Renovate 1558 heartbroken by SPPL decision to demolish Hamline Midway Library


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. Despite the Hamline Midway Coalition Board of Directors requesting that this decision be put on hold to allow for a robust community engagement process, St. Paul Public Library administration and Mayor Carter's office ignored those calls and rushed this decision through. 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 1 online meeting; then did no outreach for 11 months; made a final decision 3 months into a 7-month engagement process in 2022, after just 2 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. 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 3 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; by CIB letters from the public in support of preservation outweighing those for demolition four-to-one; by thousands signing a petition to preserve the library; and by no organized support for demolition. Given SPPL's stated commitment to adhere to IAP2 policies that SPPL would do what the people decide, this decision flies in the face of the fair process the community deserves and that SPPL promised.

It is simply not true that demolition is the "sustainable" option: Architects around the world agree that the greenest building is the one already built, given the embodied carbon in existing buildings. A singular focus on operational carbon ignores this important fact, meaning at a time we're facing a global climate crisis, we are making the environmentally unfriendly decision. This choice signals a clear lack of leadership regarding environment sustainability. Furthermore, to demolish a historic building, one that has been deemed eligible for national historic designation, goes directly against the city's own Comprehensive Plan guidelines and our district council's own Neighborhood Plan guidelines regarding preservation. All to get a building that is just 30% bigger than the current one.

One of the main arguments in favor of demolishing the library and constructing a new one is that it is the "equitable" decision. Yet SPPL has never defined the metrics they're using to address equity; the current inequities they see existing at our library; how a new building will address these inequities; or what background work they've done to come to these conclusions. It is unfair to everyone, not least the most marginalized members of our community, to simply use "equity" as a buzzword without meaning. It is true that currently people with mobility challenges cannot easily enter the current building through the front door, which is why LSE's "option A" design was so promising as the win-win for our neighborhood, as it proposed a thoughtfully designed ramp to allow for access for those who cannot currently enter in the front. We believe that this option addressed the one clearly defined issue regarding equity, as it pertains to accessibility.

LSE Architects presented a clear win-win for the neighborhood with its renovate-and-expand option, which provided more space and better accessibility for people with mobility challenges -- but SPPL never wavered in its determination to senselessly demolish this building, no matter how clear the opposition to this option. If SPPL's Library Director and the Mayor's office wanted a new building, they've always had the choice to build new elsewhere, and they still have that option. Doing so would allow for a new buyer to come in and occupy a beautiful building that has been loved by community members for 90 years and adds great character to the Hamline-Midway neighborhood. There is no evidence that SPPL ever took this option seriously, despite years of citizen engagement to propose different versions of it, but rather they rejected it at every turn by stating it was simply too complicated or costly. We will never know because it was never explored with any seriousness.

We hope that SPPL will listen to the thousands of neighbors who support preservation; to our district council, which thoughtfully asked for a delay to this decision; and to Historic St. Paul, East Side Freedom Library, and the Minnesota chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, all of whom support preserving the library building. We hope that SPPL will postpone its final decision until at least August 16, when the National Register of Historic Places will review adding it, as such a designation will cement this building's place in history and make it eligible for tax credits that can be used to renovate it in the future. 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.


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