Hennepin County has backed away from plans to move one of its libraries to Southdale Center, citing the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic and the evolving plans of other players at the shopping mall.

County officials had said moving Southdale Library would save money and provide an accessible, community-oriented place to pick up library materials. Now, they're back at the drawing board to map out the future of the Edina library and the 40 other libraries in the county system.

The Hennepin County Board in 2019 asked staff to negotiate an agreement to relocate the sprawling Southdale Library from its longtime home on York Avenue in Edina to Southdale Center, and plans formed to open the branch in the now-defunct Herberger's space. The library would have been below a new apartment tower — developed jointly by Simon Property Group, the mall's owner, and Life Time Fitness — and next door to a Kowalski's grocery store. Life Time opened a multilevel fitness complex at Southdale in 2019.

Simon Property Group would have torn down the Herberger's and rebuilt the building. Construction was expected to begin in 2020 and finish in 2022.

The county would have rented the library space at an annual cost of $562,600 for the first five years plus operating costs, utilities and taxes.

"I think the library staff was really excited about the possibility of interacting with potentially new people, and people in a different way," said Margo Geffen, Hennepin County's facilities services director.

County officials haven't ruled out Southdale Center as a future library location, Geffen said, though it's unclear how mall management and Life Time will proceed.

Mark Nordland, Life Time's senior vice president of mixed-use development, said in an e-mail: "We plan to move forward with the Life Time Living project at Southdale, but given the pause to our development pipeline, we are being thoughtful on the right time to proceed with our plans. We acknowledge that this timing might not align with the Hennepin County Library and understand their need to explore other options."

A Life Time spokeswoman added that the pandemic and resulting shutdowns have had a significant financial impact on the company and that it will take time to get it back on track.

A spokesperson for Simon Property Group said it is not giving interviews at this time.

Scott Neal, Edina city manager, said the city "wants to play a key role" in the planning process for the Southdale Library. City officials had been warming to the mall location, he said.

"I thought it was a really interesting idea that had a lot of potential for the community," Neal said.

The city will advocate for the library staying in the community because it's an important resource, he said, but will also play a regulatory role.

"This project needs to fit within our vision of what's going to be in the Southdale district," Neal said.

Updating Southdale Library has been in the county's capital plans for a few years, Geffen said, and the mall location would have provided "the opportunity to be a part of a larger space to draw additional people to the library."

The county owns the 8-acre property two blocks from the mall where the library now sits. Officials explored using the existing site as a location for a new library, as well as remodeling the current library. But the building — an imposing white modernist structure — needs "quite a bit of work," Geffen said.

Library officials haven't decided the fate of the old building.

With plans for the mall nixed for now, a library task force will create a new facilities master plan. A strategic plan is also in the works, said Chad Helton, Hennepin County Library director.

Helton said there are examples nationally of libraries located in malls, including one in Chapel Hill, N.C.

Library enthusiast Ida Sansom said Southdale was one of two libraries she visited as a child growing up in Bloomington, and she's attached to it.

"We called it 'the big white library,'" she said. "It's very unique."

The library's drive-up book drop was ahead of its time, she said, recalling the strange, robotic voice that talked to patrons returning materials.

Sansom, who wrote a long review of the Southdale Library on Yelp, said she had never considered putting a library in a mall. She might visit more often if it were there, she said. But she also likes the idea of the library staying in its existing space.

"I absolutely love that library," she said.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781