Deceitful public process undermines democracy in Saint Paul

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Two months ago, the Saint Paul Public Library (SPPL) announced its plans to demolish the historic Hamline Midway Library, claiming that the decision was the result of “extensive work with community members and a team of internal and external industry experts over the past four years.” In reality, the outcome was a foregone conclusion, with Library Director Catherine Penkert and her leadership team advocating for a new building from the start.
Not only did Penkert dismiss out of hand the possibility of finding another location in which to construct a new library and market the current building to organizations or companies willing to renovate and repurpose it, she orchestrated a campaign intended to portray the building as in “disrepair” and “poor condition” so that only a new building would seem capable of providing the modern amenities and upgrades the 92-year-old structure requires.
We know this because of emails and other documents uncovered through a data practices request submitted to the city in October 2021. For example, in an April 8, 2021 email to Library Marketing and Communications Manager Stacy Opitz, who was preparing the “case review” document for the three libraries slated for “transformation,” Penkert advised Opitz to stress that the $21.1 million budget would be used to “transform 3 crumbling neighborhood locations…Crumbling isn’t the right word but you get where I’m going – emphasize the old and falling down.”
Subsequently, when the case review document was released to the public, only the description of the Hamline Midway Library featured the words “constraints,” “poorly-functioning,” “significant issues,” and “problems,” while descriptions of the other libraries merely referenced the improvements that were necessary to update those buildings.
Similarly, a March 29, 2021 email from Barb Sporlein, SPPL Deputy Director of Operations, to Planning Director Luis Pereira regarding the condition of the Hamline Midway Library, asserted that “every building component is failing and in critical condition—all must be replaced or upgraded.” However, a condition assessments report by the Ameresco company found only the air conditioning HVAC pumps and chillers to be in “critical condition”; all other building components were described as in “fair” or “good” condition.
The Ameresco report also indicated that the Hamline Midway Library’s concrete foundation and substructure, basement, and superstructure were all in good condition. This finding was echoed by Jane Dedering of HGA Architects, who in a May 5, 2021 email to Penkert and Sporlein, wrote: "Structurally the building is very sound. The roof and floor framing plans specify steel beams and plates, with steel-reinforced concrete columns. It appears that the only problems are water intrusion damage in two places: the ceiling at the corner where one of the beams in a reading area joins the plaster ceiling and on the west wall of the basement where there has been water leaking from just above the foundation. A building assessment by the St. Paul Public Library in early 2021 determined that the basement water problem resulted from a grading and paving problem and that structural members, including the concrete, were not affected."
Yet, in a letter sent to the Heritage Preservation Commission on July 22, 2022, Director Penkert disregarded these findings, asserting that the “existing Hamline Midway Library building’s foundation is in bad shape and needs to be replaced regardless of whether the above-ground portion of the building is renovated or demolished and rebuilt.”
Sadly, demonizing the building was but one of the tactics that Penkert and her team utilized in an effort to marginalize concerns of the community. Another was simply to pretend that the public was “divided” about the future of the library, even though the overwhelming evidence showed otherwise.
For example, as part of the Capital Improvement Budget (CIB) process in March of last year, 318 people completed a survey indicating their preference for which projects should receive CIB funding. 69% ranked “Renovation of the Hamline Midway Library” as their highest priority, compared to 48% who preferred a “Rebuild” of the library. More importantly, survey respondents overwhelmingly ranked the “Rebuild” option as the lowest priority among the choices for CIB funding.
Despite this feedback, SPPL submitted a proposal in mid-April of 2021 seeking CIB funding just for demolition and rebuild of the existing library. Only after intense pushback from the neighborhood did Penkert inform the CIB committee five days later that SPPL wished to “revise its proposal” to include the option for “Renovation + expansion of the current building.”
That would be the last time that Penkert let public pressure influence her decisions.
In response to the neighborhood outcry, Penkert worked with SPPL staff and LSE Architects to create a community engagement process that minimized public interaction (just two in-person gatherings where public comment was limited to one-on-one conversations and placing sticky notes on pre-arranged topic boards); formed a handpicked “Community Ambassadors” cohort that met in private while purportedly representing the public; and designed an online survey in which respondents were not allowed to answer the most important question facing the community: do you favor renovation and expansion of the library--or demolition and rebuild?
As part of this strategy, SPPL simply ignored the nearly 3,000 people who signed our change.org petition opposing demolition—as well as the hundreds of signatures we gathered from library patrons and those living in the surrounding neighborhood who favor renovation and preservation.
Healthy public engagement does not seek to stifle dissent, push for predetermined outcomes, or provide limited opportunities for residents to share their opinions – regardless of what they might be. Yet those are exactly the tactics that SPPL employed, while claiming to be following IAP2 protocols for “public participation” in which “balanced and objective information” will be provided to the community.
As egregious as those tactics might be, they pale in comparison to the “whisper campaign” hatched within SPPL, through accusations directed at us that “staff from SPPL and LSE” had “been cursed out, bullied, demeaned, and intimidated in the course of this process,” a claim repeated by Deputy Mayor Jamie Tincher in a letter she wrote to the Hamline Midway Coalition, as well as by staff at Friends of the Library and LSE Architects. To date, we have found no evidence that this disrespectful behavior ever took place, and none of the accusers have provided any specifics about the alleged perpetrator.
For those, like us, who may be wondering why SPPL would be so intent on demolishing an iconic building that has helped anchor the surrounding Hamline Midway neighborhood for the past 90 years, the answer may be found in an article about library staff turnover in the April 2nd issue of the Pioneer Press.
Featuring a headline that reads “25% of St. Paul Public Library workers quit during pandemic,” the reporter writes that “[b]ehind the scenes, however, staff say the waters have been anything but smooth. In the past two years, the St. Paul libraries have lost nearly one-fourth of their workforce — at least 55 of some 235 full-time and part-time employees — to retirements and departures.”
What better way to distract the public from staff burnout and low morale than by focusing on a “brand new building” that promises all sorts of new “bells and whistles”?
As we have noted previously in these pages, it is absurd for SPPL leadership to suggest that a building must be torn down because it has water leaking into the basement or a front entrance that is not ADA accessible. Many of the current building’s problems have resulted from deliberate neglect and deferred maintenance, issues that can be resolved through soil remediation, mechanical upgrades, and, in the case of accessibility issues, by renovation.
Ironically, LSE Architects brought forward a design in April that will preserve the existing building, add an expansion on the back, and address accessibility issues at the front. And our group introduced a concept at a forum we hosted in April that proposed a glass addition on the front of the building that would add the necessary expansion space without having to demolish any exterior portion of the current building.
Preservation is not about nostalgia; it’s about honoring the past while embracing the future. Public structures, like the former Henry Hale Memorial Library, belong to the community, and demolition should never be on the table simply because a building in otherwise good condition has been neglected and is in need of typical repairs and improvements.
It’s equally important to note that SPPL’s focus on a new building’s low carbon emissions completely ignores the significant spike in greenhouse gases that happens at the start of a project—as well as the embodied carbon in all the new building materials. By doing so, SPPL makes new construction seem like the most sustainable option, when the “greenest building” is actually the one that already exists.
A thoughtful renovation and expansion of the current building will not only allow equity and access to be properly addressed, it is the most sensible way to protect the environment, maintain St. Paul’s shrinking number of historic buildings, and meet 21st Century needs of patrons and staff.
To neglect that reality and spend $8.1 million in taxpayer funds on a one-story structure that will be a mere 30% larger than the current building is simply irresponsible. Such an outcome will also unnecessarily divide the community for years to come, a result that could have been avoided if SPPL leadership had embraced public concerns rather than focused on their own private agenda.
The authors of this op-ed are members of the group Renovate 1558, which is committed to reimagining the Hamline Midway Library through renovation and expansion, or by relocating the library and repurposing the current building. You can learn more at renovate1558.org.

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  • mjdoheny

    I was the Supervisor at this building in in the early to mid-1990’s and the building, though beautiful, had serious issues then. It was due more to the building’s functionality to provide modern library services, not building structure defects.

    It was built at a time when library service was very different. Basically it functioned well for a number of years. But, over time, through lack of funding, things broke down.

    The plumbing, HVAC, foundation, water leaking into the boiler room & the old coal bin & not energy efficient.

    Also, it wasn’t well used by the community. Many local people would drive to the newer main Ramsey County Public Library building because it had much more to offer with it’s much larger collection & services for young to old.

    With the dawn of the computer age, Hamline Midway wasn’t easy to modernize due to it’s solid flooring

    and other building features.

    While it is beautiful & hopefully some features could be incorporated into a new structure, it has outlived its functionality. It needs to be either drastically upgraded or replaced so as to meet the needs of a much more diverse community. It should function well in providing services for today and in the future.

    It needs upgraded facilities such as space for a homework center, small classes, study carrels with computer access , dedicated areas for young people, etc.. I hope, as this process moves forward, that the community & SPPL change their stances from adversarial to collaborative and work together to provide a space that is best for the community.

    Friday, August 12 Report this

  • tomgoldstein

    We have never disputed that the library is in need of significant mechanical upgrades or that the existing space has limitations that need to be addressed. However, as noted in the op-ed, the architecture firm hired by the city to design a new library brought forward a renovation alternative that could have done all of those things--even if the firm itself and SPPL weren't committed to renovation. And the city could sell the building to a nonprofit or other organization that wants to repurpose it for a different use, allowing a private party to take advantage of the available historic tax credits while the city secures another location for a new building. something SPPL leadership dismissed out of hand. It should also be noted that the process became adversarial because of the tactics employed by SPPL leadership in conjunction with City administration, as detailed above. It was not the result of neighbors who were unwilling to work for a shared vision.

    Saturday, August 13 Report this