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Designed by community: Multnomah County libraries — including Central, Midland, and the new East County branch — reflect a new way of thinking about library architecture

Sure, there will still be books, but get ready for big changes in the libraries emerging from 2020’s $387 million bond.

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The new East County Library, scheduled to open in 2026, will define the city center emerging around the Gresham City Hall MAX stop. The most architecturally notable public building ever to be built east of the Willamette River in Multnomah County, it is just 25 percent smaller than Central Library in downtown Portland. Artist rendering courtesy: Holst Architecture

Wander the august rooms of the newly refurbished Multnomah County Central Library and it’s easy to think you’ve landed at some sort of bibliophilic airport lounge. Plush chairs, curving couches, bar-height tables, and phone-charging stations spread over a floor equipped with 100 new electrical outlets.

About half of the books, magazines, and other materials that once crowded Central’s tall stacks are now arranged on low-slung shelves, most of them on wheels. A sparkling new all-access bathroom sits just inside the front door, next to an office devoted entirely to helping visitors access social services. The carpets throughout feature a dizzying nature-themed pattern seemingly striving to compete with the beloved carpet of Portland International Airport.  

At the original christening of this 1913 Georgian Revival building designed by A.E. Doyle, Mary Frances Isom, the library’s first professional director and one of the earliest graduates in the then-new field of “library science,” described her new headquarters as a “machine for books.” For the refreshed Central and the 19 other libraries being updated, built from scratch, or expanded with the $387 million bond voters passed in 2020, Multnomah County Library Director Vailey Oehlke offers a new description: “platforms for self-determination.”


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“With this new architecture and these new spaces, we hope to really engage the patron in a much more collaborative way,” says Oehlke, who last week announced she’ll retire this summer. “It’s not just a passive relationship, where the patron walks in and asks for something, receives it, and leaves. The patron now will be able to come, meet other people, collaborate, and learn. Maybe the staff helps guide them, but there will be so much more opportunity for the people to shape their own experience.”

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Oehlke’s dramatic re-envisioning caps a 27-year career at Multnomah County Library begun as a youth librarian in the school corps program. “We’ve been hamstrung by the size and the nature of our spaces,” she says. With the renovation designed by Hennebery Eddy ArchitectsCentral will be among the least altered and most recognizable as a traditional library. The rest — from early Carnegie libraries like Albina and North Portland to relatively new branches like Midland, built from the last bond just 30 years ago — are being dramatically altered and enlarged. And at the Gresham Central Transit Station, a new East County Library promises to be a major new architectural landmark nearly matching downtown’s Central in size.

Equally new is the architectural ethos that drove the designs. From the spaces to the colors, inside and out, to the public art, the 2020 bond’s new libraries are being shaped as much by patrons as architects. To slightly twist Oehlke’s phrase, they will stand as “platforms by community determination.”

LIBRARY ARCHITECTURE PRE-GOOGLE

For some measures of the changes, it’s worth briefly revisiting the architecture that emerged from the last bond for $28 million, passed in 1993. Thomas Hacker Architects (now known simply as Hacker) designed all 16 of the new buildings and expansions. The lead architect, Thomas Hacker, stood among Portland’s most accomplished, entirely devoting his practice to civic and educational buildings. Deeply influenced by classical precedents and the work of his mentor, the masterful Louis Kahn, Hacker designed each as an intricate expression of engineering and forms drawn from the history of architecture. The Woodstock branch, for instance, was hailed for its “lantern-like quality” and “outstanding tectonic harmony.” Hillsdale’s columns modestly echoed those of Henri Labrouste’s 1868 engineering wonder, the reading room of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

Budget and the need for quick execution drove the decision to exclusively employ Hacker, recalls then-director Ginnie Cooper. “We didn’t have time to get a bunch of firms up to speed,” she says. But her thrifty, rapid expansion of the entire Multnomah County Library (MCL) system and the skillful building designs subsequently helped Cooper become director for the Brooklyn and Washington, D.C., library systems and earned Hacker more library gigs.

“I had such a wonderful time working with Thom’s designers making those buildings,” she says. “But books are different in a real way now — physically different,” she adds, noting her own near-exclusive consumption of audio and e-books. “There was no Google in 1996. These new buildings need to be built to accommodate what the world is now.”

When the remodeled and expanded Midland Library opens this summer, it will include a new entrance shaded by a wide canopy and a welcoming front porch. “The flow of humanity will be more present at the front of the building,” says Brian Lee, founder of Colloqate Design and lead designer for the renovation. “That will be a really, really big thing.” Artist rendering courtesy: Bora Architecture & Interiors
When the remodeled and expanded Midland Library opens this summer, it will include a new entrance shaded by a wide canopy and a welcoming front porch. “The flow of humanity will be more present at the front of the building,” says Bryan Lee, founder of Colloqate Design and lead designer for the renovation. “That will be a really, really big thing.” Artist rendering courtesy: Bora Architecture & Interiors

REMAKING MIDLAND

The Midland branch expansion and remodel offers a vivid measure of the changes, both in the process of creation and the result. Hacker based his 1996 design on a traditional basilica form, writ modern with clerestory windows drawing light into the nave-like space. At one end, Northwest master painter Lucinda Parker’s towering, swirling abstraction Talking Leaves hangs like an altarpiece. She and Hacker crowned the interior with a riff on a ceiling fresco: an ethereal mural that drew its pattern and colors from her painting. To strongly mark the library in the visual cacophony of Southeast122nd Avenue, Hacker even gave his basilica a kind of “belltower” that, instead of ringing, told the time with a huge clock, the numbers reduced to Swiss-inspired dashes. As the first new library in the only recently annexed east Portland, the building offered an enchantingly civic addition to the neighboring car lots, chain restaurants, and strip malls.

Midland’s remodel and expansion comes from an entirely different design ethos. It was designed by New Orleans/Portland-based Colloqate Design, a nonprofit supported both by architectural fees and grants from Kresge and Ford foundations, teamed with the locally based Bora Architecture & Interiors. Colloqate is a pioneer in the growing architectural practice of “design justice.” Based in concepts and processes drawn from critical race theory and decolonization, the firm’s mission “to intentionally organize, advocate, and design spaces of racial, social and cultural equity” begins with deep protocols of community engagement at every level of the design process.

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In the 1990s, community outreach usually consisted of meetings attended by those with the privilege of free time. Skewing older and whiter, they gathered to list their hopes on large tablets,  then voted using green and red dots. By contrast, Colloqate hired 14 “community design advocates” (CDAs), paying each $2,500. Often well-known within their neighborhoods and identity groups, the CDAs (with an additional $1,700 expense stipend), reached out through community Facebook and What’sApp groups, hung out at neighborhood markets, attended PTA and church gatherings, passed out fliers at cultural celebrations, met one-on-one with informal leaders, and hosted more intimate gatherings over coffee and meals. Their goals were twofold: build a community wish list but also learn what, historically, has turned people off about public libraries.

Dominique Garcia, a Jade District resident and owner of a Solid Foundation Child Care, has long volunteered for her church and organized advocacy groups at her daughter’s school. Growing up on the east side, she says Midland was her favorite library. “I loved the clock. It made me think I was going there to study, like, with determination,” she says. Getting paid for outreach was new. “That someone saw value in paying me and the other community advocates to reach out to the communities that we identify with was very special.”

Colloqate gathered all 14 CDAs for orientation meetings that Garcia described as peer-to-peer brainstorms of groups and places to source feedback. She tapped existing relationships with Black Parent Initiative, Self-Enhancement Inc., and the YWCA, and also ventured into what for her was uncharted terrain, visiting nearby churches to learn the needs and hopes of one of the library’s most consistent constituents, the houseless. In the interviews and meetings, she was particularly struck by the passion around universal access bathrooms: Some cultures, along with sexual violence survivors, were adamant about needing privacy.

The neighborhoods near Midland, particularly to the east, are majority minority. Thirteen blocks away, the 3,100-strong student body of David Douglas High School, for instance, is 75 percent BIPOC and speaks more than 70 different languages. Garcia and the other CDAs reached into Black, Asian, and Latino communities, as well as more-seldomly engaged groups of Slavs, East African refugees, Indigenous communities, and recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program– DACA.

Colloqate Design, a nonprofit supported by architectural fees and grants, came up with its plan for the remodeled Midland Library after hiring 14 “community design advisors” from the neighborhood to both build a community wish list and to learn what, historically, has turned people off about public libraries. Most of the 6000-square-foot addition will be devoted to a larger children’s space and flexible meeting rooms. Artist rendering courtesy of Bora Architecture & Interiors
Colloqate Design, a nonprofit supported by architectural fees and grants, came up with its plan for the remodeled Midland Library after hiring 14 “community design advisors” from the neighborhood to both build a community wish list and to learn what, historically, has turned people off about public libraries. Indigenous community members advocated for a circular meeting area that will also serve as the children’s space. Artist rendering courtesy: Bora Architecture & Interiors

FORM FOLLOWS OUTREACH

Now under construction and set to reopen this summer, the new Midland not only adds 6,000 square feet to the original’s 25,000 square feet, but also completely reformulates the architecture. Bryan Lee, Colloqate’s founder and lead designer for the renovation, praised Hacker’s original design as “a beautiful set of bones,” likening the building’s scale and the interior’s wrap of exposed brick to “a warm hug.” 

“But there’s a much more diverse set of community members who use that space than were previously accounted for,” he adds. “The larger ethos around design justice guides us to make spaces that people don’t have to just sit in silence and be contemplative, but can aggregate their learning in a multitude of ways.”

To that end, most of the addition is devoted to a new, larger children’s space and flexible meeting rooms where community groups can gather for anything from reading groups to festivals. Lee and his team clustered them in the addition to the original library’s south side, together with a new entrance shaded by a wide canopy offering sun and rain cover and a welcoming front porch.

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“The flow of humanity will be more present at the front of the building,” Lee says. “That will be a really, really big thing.”

The original building’s space will feature a  mix of furniture and book stacks. But Hacker’s orderly symmetry will be broken by a new angled wall plus a circular gathering space created at the request of Indigenous community members.  Parker’s painting will return, but her and Hacker’s ceiling mural lost out to new acoustical tile that will be painted with an abstraction of the Columbia River. For the underside of the canopy, Colloqate initiated a new architect/artist collaboration with two community muralists, Paola De La Cruz and Lillyanne Pham. Lee says it will evoke “a collection of narratives and stories that the artists bring through the connections to communities they are part of.”

The addition displaced Garcia’s beloved clock. Midland will now be marked by a public art piece that the Regional Arts & Culture Council’s Kristin Calhoun says will be “a beacon.” 

Beyond architecture and aesthetics, Colloqate’s protocols assessed operations, particularly around security. The change will be most visibly expressed by what will be missing: the security scanning gates that detect items not checked out.

“We learned from the librarians that they weren’t really doing much to prevent loss of materials,” says Colloqate’s director of storytelling and communications, Karim Hassanein. “But they were deterring people from entering, particularly black and brown folks, with a feeling of being policed and surveilled.  You might not notice their absence, because you might not have been paying attention to them. But to others, the change will be noticeable, from entering a security zone to entering your community library.”

Colloqate built its practice on advocacy and community outreach that largely informed other firms’ building designs. With Midland, Colloqate served as lead designers, stewarding their process directly into three dimensions.

“I’m excited to see how people see their own voices translated in physical form,” Lee says. As well, Collqate developed what Lee described as their first complete “design justice set,” 12 pages of extensive documentation similar to the technical specifications required for any building, codifying how the community outreach shaped the building features. “It’s an architectural tool,” he says. “There are accountability metrics.”  

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The Albina library, a 1912 Carnegie library in the Spanish Renaissance style, top, will be joined by a 30,000-square-foot addition, bottom, scheduled for completion in 2025. Artist renderings courtesy: Lever Architecture
The Albina library, a 1912 Carnegie library in the Spanish Renaissance style, top, will be joined by a 30,000-square-foot addition, bottom, scheduled for completion in 2025. Artist renderings courtesy: Lever Architecture
The Albina Library, a 1912 Carnegie library in the Spanish Renaissance style, top, will be joined by a 30,000-square-foot addition, bottom, scheduled for completion in 2025. Artist renderings courtesy: Lever Architecture

REVAMPING THE CARNEGIES

Two of the Multnomah County system’s most architecturally significant branch libraries are historic Carnegie libraries: Albina, a beautifully proportioned 1912 Spanish Renaissance building by Ellis F. Lawrence; and North Portland, a 1913 sturdy brick blend of Jacobean and Elizabethan styles by Jacobberger & Smith. MCL selected Lever Architecture, a firm whose recent roster of buildings includes NBCUniversal Campus, Adidas North American Headquarters, and the lux new hotel/spa Cascada on Northeast Alberta. Lever had neither designed a library nor renovated a landmark building.

Lever partner Chandra Robinson began developing the firm’s own design justice protocol several years ago working with Your Street Your Voice, a local nonprofit devoted to “Fostering youth to claim their power and agency by design as a tool for racial justice.” For the two libraries, they, too, hired community members who, like Colloqate’s CDAs, canvassed neighborhood block parties, farmers markets, immigrant and Indigenous groups, and the AARP, plus, given the neighborhoods’ history, a deep dive with the Black community — more than 70 efforts in all, says Robinson.

Albina was long flanked by the library system’s dreary operations center, the Isom Building. With those functions moved to a cutting-edge new facility in Northeast, Albina will gain 30,000 square feet of new space, slated for completion in 2025.

In the firm’s outreach, they discovered the strong memories community members had of the historic space. The striking pattern of tall arched windows, each pair topped by an oculus, gave people “a memory of coming in” and of it being “their library,” says Lever’s founder Thomas Robinson. “So we wanted it to continue being a main entry, but we also made a kids’ space.”

The Isom Building backed against the Carnegie library’s south wall with a concrete-block wall. The addition still connects but steps back, allowing Lever to restore the original fourth wall of those windows that will imbue the space with even greater architectural integrity.

The sheer size of Albina’s addition allowed Lever to design it as a separate, ground-up building. Lever’s community outreach yielded similar wants and needs to Midland’s, but they are packaged in Lever’s trademark muscular architectural moves: mass timber exposed on the interior, long-wedged rooflines, and an exterior wrap of expansive windows and stretches of dark red brick laid in a chevron pattern that creates tall, sharp, shadow-catching folds. The addition promises to be bold, but an equally polite backdrop to Lawrence’s masterfully modest Carnegie.

For the North Portland branch, slated for completion this fall, Lever’s task was exactly the opposite: a tiny addition to the hulking Carnegie squeezed on a small lot. Since 1987, the North Portland branch has housed a Black Resource Center in one wing of the historic building. Lever pulled it into a separate, but connected, minimalist 1,500-square-foot box. Many community members voiced hopes the new center’s design could embody Afro-Futurism themes. Using deep brown brick laid in the same pattern as the Carnegie but with every other brick pushed into relief, the new building abstractly evokes styles of mud-brick-and-wood architecture found in Mali and the Sudan. The interior will feature a glass artwork by Sadé DuBoise patterned in Adinkra symbols selected by the community.

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Standing back from the street with its front door up a set of steps, the Carnegie building is an imposing presence. The Black Cultural Center with its brick pattern framing and wide windows will rise directly from sidewalk. In a reverse of Albina, the intricately faceted new gem will glow against the backdrop of the historic Carnegie.  

The East County Library in Gresham will include views of Mount Hood from the second floor, and – unless budget considerations intervene — a roof deck, reflecting a strongly voiced community desire for outdoor spaces. Artist rendering courtesy: Holst Architecture

THE EAST COUNTY FLAGSHIP

The 2020 bond’s largest single addition will be the new East County Library, now under construction and slated to open in 2026. At nearly 95,000 square feet, it is just 25 percent smaller than downtown Central. The most architecturally notable public building ever to be built east of the Willamette River in Multnomah County, it will define the new city center emerging around the Gresham City Hall MAX stop. MCL swung for the fences, interviewing among others the Oslo-based Snøhetta, designers of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt, one of the largest and most important libraries in the world, and Adjaye Associates, founded by the Ghanaian-British architect Sir David Adjaye, designer of such landmarks as the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.  

Barely a murmur about such storied finalists trickled into the public. Small wonder: Firms of that caliber are known as much for eye-popping budgets (at least, by Portland standards) as their design prowess. Paired with the Portland-based Holst Architecture, Adjaye won.

The community outreach was more improvisatory than Colloqate’s rigorous system of CDAs, but it was extensive.  Holst’s Shannon Horton engaged communities through more than 50 events and meetings, among them, Latino Network’s Back to School Night, a Chinese New Year festival, the Native American Rehabilitation Association’s New Year Powwow, and an Autism Walk — reaching an estimated 4,500 individuals in all.  

“We had people come back and see us again and really get to know the project,” says Dave Otte, Holst’s senior project manager. “The county’s goal was for this project to not surprise anybody. This is the public’s money, and they want the people to feel like they were part of creating these places, to feel a sense of ownership.”  

About one-third of the library that emerged from the community discussions will be devoted to collections. The other two-thirds absorb a wide list of community members’ desires, seemingly something for every generation: lactation rooms; “an indoor place for my children to play when it rains,” acoustically sealed off “for neuro-divergent” kids; a “safe place for teens to hang out after school,” complete with gaming equipment; a maker’s space and audio/visual production studio;  and all-user “sensory rooms” for children and adults “with diverse sensory needs.” In all, roughly one-quarter of the library will be devoted to gathering and event spaces and small, private rooms that patrons can sign up to use. Lest anyone fear there is no place for old-school bookworms, an oft-requested feature was “a space for elders to be; quiet space for reading and learning.”

The East County Library will include a multitude of spaces stacked in two floors surrounding a double-height central reading room with couches, lounge chairs, and tables sprinkled among the columns, all beneath skylights 35 feet above. Community members requested “natural materials” and got them in a space that promises to feel like a merging of a cathedral and a hut. Artist rendering courtesy: Holst Architecture

AN UNEXPECTED HANDOFF

A year into the design, potentially devastating news emerged. On July 3 last year, the Financial Times of London exposed an alleged record of harassment and abuse by David Adjaye of women in his office. Adjaye vigorously denied the claims.

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On July 5, MCL released a simple statement: “Adjaye Associates is no longer associated with Multnomah County and the East County Library project. Holst Architecture has been and remains the prime architect of record for the building…. The County declines to comment further.”

A firm such as Adjaye’s, unlicensed in Oregon, always collaborates with the local firm, which stamps the plans as the architect of record. Nevertheless, such a mid-course change with the library bond’s tight budgets and timetables might have forced major cuts or even killed the project (as happened with other Adjaye projects around the world). But working with architects in Adjaye’s New York office, Otte says Holst had already completed 100 percent of the design development.

“I hesitate to use the word ‘lucky,’” Otte says. “But we had just reached the point when an out-of-town firm like Adjaye’s would hand off to the local anyway.”

MCL and Holst stayed the course. Architecturally, the building will take shape in a muscular post-and-beam grid built of cross-laminated timber. For the exterior, the space between the columns will be infilled in a pattern of glass and concrete panels. At two corner entrances, the design pulls back the skin, exposing the mass-timber roof and columns, welcoming visitors into an overall spatial experience akin to a forest.  The rigorous geometry is broken only by another much-requested feature: an auditorium. Steeply raked with 226 seats, it is wrapped on the exterior in curving glass, allowing views in and out.

Inside, the multitude of spaces are stacked in two floors surrounding a double-height central reading room with couches, lounge chairs, and tables sprinkled among the columns, all beneath skylights 35 feet above. The second floor will frame views of Mount Hood. The interior promises to be strikingly clean.  Radiant-heat floors will eliminate unsightly ceiling ducts. The deep space between double beams provides a hiding place for light fixtures and conduit.  A wood screen wraps the upper reaches of the reading room and a spiral staircase to the second floor. Community members requested “natural materials.” They got them in a space that promises to feel like a monumental merging of a cathedral and a hut.

Finally, one strongly voiced community desire — a roof deck — at this writing hinges on the final nipping and tucking of the construction budget. Oehlke is trying mightily to hold onto it. Besides serving the community’s oft-expressed desire for outdoor space, she imagines it as rentable space for weddings and such.

The newly refurbished Multnomah County Central Library in downtown Portland features plush chairs and a snazzy carpet rivaling the much-photographed one at Portland International Airport. Photo courtesy: Multnomah County Library
The newly refurbished Multnomah County Central Library in downtown Portland features plush chairs and a snazzy carpet rivaling the much-photographed one at Portland International Airport. Photo courtesy: Multnomah County Library

CH-CH-CH-CHANGES

Across the bond’s 19 projects, community members often voted on interior and exterior colors and patterns and furniture. They participated in public art projects. But as much as MCL’s expansive outreach drew communities into the library designs, it also, in a way, acknowledged what libraries have already become. They remain places to read, but they’re also social service agencies, cooling and warming shelters, flex office space, teen hangouts, maker spaces, daycare rooms, and community meeting places. Nearly all the new and remodeled libraries will have outdoor space.  

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As the libraries change, so, too, must the librarians. At the newly reopened Central, several were dizzied by the new carpets, befuddled by the rearrangements, and irritated by outreach to them seemingly designed less to gather their input than to get them to embrace changes already determined. One new marker of their evolving job description is their union’s recent contract amendment: Library employees can’t be required to oversee security concerns when they’re on duty. Instead, they must volunteer — and be paid 15 percent more for the shift. So far, there’s a shortage of willing takers.

For patrons who still want books made of paper, the reduction of their numbers on shelves hardly means their loss. Oehlke points out that half the library’s collection had been housed at Central, much of it in the three subfloors beneath the public floors. Yet, 85 percent of the checkouts occur at the branches. Delivering a book to a patron typically necessitated “touches” by eight staffers, she said. The new Operations Center on Northeast 122nd will have room for 270,000 items. Equipped with a state-of-the-art “Automated Materials Handling” system, an efficiently robotic combination of scanners and conveyor belts, it will be able to daily receive, sort, and circulate 10,000 items throughout the entire system from a location far more centrally located for the county than downtown’s Central.

“One of my favorite photos of my entire career is of the single individual picketing the Central Library with this sign about how I’m destroying the library by destroying books,” Oehlke says. “I get it, you know, I understand the emotional connection to public libraries … but the world is just going to keep changing. And if libraries don’t figure out how to adapt, we’re irrelevant.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Randy Gragg

Randy Gragg is a longtime writer and curator on Pacific Northwest architecture.

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4 Responses

  1. Thanks Randy for this highly informative article about the architectural, design changes in the Multnomah County Public Library system. The Central Library happens to be my local branch and I think it looks lovely, with the exception of the carpet, which I find even more vile than the one at the airport.

  2. I just wish the MCL had more technical ebooks available to borrow. They usually have the fiction books I look for, but never the ones about programming, databases, math, and similar topics. If I want them, I have to buy them on Amazon.

    It would also be nice if they had subscriptions to most of the best STEM academic journals, although I realize that might be too costly. (And they might have journals, I don’t know for sure.)

  3. Nothing was written about the Lents Neighborhood Library. It is my library. I miss it and am very sorry it received no mention in the article.
    And I read nothing about solar panels, green roofs, water conservation, etc. and etc. I already miss the lovely mature trees of all the old libraries. I won’t live long enough to find a shady place to park at the new constructions.
    I do really appreciate the new Rose City Reads bookstore. It is now my favorite place to stroll the aisles and smell the words.

  4. I am really pleased for staff as well as patrons to have beautiful, updated, and increased spaces. But as a neighbor of the Belmont Library, I was shocked that the architects’ design actually made the building more difficult to access for bicyclists, pedestrians, and public transit users. Because I saw the initial design posted, I was able to attend a neighborhood association meeting to raise these issues, and then the good folks at BikeLoud met with the architects as well. But it was shocking to think that as we are creating “twenty-first-century” interior spaces, nobody was thinking about how patrons should and need to get to these spaces.

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