The St. Paul Public Library system plans to bring four of its locations into the 21st century.
Working with design partner LSE, the library system has unveiled options for remodeling or rebuilding entirely the Hamline-Midway branch, as well as major improvements to the Hayden Heights and Riverview branch libraries and Nicholson Commons on the second floor of the downtown George Latimer Central Library .
Back-to-back open houses showcasing the design options are scheduled for April 23 at each of the three branches. At the Central Library, design boards went up March 31 and will be available for public comment through Sunday, April 10.
Each of the four locations has developed a following – the average rating for neighborhood libraries in community outreach was 7.68 out of 10 – but library officials say listening sessions, pop-up events and surveys with more than 1,600 patrons underscore that the St. Paul library system in general has not kept pace with industry peers when it comes to physical maintenance and amenities.
Public safety is a reoccurring theme. Outdated sight lines, limited access for the disabled, technology, energy efficiency and maintenance priorities like water infiltration are also concerns at multiple locations. So is creating flexible spaces where families and neighborhood residents can come together coming out of the pandemic.
“Part of the healing process is coming back together in community in small ways… and in much bigger ways, and our libraries really have an opportunity to play a role there,” said Catherine Penkert, director of the library system, addressing the St. Paul City Council on Wednesday.
Throughout the library system, two-level buildings built as much as a century ago offer uneven access for the disabled, according to library officials. Interior spaces are inflexible and lack room for quality learning and play.
Public feedback also found entry areas a bit unwelcoming, exterior and interior signage and wayfinding below par and sight lines for staff work areas outdated. Then there are widespread questions around meeting rooms, which lack flexibility and modern audio-visual technology.
“Technology is falling behind, surfaces are worn, and the buildings are in serious need of investment,” reads a statement from the library system. “Many are experiencing water infiltration. Mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems need significant investment. ”
In late 2019 and early 2020, the library system worked with architects and engineers to analyze the condition and functionality of its buildings. The resulting “SPPL Facilities Direction” – which calls for technology improvements and new play spaces at all 13 library locations – is available online.
More information about the four planned projects is online at sppl.org/transforming-libraries.
A quick look at the four locations:
Of the four projects, the Hamline-Midway Library is the most readily poised for a major overhaul as funding has already been set aside for construction. The city budget approved in December set aside $ 8.1 million to renovate or rebuild the small but popular structure, which is effectively one level over a sparse basement. The outdated building was constructed in 1930 and spans 7,680 square feet near Minnehaha and Snelling avenues.
“The library as it’s currently configured really is awkward, but like Riverview, it’s a beloved community space, and beloved as an architectural contribution to the neighborhood,” said city council member Jane Prince, chair of the city’s library board, on Wednesday. “All of us have been hearing from neighbors concerned about the historic preservation of the building.”
Four design options recently unveiled by the library system will be narrowed to two by the April 23 open house. They include building a new facility in front of the existing one, moving the existing library forward off its foundation and adding a new adjoining facility behind it at an added cost of roughly $ 1 million, or reusing the popular red-brick facade and entrance stonework in a new building.
The final option would reuse existing construction material and architectural components as accents for a new building, in the same vein as the University of Minnesota’s McNamara Alumni Center on Oak Street in Minneapolis, which retains its predecessor’s distinctive arch.
Library officials have noted that interior woodwork and lighting are not original to the structure, but the exterior has drawn a following, as has its fireplace.
“I do not know how you recreate this, but the library just feels cozy,” said city council member Chris Tolbert, former library board chair, on Wednesday. “Maybe it’s the fireplace, maybe it’s the facade, maybe it’s the size. … Balancing the historic nature of it, the modern needs, the current conditions of parts of the building, and quite frankly, a budget, I know is not an easy balancing act. ”
A design decision will likely take place in May, and construction could begin in the spring of 2023. LSE Architects will be on site from 10 am to noon on April 23 to field questions and feedback.
So what’s wrong with the existing building?
A preliminary assessment found disability access off the alley, mechanical ventilation and floor-to-ceiling heights to be outdated, and hallway widths and heights in the lower level do not meet modern accessibility requirements. Wet walls and floors have been an issue, as is restroom access, which is located in the basement-like lower level, far out of view of library staff on the main floor.
In short, after nearly a century in operation, library administrators feel it’s not well-positioned to serve community needs over the next 100 years.
Calling those concerns exaggerated, an organized group of historic preservationists and neighborhood advocates (“Renovate1558.org”) have accused the library system of prioritizing a complete rebuild over a historically-sensitive renovation. Some have even called for preserving the existing building as is for new uses while moving library services off-site, perhaps adjoining a recreation center.
Some library staff committed to the existing building have also raised concerns about any potential demolition.
Spanning more than 11,000 square feet, the single-story Hayden Heights Library on White Bear Avenue was built in 1955 and last renovated in 1979. High windowsills limit views in and out, restrooms are out of staff view, doors need to be replaced, windows leak, and bathrooms, study rooms and staff restrooms do not meet modern accessibility requirements, according to a site assessment.
In surveys, some patrons indicated they had driven by the unadorned, block-like building for years and never realized it was a library, as it lacks prominent signage. Library officials are seeking funding for renovation.
A parking lot spanning 33 stalls offers excess parking size that could be better utilized for an outdoor courtyard or recreational space, according to library officials.
LSE Architects will be on site from 12:30 pm to 2:30 pm on April 23 to field questions and feedback.
Constructed in 1916, the Riverview Library on George Street was designed in the Beaux-Arts architectural style by Charles Hausler, the city’s first architect. The building, which spans 8,400 square feet, was last renovated in 1989.
Like Hamline-Midway, poor sightlines and remote lower-level restrooms that are not handicapped-accessible pose security concerns, and mechanicals are nearing the end of their useful lives, according to library officials.
Preliminary concept plans call for renovating the existing building, with the possibility of adding a small addition for disabled access. Initial ideas include lowering the main entrance or moving the existing entry to a new addition.
Riverview, which is flooded by light as a result of being ringed by 13 large windows each measuring about six feet in width and 16 feet in height, is one of three Carnegie libraries in St. Louis. Paul and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As a Carnegie Library, it bears distinctive features that city officials say they want to see maintained.
“I was in Kilkenny, Ireland, and I walked into a Carnegie library and I was shocked, because it felt like I was in St. Louis. Paul, ”Tolbert said on Wednesday.
LSE Architects will be on site from 3 to 5 pm on April 23 to field questions and feedback.
The library system is working with MSR Design to reorganize Nicholson Commons on the second floor of the Central Library. The goal is to invest in space over time, funded by the Richard and Nancy Nicholson Endowment, an annual endowment dedicated to library programs, materials, technology and services.
Some changes – like 16 green lounge chairs in a new study area – moved forward in 2016, but library officials hope a more thorough reconfiguration will create a more inviting and user-friendly experience. A public comment period closes Sunday, April 10.