As the St. Paul Public Library (SPPL) prepares to select a consulting firm to do outreach and listening sessions around the future of the Hamline Midway Library, neighborhood residents deserve to understand the way that SPPL’s leaders have been misleading the community about their intentions. Despite a constant refrain from public officials citywide about the importance of public engagement, in the case of our neighborhood library, SPPL has failed to come anywhere close to living up to that rhetoric.
I know this because, after submitting a public records request, I’ve been combing through all emails from SPPL’s leadership during the last calendar year that mention the words “Hamline Midway Library.” What I found—and just as importantly, what I did not find—should serve as a wake-up call to residents about how single-minded and top-down SPPL’s approach has been in shaping this hugely important decision. Bold ideas to create a transformative new library co-located with our neighborhood school and rec center and widespread wishes to preserve the historic Henry Hale building were paid lip service by Director Catherine Penkert and Deputy Director Barb Sporlein. These SPPL leaders sought as outsiders to impose their preferred vision on us, and they collaborated only with public officials and private citizens who shared their vision, neglecting to take seriously opposing viewpoints and ideas. And they used the Hamline Midway Library Association as cover for their plan to demolish a beloved building in order to erect a new one just 20% larger yet twice as expensive as renovation.
In the 1800 pages of documents I reviewed, I believe the record shows clearly that SPPL’s only plan from the outset was to tear down the historic library and build anew on the same site. The principal effort among SPPL leadership regarding the co-location proposal was to ensure that SPPL, Parks and Recreation, and the City’s Office of Finance all coalesced around the message that it’s a bad idea. No internal meetings were documented to discuss the viability of a co-located library or its potential benefits, and no effort was made to consider interdepartmental collaboration to explore this idea. Renovation of the current building was also seen as a poor idea by SPPL, and the last-minute decision to consider it occurred only due to massive opposition to tearing down this historic library.
Public records show that from February to May of 2021, SPPL was scrambling to create an appearance of public engagement while it secretly worked to make its teardown and rebuild vision square with the City’s Comprehensive Plan, even though the majority of feedback SPPL was receiving about its preferred option -- as revealed in a March 2021 online survey -- indicated a strong desire among residents not to tear down the library. Even though the Heritage Preservation Committee’s Supervisor had advised SPPL that demolition is “in conflict with the Comprehensive Plan.” Even though a planner in the Planning and Economic Development department told SPPL’s Deputy Director in a March 31 email, “Demolition is going to be extremely unpopular in this particular neighborhood…I would expect STRONG opposition to demo, particularly given it is a publicly-owned building.”
Rather than acknowledge these concerns, SPPL still insisted at the end of March that renovating the Hamline-Midway library was not feasible. Just a few weeks later, however, after fierce public pushback, SPPL reversed course and was suddenly putting a renovate and expand option on the table. One might argue that SPPL including a renovate and expand option as a last-minute change to the funding proposal it submitted to the Capital Improvement Budget (CIB) Committee in April 2021 is evidence that its leadership is responsive to community members, but a look behind-the-scenes reveals otherwise.
In March and early April, SPPL scrambled to meet the CIB deadline and do work in a few weeks it should have done over the previous few years. SPPL held a single neighborhood meeting that it hoped would suffice for engagement, but the resulting public opposition to its preferred teardown and rebuild vision forced them to hastily change course. Short on time, SPPL requested an extension to its Hamline Midway Library CIB proposal. During this time, SPPL realized that a teardown might conflict with the City’s Comprehensive Plan, so it reached out to Planning and Economic Development for counsel, then did its best to justify opposition to PED advice about preservation goals and potential library relocation. SPPL then appeared to make a final decision to seek funding only for a teardown and rebuild, but changed its mind at the last minute to include this second renovate and expand option, despite just weeks earlier stating that expansion was not viable. All the while, SPPL worked to shore up support behind the scenes from the Hamline Midway Library Association (HMLA) to bolster their preferred narrative and give them cover.
SPPL’s top leadership could have and should have collaborated with our district council ahead of the early April deadline to submit a Capital Improvement Budget (CIB) proposal for library improvement funds. Instead, SPPL aligned itself with HMLA in their shared support of a teardown and rebuild, despite HMLA not being a public-facing group that solicits outside views or represents diverse viewpoints. As part of that alignment, SPPL shared confidential blog posts with HMLA; allowed HMLA to provide edits and feedback to SPPL’s public statements; and sent advice to HMLA about how to frame op-eds published in this newspaper. I lay out the timeline of this SPPL-HMLA correspondence in detail at my Medium site, where you’ll find revealing emails like one from an HMLA board member to SPPL stating, “there are plenty of folks who are pretty mad right now that we took the stance [to rebuild the library] we did, to be honest, so using our group as cover could backfire on you right now.” Such warnings did not stop SPPL from doing just that and continuing to do so.
We should not be fooled by this sudden change of heart to explore renovation and expansion: It is nothing more than a public relations gimmick and another sort of cover for its closed-minded attitudes and intransigence. SPPL has made no effort to consider preserving and expanding the historic library building in recent years, nor to explore the idea of selling the building and seeking a different location for a new library. The 2500 residents SPPL states that it engaged in 2019-20 to help guide them towards a CIB proposal was part of its city-wide Facilities Master Plan, not a neighborhood-specific engagement plan focused on our library. The actual history of non-engagement is the furthest thing from the transparent, honest, committed community process that City leaders purport to care so much about.
SPPL is now set to spend upwards of $500,000 on community engagement with the help of consultants-- money that could be used far better elsewhere -- after spending 6 months seeming to deliberately avoid the kind of community engagement we’ve needed. The fact is that a majority of respondents to SPPL’s online CIB survey want the current library preserved, and many neighbors are ready and willing to engage in a discussion to build a dynamic new library at a site accessible to more of the public, while exploring options to repurpose the existing building -- all things that would solve the library’s myriad problems, but which SPPL leadership refuses to consider.
The good news is that funds are available to finally give the community the library we deserve. But no process should be undertaken that ends up dividing and ignoring us, which is clearly what SPPL leadership has done the past year: They misrepresented their efforts, used HMLA as cover, and gaslighted anyone who questioned them. Unless they are willing to backtrack on all the work they’ve done in secrecy to ram through their proposed teardown and rebuild, the planned community engagement process in the fall will also lack the transparency and collaboration we deserve. It’s time that we come together to chart a new path forward to the best possible Hamline Midway Library.
Note: I have written two previous blog posts about the rushed, flawed engagement process that was sprung upon neighbors at the last minute, as well as about the idea of building a dynamic new library co-located with our local rec center and elementary school. Find those posts at oppy.medium.com, along with public survey results and letters to the CIB, and emails from city officials I received.
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