The Hamline Midway Library will be demolished and replaced with a new structure for $5.8 million.
St. Paul Public Library administration announced the decision May 26, 2022. Social media exploded with debate after the announcement. Preservationists, including the Renovate 1558 group, criticized the decision and what they saw as a lack of public input. Others wanted to revisit the earlier decision to not build a new library and new Hancock Recreation Center elsewhere. Supporters hailed a new building, saying it will be more user friendly.
The June 1 St. Paul Library Board meeting added fuel to the fire as city council members debated the decision and whether or not there was enough public input and engagement.
Board chair Jane Prince was especially critical of library director Catherine Penkert’s claims of a community-drive process, saying, “We were misled.” She read a statement into the record. Penkert was in tears at one point.
Prince criticized what she saw as hand-picked, controlled outreach process to reach library administration’s predetermined decision to demolish the longtime library and build something in its place. While saying the library board will make sure the administrative decisions will go forward, she repeatedly expressed unhappiness with the process and what she saw as disregard for community input.
Council member Mitra Jalail vehemently objected, telling Prince her statement was not fair or professional, and defending the decision for a new building. She called the new design beautiful. Council member Chris Tolbert also objected. While he has praised the current library in the past, he also agrees with the decision to replace it.
On May 14, several dozen area residents gathered to speak about their desire to preserve the building, and to give it a symbolic hug, with a larger group out front. The Hamline Midway Coalition had requested that the decision process be delayed.
The decision to demolish the existing library building was announced on May 26 by St. Paul Public Library Director Catherine Penkert, along with Keon Blasingame of LSE Architects and Russ Stark, chief resilience officer for Mayor Melvin Carter. Renovation plans for the Hayden Heights and Riverview libraries were also announced, as part of the Transforming Libraries initiative. Proponents for renovating the existing building have expressed frustration that the final decision about the building is in the hands of library administration, not the public or the city council.
Hamline Midway has had almost 1,000 people weigh in this year during discussions of the library’s future, said Penkert. That’s the most input among the three neighborhood branch libraries.
“Renovate 1558 is heartbroken by the decision by St. Paul Public Library (SPPL) to tear down the historic Hamline Midway Library, a choice that needlessly divides our neighborhood by demolishing a city-owned building in good condition,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer.
“Never once in this process did SPPL leadership ask whether the community favored renovation and expansion of the library or demolition and rebuild. This year, there have been only two events regarding the future of the library and a survey. Not enough time to truly engage the community,” pointed out Bonnie Youngquist.
When the city undertook the Transforming Libraries initiative for Hamline Midway, Hayden Heights and Riverview, staff and consultants talked to library users about what they want and need in library facilities, said Penkert. For all three libraries, having safe and inviting spaces, accessibility and spaces for a wide variety of uses emerged as priorities.
Penkert described all three libraries as “well loved, well used and well worn.” The library had not seen significant improvements in many years. Transforming the libraries means reimagining their spaces for today’s and future users.
Part of the vision that emerged for the three branch libraries is to see them as neighborhood resilience centers, places with many uses and resources for their neighborhood. Penkert cited the program libraries host with partner agencies and groups as part of that vision,
For Hamline Midway, four options were presented earlier this year. Those were narrowed to two, one for building renovation and expansion and the other for a new building on the current site at 1558 Minnehaha Ave. The options are within an $8.1 million budget.
The option of a new building was chosen over expanding and renovating the current structure. A new structure would have more space, with flexibility in uses. The new library would have 9,400 square feet, which is 5,200 square feet more than the existing building. The renovation option would have meant a facility of 6,200 square feet, or 2,000 square feet more than the current building.
Construction could start as soon as spring 2023.
Two strong themes heard at Hamline Midway were those of access and equity, Penkert said. That will mean moving most library functions to one level and having the main entrance be fully accessible. She called accessibility “absolutely critical” when looking at building design, saying neighborhood residents who use wheelchairs or have mobility issues have been unable to use the library.
Safety and security are other considerations driving the decision to build a new library.
Yet library administration wants to honor the current building’s history and role in the neighborhood, by preserving architectural elements of the existing library in the structure. She described the proposed new library as ”a bridge between old and new.”
There will also be opportunities to have community members involved in further library planning, speaking out about building details, including interior and exterior finishes, public art and furnishings.
Penkert called a new library the “best option” in terms of how the building would function and how it would have a minimal carbon impact. She and Blasingame spoke of the long-term goal to dramatically reduce energy usage and possibly provide renewable energy options on-site.
One problem cited with the existing library is its aging infrastructure. One issue with the current Hamline Midway Branch Library is aging HVAC systems. The library closed for more than year during the COVID-19 pandemic due to air circulation issues.
Stark also noted that the current library building lacks insulation in its exterior walls. Another issue with an older building like Hamline Midway is embodied carbon in its foundation.
Sustainability will be a key feature of a new library, Blasingame said. That ties into St. Paul’s Climate Action and Resilience Plan, which the city council approved in 2019. Building a new library, with sustainability and energy-efficiency measures, helps the city toward its goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, and reducing emissions. That’s part of a strategy to eliminate the city’s contributions to global climate change.
When asked if anything could have been done differently during the Hamline Midway Branch Library planning process, Penkert cited the pandemic as a challenge to seeking continued neighborhood input. Library administration presented plans for Transforming Libraries to city council members in early March 2020, just before everything shut down. Ways to engage community members had to change.
“There was no roadmap,” Penkert said. She gives credit to library staff and community members for participating in a lot of engagement events.
The challenges in gathering input had to be weighed against the need to make library improvements, and meet timing of the city’s Long-Range Capital Improvement Budget (CIB) process itself. Had the libraries’ request been delayed, that would have meant a wait of at least two more years.
“We didn’t want to miss an opportunity to make a big investment in our libraries,” Penkert said.
Renovate 1558 has highlighted several issues with the community engagement. “The neighborhood has been gaslit into believing that this has been a fair, thorough, and transparent process, yet by every measure it has not been: SPPL made an initial CIB decision after one online meeting; then did no outreach for 11 months; made a final decision three months into a 7-month engagement process in 2022, after just two in-person meetings that did not allow for debate and discussion in front of community members; all while sending out a single highly-biased public survey that did not allow respondents to note a preference for preservation, and refusing to release the 200+ comments from that survey,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer. “Along the way, SPPL convened a hand-picked group of Project Ambassadors, refused to make their meetings public, and rejected multiple calls to seat a member on the committee who supported preservation. And nearly every one of SPPL’s public statements in the past three months refused to acknowledge the huge support for preservation – as if we didn’t exist.
“It is clear that the neighborhood was never given a fair choice: SPPL clearly intended to tear down the library from day 1, despite a clear majority support for preservation, as evidenced in the city’s own CIB survey last year, when 69% of respondents stated renovation as a high or very high priority.”
Oppenheimer added, “We hope that SPPL will reconsider its decision in light of its commitment to let the people decide the fate of the building, a commitment that has been ignored at every turn in the past 15 months.”
Two libraries to be renovated
What began as the Hamline Library opened in October 1930 after years of neighborhood activism to get it built. The lots it was built on were purchased thanks to neighborhood donations in 1922. But delays on the city’s part and litigation involving the Hale estate took time.
Hamline was one of the city’s two Henry Hale Memorial Branch libraries. The other, in Merriam Park, was built in 1930 and replaced in the early 1990s due to unstable soils.
Hamline has also had foundation problems. More than $400,000 has been spent over the past 4.5 years to try to fix water infiltration problems. The foundation would need to be fully excavated for work if the building were to be saved, according to library staff.
The other two libraries will be renovated. Hayden Heights, which opened in 1979, will benefit from interior and exterior renovations that including adding large windows on its White Bear Avenue side. It also will gain outdoor green space, off of its children’s area.
Riverview, a Carnegie Library built in 1916, will have an addition built on its west end. The building will have exterior and interior renovations, with main uses on one floor. Its front steps will be turned into a reading plaza where people can read or use their devices to work and study. Outdoor programming space will also be enhanced. Penkert noted that one lesson of the pandemic is the need for outdoor learning and activity spaces at libraries.
Penkert and Blasingame said that none of the designs should be considered final. There will opportunities for community members to weigh on design refinements.
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