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Construction of the three-story building, which will include library and living spaces, is nearly complete.

COURTESY ILLUSTRATION: CITY OF CORNELIUS - An artist's rendering shows foot traffic around a completed Cornelius Place, at the corner of North Adair Street and 14th Avenue. The mixed-use building will house both the city's public library and 45 apartments for low-income seniors.Over the past year, the block at the corner of North Adair Street and 14th Avenue in Cornelius has transformed from an empty lot to one of the biggest and tallest buildings in town: a three-story, mixed-use development that will house the city's public library, as well as apartments for low-income seniors.

On Monday, Dec. 17, the 45 apartment units at Cornelius Place officially started leasing.

Those apartments will add to Washington County's stock of "affordable housing," of which local and regional officials say more is badly needed as lower-income individuals and families struggle with rising rent prices, a higher cost of living and a sellers' market for real estate.

"Affordable housing is critical across the entire metro area," said Destin Ferdun, senior project manager for BRIDGE Housing, the apartment developer at Cornelius Place. "I would say it's especially critical in the Hillsboro, Forest Grove and Cornelius range right now."

Cornelius is second only to Forest Grove for the lowest household median income of Washington County's major cities, and a suburban homeless population in the two cities has become increasingly visible in recent years.

Director: 'Our library's always been underused'

A less quantifiable issue has also plagued Cornelius for decades: The Cornelius Public Library is simply too small to meet the community's needs. Either ameliorating or compounding the issue, depending on one's perspective, the building that currently houses the library — and also doubles as Cornelius City Hall — is a low-slung structure tucked away from the Highway 8 corridor, separated from busy Adair Street by what is now the near-complete edifice of Cornelius Place. Library director Karen Hill said she believes that between the library's small size and its poor location, many city residents are not even aware that it exists.

STAFF PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - The teen room at the Tualatin Public Library is among its most popular spaces, with some students who meet there regularly after school. The new Cornelius Public Library will have a similar area for teens."Statistically, we've looked at some of the libraries, starting from Tualatin," Hill said, referring to the increase in library business after moving to a larger space. "And they increased by about 40 percent right off. But we're coming from such a small (space), and in some ways, our library's always been underused. There's been people in the city who didn't know we had a library. So I think we're going to have a bigger impact than those other ones, because we're going from such a small thing to an enormous, beautiful thing right on the main drag. So I think we're going to very easily double our business."

Location is also a key factor for BRIDGE Housing. Ferdun praised the "vision" of Cornelius officials in pairing affordable housing with a public library, and especially along a major transportation corridor.

"It's important to put affordable housing close to services, and the Cornelius Place project is directly adjacent to Virginia Garcia and Centro Cultural," Ferdun said. "And of course, the city library directly below provides incredible synergy of services."

The apartments at Cornelius Place have an age restriction in place. In addition to residents needing to certify they make 60 percent or less of area median income, at least one member of the household must be age 55 or older. Ferdun sees the location of the apartments as ideal for those older residents.

"Especially for low-income seniors, that social connection is very critical for longevity and health," Ferdun said.

The library is expected to open in March, said Hill, with apartments welcoming their first occupants likely in mid-February, according to Ferdun. A date for the grand opening of Cornelius Place, March 30, has been set. More details about that event will be forthcoming.

The new library space will be nearly five times the size of the wing of City Hall the library now occupies. Its book capacity isn't increasing by that much, although the new building will have about 30,000 books available for checkout, Hill said.

The reason the number of books isn't changing proportionally to the library size is simple: The modern library isn't all about books. The new library will have a community meeting room with an estimated capacity of 100 people, Hill said, along with five study rooms, teen and children's areas, and a computer area similar to that of the Forest Grove Public Library.

A lack of spaces for members of the community to congregate is among the issues that the public has identified in Cornelius' town center, Ryan Wells has noted. Wells is the community development director for Cornelius, and he is spearheading an effort to create a master plan for the town center area.

Joint development between city, nonprofit partners

In June, Wells said he thinks Cornelius Place will serve as a catalyst for redevelopment in the town center. He suggested it will serve as a "draw," bringing people into the area for recreation.

"It's going to really kind of be a flagship type of structure in downtown. I think it's going to help set the stage for what I think a lot of people do want to see in our downtown," Wells said at the time.

Hill agrees with that assessment. But beyond the impact on development, she thinks the new library will have a positive social effect.

"What I'm seeing are people coming to the library to learn and to meet with each other," Hill said. "We're going to have video game tournaments, and we're going to have a nice, safe place where kids can hang out after school. I just see people coming and being in the library."

She added, "It'll be an awesome change for the community."

The total project cost for Cornelius Place is $19 million. The general contractor is Portland-based Walsh Construction Co.

Cornelius Place is a joint development between affordable housing providers BRIDGE Housing and Bienestar Inc. along with the City of Cornelius, with major fundraising support from the Cornelius Library Foundation and grants from public and private entities, including the National Endowment for the Humanities. A YMCA center is also planned to open in the building.

City voters narrowly rejected a $2.4 million bond measure to fund construction of a new library in 2013. But determined to upgrade over the library's current 3,000 square feet of space in the aging City Hall building, library backers launched a campaign to raise money for a new facility without relying on property taxes.

That capital campaign is still about $500,000 short of its goal, Hill said. But while she is confident that money will be raised, she said any funding gap won't prevent the building from being completed and opening on time. The city has been approved for a loan of up to $1 million to cover the difference, according to Hill.

Once Cornelius Place is open, the city will begin the process of converting the current library space into new chambers for the Cornelius City Council. The council has been meeting at Centro Cultural for more than a year, as its former meeting place was condemned and demolished to make way for Cornelius Place construction.

By Mark Miller
Editor, Forest Grove News-Times
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