, yet the library has fewer Latino users. We rebuild the staffing model and make outreach a quarter of our business. We listen to users, create better signage and more access, remove barriers for apartments to use the EV chargers at night. I spend hours on the phone explaining that yes, it is possible (more and more likely) that someone could buy a used Nissan Leaf for $8,000 and want to charge using cash because they don't have a bank account. Finally, I get a "workaround" for cash payment.

Then after three years of good design, I get the opportunity to stare at a sheet of paper that says $58,000,000. We cut $5,000,000 of our good ideas only to stare at a packet of paper that says $53,000,000. I wonder how on earth, after raising nearly $40,000,000 we can feel so accomplished and so far away at the same time. 

Our construction manager explains, "Look, federal and state funding aren’t set for a mixed-use transportation project. When you build a roundabout, you decrease accidents and save time. That's fundable. It's been done before. But you're asking the government to fund a project that does things they understand, like creating jobs and spurring economic growth on a city scale. But, you’re also asking them to do things they haven't done, like investing in an entirely different paradigm of EV charging and understanding that a transportation project can be a community destination. These are big ideas that go beyond traditional asks. The whole thing might be too complicated to fund. "

"Will the Mount Vernon Library Commons succeed?" Probably our most significant question of them all remains unanswered. We get closer every day. We have 18 funding sources and counting. Yet, even I can't call it for sure. What I can say while typing at 3 am is that I am happy to be championing a project I believe in, and I definitely earned these nachos!