The fate of the Hamline-Midway Branch Library could be decided this year, during St. Paul’s 2021 Long-Range Capital Improvement Budget (CIB) process.
The city’s CIB Committee will be asked to make a recommendation on the project by June 30. A recommendation then goes to Mayor Melvin Carter and the St. Paul City Council, for inclusion in St. Paul’s 2022 budget.
One proposal calls for renovating the existing building for $3.6 million, providing improved interior spaces and better accessibility for people with disabilities.
The second option would demolish the building and replace it with a new one-story structure that would cost about $8 million. A new facility is touted as providing more dedicated spaces for specific users, including teens, children and public computer users. It would fill most of the existing lot but not expand beyond the current property.
Library administration, led by Library Director Catherine Penkert, presented the two proposals during an online meeting in March. Penkert made it clear that library officials want a new building, citing the deteriorated condition, space and disability access issues in the current library. Hamline-Midway’s library has not had significant improvements in more than three decades.
That meeting has sparked considerable debate among neighbors and neighborhood groups. While some neighborhood residents want a new library and like the plan to demolish the existing facility, and others want to see the historic library renovated and saved, there is also a call for a third option. That is to look at another use for the existing library and build a combined facility that would incorporate the library, the existing Hancock Recreation Center and possible library facilities for Hamline Elementary. That could involve using city and school district-owned property at the current Hancock site at 1610 Hubbard Ave. Hancock is connected to the school. Then the existing library at 1558 W. Minnehaha Ave. could be repurposed, in the same way that the Hamline Park Playground building is used by Mosaic on a Stick.
Jonathan Oppenheimer is one of the neighbors calling for another look at the library proposal. He has criticized a lack of community engagement on the project, and top-down decision-making. He and others have also said that the new library would lack space for community needs.
“We are being presented with an unfair choice, with the not-so-subtle message being that we better get something now or we may get nothing later. Just because there has been long-term disinvestment of the library to allow it to get to this point does not mean we should be grateful for the wrong kind of investment now. I sincerely hope that moving forward, whatever decision is made by SPPL and the CIB Board, that we as neighbors can partner with SPPL to dream up something much more substantial and thoughtful than what’s on offer right now,” he said.
But under the current CIB process, bringing that kind of community-city partnership proposal forward would be difficult at best. St. Paul’s capital budget process was set up years ago by the Minnesota Legislature. An 18-member citizen committee is appointed, with each of the city’s legislative districts having a set number of seats. The committee reviews and ranks projects before making recommendations to the mayor and city council. For years the process was biennial, with all of the projects reviewed in one year.