The far north Minneapolis voters who barely backed a library bond referendum in 2000 are on track to see some concrete results in their area after a mere 17 years.
Hennepin County hopes to open a new library on Victory Memorial Parkway in 2017.
The Webber Park Library project has morphed a great deal since the referendum. It's changed from a $1.9 million renovation of the now-razed former library, which stood for only 34 years, into a new building that will cost six times as much. And it's no longer going to sit in the park that gave the library its name, and where an even earlier library stood for twice as long.
The wait may be fitting, given the scant support that area voters gave the referendum. Just 55 percent of Fourth Ward voters supported a bond issue in which most of the $140 million authorized was devoted to replacing a downtown library, compared to two-thirds support citywide. Two of the ward's precincts, including one bordering the old library, were the only ones in the city in which a majority of voters opposed library bonding.
One indicator of just how long the project has been gestating is that it's been six years since the county selected the project's architect. Besides the project that razed and replaced the downtown library, eight branches in the city have gotten major renovations or replacement in recent years.
But not Webber Park. First, the city's library system was absorbed by the county at the end of 2007. Some $18 million in unspent referendum money went with that merger, of which $4 million remains after other branch library projects. The old library was one of three to close for a year before the merger because of a lack of city library funding. The county reopened the cramped library in 2008 but closed it again last July after ceiling tiles began to fall. A temporary library was opened last January in a nearby strip mall.
Two county commissioners got a new library budgeted in 2007 but the County Board iced the project in 2012 after failing to agree on a price with the owner after protracted negotiations. The project got renewed vigor and a new budget of $12 million when the county finally agreed to pay $380,000 for the property earlier this year, a figure $105,000 above its assessment.
Nobody knows what the new library will look like when it opens in a little more than two years. The project is merely at the point where LSE Architects is deciding how the building will fit on the site. That will be discussed at a Dec. 6 community meeting at 9 a.m. at Webber Community Center. Up to six developers will also share ideas for possible uses of an adjacent supermarket site the county bought for the project.
One area resident sees the project as a lost opportunity. She's Kris Brogan, who works as a consultant with nonprofit rental projects. "Unfortunately, we're getting a single-story library sitting on the parkway with its back to the neighborhood," she said. She lobbied the county for a library building with housing above, much like apartments above St. Paul's Rondo branch.
The concept of a shared-use building was floated once before. Robert Miller, who previously headed neighborhood programs in Minneapolis, recalled trying to advance a suggestion by neighbors that a combined park-library building be erected in Webber Park to serve as a community center. "It was a very frustrating experience for the neighborhood and for me," Miller said of that effort to get park and library officials to agree. He attributes some of the lack of support in the area for the referendum to that failure.
County Commissioner Linda Higgins, who got the new library a place in the county's building program, said the site was chosen to capitalize on the refurbished Victory Memorial Parkway. She's pushing for a more traditional building. "I don't want it to be a fancy glass building," she said.