The 2000 library bond referendum promised voters in southeast Minneapolis an update or replacement of their 53-year-old library in Dinkytown.
More than 15 years later, they’re still waiting. No work has been done and a new or renovated library in the area isn’t likely to open until at least 2019.
Not only that, but the library is only open three days a week for 24 hours total. That puts it on a par with Hennepin County libraries in St. Bonifacius and Maple Plain, cities of about a couple thousand residents each. The Southeast Community Library serves an area with 39,000 residents.
Although southeast residents have other library options, both in the city and in Ramsey County, some are losing patience.
“It has been disappointing that the renovation or rebuilding has been postponed again and again,” said Katie Fournier, Como neighborhood activist. “And it’s not always clear why it’s pushed to the back of the list.”
Hung Russell, co-president of the library’s friends organization, calls the delay “a sensitive issue.”
The bond that voters approved in 2000 financed both the large downtown library and part of a neighborhood library program that included new Bottineau and Webber Park libraries and renovations of others. The Webber Park library is due to break ground this year. Only the Southeast library remains untouched from the list of projects the referendum proceeds would cover.
“It’s quite amazing,” Prospect Park resident Julia Wallace, a retired librarian, said of that delay.
Hennepin County told residents this month that it’s beginning planning for construction in 2018, after a report issued early last year that summarized what area residents want in a library.
But a crucial decision remains unresolved. The Brutalist-style Southeast Community Library building was designed for a credit union by Minneapolis architect Ralph Rapson and is considered a prime example of his midcentury style. It was converted to a library in 1967 in a Rapson-designed renovation.
Although it’s beloved by preservation architects such as Bob Roscoe, even he doubts the wisdom of renovating it for library use. “It fits into one of those preservation categories of a building that has outlived its use, but keep the bulldozers away from it,” Roscoe said.
It’s problematic as a library for a number of reasons, according to an assessment done for the county. Concrete columns and high shelves restrict librarians’ sight. The concrete and brick construction also inhibits interior renovation. There’s enough water damage in the basement level that it’s not open to the public, further cramping space, and the building lacks an elevator from the underground parking to the collection level.
The issue of renovating vs. replacing the library is complicated by the area it serves. The site is probably out of bounds for a new library because the existing building likely would be granted historic preservation status. But other sites in Dinkytown are scarce, unless a new library were incorporated in a mixed-use development.
Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said one factor in the delay is that library staff initially seemed to oppose renovating the building due to its limitations, but he senses less opposition since the building assessment was completed. It didn’t rule out renovation.
Wallace, the retired librarian, disagrees. “It’s a good building for something else,” she said. “For the same amount of money, one probably could get a better library by replacing it.”
Gary Thaden, who was a member of the city’s defunct Library Board and is now president of its county counterpart, said he doesn’t know why the Southeast library has lagged so long. But one factor likely was the implosion of the city-run system after it lacked enough funds to operate its libraries and closed three, including Southeast. A 2008 merger with Hennepin County produced enough money to reopen them.
The county has spent more than $30 million on Minneapolis library capital projects since the merger. But suburban commissioners said they weren’t willing to beggar suburban library projects for their newly acquired buildings in the city.
The Southeast library project is budgeted at $12 million, but the figure is a placeholder until plans develop.
For now, library supporters keep hoping.
“I think there’s sort of a resignation about waiting for the county to act,” Wallace said.