Nearly a year after the Hamline Midway community was given just weeks to provide input about the fate of our beloved library, St. Paul Public Library (SPPL) leadership and the city of St. Paul are poised to again rush through a flawed and opaque process that threatens to unnecessarily divide our tight-knit community. We urge neighbors across the city to unite and demand a resident-led engagement process that can be trusted and rallied around.
As community members who believe that this historic library building is integral to the fabric of the neighborhood and should be preserved, we recognize that some in the community may believe that a new building is necessary to provide increased accessibility and additional space to meet the needs of a modern library. Unfortunately, all voices – not just ours – have been minimized in this process, one in which SPPL’s desire to tear down the current building has been evident from the outset.
Since last fall, after a data request revealed SPPL’s preferred outcome and the duplicity of their actions, library administrators had months to either set the record straight or lay the groundwork for a process this year that would reflect meaningful public engagement and a genuine interest in community feedback. Instead, SPPL hosted a single virtual open house meeting that left the public with more questions than answers, followed by a single “listening session” that failed to ask the public for feedback on the one critical question on everyone’s mind: whether they supported a renovation or rebuild?
Administrators have refused to place a member from Renovate 1558 in the group; refused to make Ambassador meetings public; and, most recently, refused to release public questions and comments from their first open house virtual meeting on Feb. 24. Now we are in March and no further listening sessions or engagement opportunities have been publicly announced before SPPL makes its decision. The lack of transparency and fidelity to anything resembling community engagement is astounding.
Given that SPPL has established a timeline in which building designs for either a renovation and expansion or a demolition and rebuild could be presented as soon as April, the urgency to reset and reframe this process is paramount – particularly since library leadership seems determined on demolishing the current library building, known for its diamond-paned windows, carved stone rosettes, wrought iron lanterns, and stone medallion.
We are requesting, in no particular order, the following:
• The city of St. Paul agrees to delay any decision about the future of the Hamline Midway Library until at least September to give adequate time for community engagement;
• That Project Ambassador meetings be made public;
• A member from our group be named as a Project Ambassador;
• If a thorough community-engagement process determines the existing library building cannot be renovated to meet staff and community needs, SPPL will commit to another site for a new library building and seek a new tenant for the current building.
The historic Henry Hale Memorial Library, Hamline Branch – the name etched in the façade atop the library’s main entrance – was built in 1930 thanks to a generous bequest by the Hale family 40 years earlier, the detailed expertise of architect Carl Buetow, and the support of countless community members determined to bring a permanent lending library to the neighborhood. Some 92 years later, the library continues to play a central role in community activities, hosting lectures, readings, organization meetings and neighborhood events in its space.
Despite SPPL’s willful neglect of exterior repairs and maintenance upkeep, the library continues to attract thousands of community members to its thriving environment, and the library’s own commissioned reports from 2017 and 2021 show the building structure to be in good condition, not “an old, crumbling building” as SPPL leadership would have the public believe.
Beyond the charm of historic buildings and the importance of aesthetic character to our community, we believe the decision to preserve this building is environmentally sound, fiscally responsible, and most consistent with the city’s own public policy documents. As noted by the Heritage Preservation Commission, “demolition stands in conflict” with the 2040 Comprehensive Plan’s commitment to heritage and cultural preservation, and a staff member in the Planning and Economic Development department advised SPPL in early 2021 of the strong neighborhood opposition to demolition of the Hamline Midway library building. Yet SPPL continues to preach engagement while publicly ignoring any call for 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. Unfortunately, when SPPL leadership fails to recognize that a large number of community members support preservation, community engagement becomes a tool for public coercion, something that is completely unacceptable if the process is going to have any integrity.
Renovate 1558 insists that SPPL commit to an engagement process that listens to all voices interested in the future of our library, and, if they are unwilling to do so, we intend to create a process of our own that will produce the kind of input that SPPL has neglected to seek for more than a year – despite a grant of hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money for that purpose. The people in our community deserve much better.
The authors of this op-ed are members of the group Renovate 1558, which is committed to reimagining the Hamline Midway Library building through renovation, renovation and expansion, or repurposing. You can learn more at renovate1558.org
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