Edina’s 42-year-old Hennepin County Southdale Library, which also houses courtrooms and a busy service center, squats like a white box on columns in one of the Twin Cities’ busiest areas, close to strip malls, big-box stores, groceries and chain restaurants.
With the imperious but distinctive building now in need of millions of dollars in upgrades, county leaders are looking into whether it would make more sense to demolish it and sell the land at the high-demand corner of W. 70th Street and York Avenue S.
“It’s always a possibility to raze the whole building,” said Mark Thompson, the assistant county administrator for public safety who is driving the discussion. “Land in that area is very, very expensive.”
When the building opened in 1973, it set the standard for services in suburban Hennepin County because of the library’s large collection, as well as the conveniently located courtrooms and service center.
Demolition may make the most sense, because the building’s old heated and ventilation systems, along with its anachronistic design, would push the cost of renovation into the millions of dollars.
There are also major space problems in the courthouse area. Other satellite courts, such as those at Ridgedale and Brookdale, now have permanent security structures where visitors line up indoors to pass through metal detectors. Southdale has no such space, meaning everyone who comes to court must be checked with the more time-consuming, labor-intensive security wand.
The courtrooms also are an older design — long and deep, distancing spectators from judges and making it hard to hear.
And with 2 ½ courtrooms and up to 140 scheduled court appearances each day, the second-level facility gets crowded. The waiting area outside the courtrooms is essentially a tight hallway into which 30 to 40 people can be packed. “A lot of times there are victims and alleged perpetrators in the same area,” Thompson said.
Parking could be another reason to start over on the site, Thompson said. Its big lot is rarely full, and surface parking is now largely viewed as dead space that doesn’t add to the vibrancy of a neighborhood.
Discussions about the building’s future began very recently, and no decision is imminent. “We have no specific plan as yet,” said Mark Chapin, the county’s director of taxpayer services. “It is an aging building, so we have to think about the future and the residents we serve at the center.”
Judy Hollander, the county’s director of property services, said staffers have been familiar with the issues for a few years and even set aside $16.5 million for renovations — money that eventually went elsewhere because the project was put on hold. “We’re not going to do any renovations until we know the building’s going to be there for a long time,” she said.
One of the next steps will be a discussion with County Board members.
“The library and the courts were cutting-edge for their time, but that was before Americans With Disabilities Act requirements and more environmentally friendly designs,” said Commissioner Randy Johnson, who represents the area.
He said he’d prefer to raze the building and start anew.
Although the service center could move out of the building, it wouldn’t go far because of the continuing need for the services in the southern suburbs. Potential new sites include space in a nearby strip mall or Southdale itself.
For now, the focus is on the fate of that unusual building. “I don’t think there’s anyone that’s wed to the design of that building,” Thompson said.