St. Paul Library Board Fights Over the Fate of Hamline-Midway Branch

The destiny of the Hamline-Midway branch library, which is set for a total $8.1 million destruction and renovation, became unusually acrimonious and emotional during a meeting of the St. Paul Library Board on Wednesday.

“We were mislead” when it came to a patron-driven public process, said Council Member Jane Prince, chair of the Library Board, as she read into the record a three-minute statement of complaint. Prince accused library administration of staging a phony outreach event to justify a long-anticipated plan to demolish the old Minnehaha Avenue structure.

Council Members Mitra Jalali and Chris Tolbert, as well as Library Director Catherine Penkert, slammed such remarks, defending the extensive public participation process that led to the decision not to modernize the 1930s-era facility, which lacks current wheelchair access and meeting space.

“I don’t believe the comment was made in a fair or professional manner,” Jalali said to Prince.

Members of the St. Paul City Council sat calmly through staff presentations on a future $65,000 redesign of the downtown George Latimer Central Library’s Nicholson Commons space, as well as a proposed $4.4 million remodel of the Hayden Heights branch and a $5.5 million addition to the Riverview branch, during a meeting as the St. Paul Library Board on Wednesday. LSE Architects has revealed concept ideas for the latter two projects, which have yet to be financed or planned.

They also heard presentations from library employees on ongoing attempts to address public safety concerns, as well as expanding human service demands that front-line workers have struggled to negotiate on their own.

Four women have sought safety from domestic abuse at the Rondo branch on Dale Street in the last four months alone, according to library staff, a request that might have only come up a handful of times in a decade.

“I hope our staff feel comfortable sharing challenging problems,” Prince said, noting that the city just hired a social worker for the Rondo facility, but that the city is not a sponsored human services provider otherwise.

Then LSE Architects gave a presentation on the proverbial elephant in the room: a plan to rebuild the Hamline-Midway branch rather than just modify it.

The objective, according to officials with the Minneapolis company, was to enlarge the building’s footprint by 30%, improve useable space by up to 50%, and bring toilets, flexible-use meeting rooms, and entrances into a single linear ground floor, boosting sight lines and accessibility.

The goal is to reuse as much of the original structure’s red brick exterior and unique stone arch as feasible in a completely new structure that is better fitted for current demands like remote work and group projects.

“I felt I may feel anxious or disappointed looking at the rendering,” Jalali told the board. “However, it’s actually rather lovely.”

The library board’s chair, Prince, then sought to end the meeting with a three-minute speech claiming that the library system had broken a written agreement to “implement what you decide.”

She pointed out that the majority of respondents in a citywide survey conducted by the city’s Capital Improvement Budget committee favored rehabilitation over rebuilding.

“Library leadership entirely ignored the survey results, opting instead to seek financing only for destruction and reconstruction,” Prince added. “How does it reflect on how we, as a city, profess to promote public participation?”

Penkert, who was crying, disputed the allegations and said she was “very unhappy” to hear the library board chair finish in such a manner.

She then read aloud a statement made by a customer: “‘My niece needs a wheelchair.’ I’m embarrassed to take her to the library in our area. Instead, we head to the Highland Library.’… We’re putting together a library for her.”

Nicholson Commons, which has its own endowment from the Nicholson family, will get $65,000 in enhancements to make it a more user-friendly environment, including new small, medium, and large conference rooms, at the downtown library.

The destiny of the site’s St. Paul Collection, which includes century-old municipal maps and directories, archive material from the Pioneer Press newspaper, and other historical information, piqued Prince’s and other council members’ curiosity. The library’s special projects manager, Marika Staloch, said no final decision on how to preserve the collection has been made.

“It could move,” she said.

The Innovation Lab on the third level of the downtown Central Library – a maker and creative area for artists, small business owners, and hobbyists — has also been updated. Public art is now being placed in preparation for a celebration on June 15th evening.

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