Citing Economy, Board Halts Library Project

"Sobering" bond market, tax burden among reasons given
Josie Parker, Rebecca Head and Jan Barney Newman listen as other library board members discuss the decision to put the downtown building project on hold.

Josie Parker, Rebecca Head and Jan Barney Newman at Monday morning's special library board meeting.

A somber Ann Arbor District Library board voted unanimously this morning to suspend its ambitious project to build a new downtown library, though they held out the possibility of resuming the plan if and when the economy improves.

“I think we’re talking about a detour – at least I’m talking about a detour,” said board chair Rebecca Head.

The board called a special meeting for this morning which began in a closed session with the library’s real estate attorney, Jim Adams of Butzel Long. They reconvened for a public meeting at 10:15 a.m., and Head announced that Adams had delivered disturbing news about the bond market that was “very sobering.”

In addition to a nationwide crisis in the financial markets, board members cited reluctance to add to residents’ tax burden in such a difficult and uncertain economic climate, particularly in Michigan where the future of the auto industry hangs in the balance. Funding a new downtown library – the option that the board had been pursuing – would have required both a millage and the sale of bonds to cover the estimated $70 million cost.

For the past two years, AADL director Josie Parker and the library board have been exploring what to do with the downtown library building. Since 2006, the library has spent $900,000 on the project, an amount which includes consulting and architectural fees. The local firm Luckenbach Ziegelman Architects has been working on the building design, and Carl Luckenbach has made presentations at the board’s monthly meetings for the past several months.

Part of that work was evaluating the condition of the current downtown library. At the October board meeting, Luckenbach said that the decades-old building faced a laundry list of structural problems, including a failing sanitary system and outdated wiring.

Just last week at the Nov. 17 meeting, Luckenbach had led the board through a discussion of their vision for the new building, with the goal of bringing back a more concrete design to the board in December. Even then, however, the specter of the economy was raised when board member Carola Stearns urged price limitations to be set, given current economic conditions.

During Monday’s meeting, several board members noted that the work done up to this point won’t be wasted. “What we’ve paid for so far we can still use,” said Margaret Leary. The board now knows the extent of repairs and alternations the current building requires, Ed Surovell added.

After the meeting, Head told The Chronicle that the board doesn’t have a time frame for coming back to the project – that will depend on economic conditions, she said. Meanwhile, the board will do what’s necessary to keep the current downtown building up to standards, she said.

It isn’t clear what impact, if any, the library board’s decision will have on a separate, nearby parking project being undertaken by the city’s Downtown Development Authority.

Jennifer Hall, chair of the DDA board, voted against the underground garage project at the Sept. 3 DDA board meeting, along with then-board-member Dave DeVarti. Reached at home by phone a few minutes after the library board’s decision, she said she’d like to understand more fully what the library’s time frame was, if any, for the suspension.

But she also said that the library board’s decision to suspend their building project could be an occasion for the community to re-think the need for parking at this particular location. She said one of the reasons she had reluctantly voted against the project in September was that she felt it was important to be a good partner with the library. She said that the amount of parking required was in part driven by the discussion of the possibility of a 400-seat amphitheater planned for the new library.

Hall also recalled the overall context of the design for parking at the library lot location, which was a directive from city council for the DDA to provide various options for increasing parking capacity, and that the DDA had provided them – ranging from adding levels to the Ann-Ashley structure, to building additional parking on the Larcom Building site in connection with the new police-courts facility. The library lot had been identified by council as the location for which it wanted the DDA to design parking.

Another part of the context for the parking project was the Nelson-Nygaard parking study, which Hall said she read as a directive possibly to add additional parking capacity only after allowing various other strategies – like elimination of monthly parking permits, and parking demand management – to have an effect. Hall acknowleged, though, that her colleagues on the DDA board did not read the Nelson-Nygaard study in the same way.

Hall also noted that it would be important to determine if the library’s existing basement wall could accommodate structurally an entrance from the underground parking garage. The new library building was to have had a fairly grand “lower lobby” area designed to welcome library patrons in from the garage.

Reached by phone on Monday morning, Susan Pollay, the DDA’s executive director, said it would be important for the DDA to sit down with the engineers and architects to determine how to address most flexibly the sheltered entrance to the library, as well as Library Lane (also a feature of the parking garage site plan that would presumably be retained even without construction of a new library building).

Pollay said the parking project “has a validity in its own right. The two projects are interconnected, but not dependent.”

“I’m grateful that they’re [the library board] doing their due diligence,” she said. “Projects can develop a momentum, but they are clearly checking at every point along the way.”

Pollay said benefits of the parking project, independent of the new library construction, include:

  • upgrading utilities on the block (electricity, water, sewer)
  • an increase in the downtown parking capacity
  • the provision of a sheltered connection (underground) from parking to the library.

Also reached by phone Monday morning, Joan Lowenstein – who still serves on the DDA board and until two weeks ago served on the Ann Arbor city council – confirmed that the context for the underground parking garage historically was consideration of a range of locations to add existing parking capacity. The council and DDA had contemplated additional parking at the library lot well before the library had made its decision to build a new building downtown in the same location as the existing facility. As Lowenstein summarized it: “The library is still there.”

The site plan for the underground parking project will be coming before city council sometime in the near future, but the city clerk’s office has not yet received information that would allow reporting a precise date.

Present: Rebecca Head, Margaret Leary, Barbara Murphy, Jan Barney Newman, Josie Parker, Carola Stearns, Ed Surovell.

Absent: Prue Rosenthal

Section: Govt.

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  1. By John Weise
    November 24, 2008 at 8:11 pm | permalink

    I would love to see a new library downtown, but the board’s decision is simply smart. The timing just isn’t right.

  2. November 25, 2008 at 6:09 am | permalink

    Our current library certainly is not a disaster so we will limp by until financial conditions improve. I am excited by the plans for both the library and the underground parking and hope they can go forward one day in the best possible configuration.

  3. November 25, 2008 at 10:58 am | permalink

    Josie Parker is just being pragmatic. We are lucky to have a capable executive like her in charge of one our most important assets, our library. When the time is right she will push for the new facility. I can’t think of a single major city in the world that does not have a world class library.


  4. By Kris
    November 25, 2008 at 12:16 pm | permalink

    I’m still amazed by this pushed for an entire new library when the public would be better served by more branch libraries near their homes.

    There needs to be a solid long term plan for a flexible library system that won’t outdated in 20 years. In addition, the library is being saddled with desires that do not seem to match it’s charter:
    1. Computers – why are students using computers at the libraries? Our taxes already fund the schools having computers, if children in the public school system need computers after hours the schools need to stay open to support this.
    2. Auditorium – why would the library have an auditorium? Throughout Ann Arbor there are unused school auditoriums and large classrooms (AAPS, WCC, UM), to duplicate these resources is wasteful, costly and inflexible.

    The libraries research to support this project is flawed as it did not ask how much each person surveyed would pay for the amenities listed, it only asked what people would like. People will truly tell their minds only when they understand the full implications.

    I’m trying to figure out how Stew feels Ann Arbor is a “major city”. Let’s not dream that we are Chicago, New York City, LA or San Francisco as we simply don’t have that type of tax base to pull from. The City and the Library need to stop building simply to leave the memory of an administrator.

  5. By MarkAA
    November 25, 2008 at 5:35 pm | permalink

    What’s crazy is the patchwork of library systems in Washtenaw County. A countywide system with branches throughout and larger main libraries in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti and Saline would make a lot more sense fiscally and provide resources to more people. The little silos aspect of the area libraries is really foolish and detrimental to educating the area. Plenty of other places have countywide libraries, and they don’t create a haves/have-nots situation that shows Ann Arbor’s crass class system.

  6. By Kris
    November 25, 2008 at 9:59 pm | permalink

    Well said MarkAA,

    Add into your thoughts the many University libraries in the area (UM, Eastern, WCC, Concordia, Baker etc.) as well as the public school and you have massive redundancy MUCH OF WHICH ISN’T USED ALL SUMMER!.

    It’s time for Ann Arbor and surrounding cities to break the paradigms!

  7. By Bob Martel
    November 27, 2008 at 11:39 am | permalink

    I’m glad that this madness was put on hold. I’m just sorry that it took a once in a lifetime international economic crisis to slap the library board silly. Now perhaps they can use the next couple of years to rethink their plans based on more creative thinking than simply defaulting to a Taj Mahal.

  8. By Bob Martel
    November 27, 2008 at 11:48 am | permalink

    I forgot to mention that I am especially intrigued by the “whole County” library system mentioned by MarkAA. We need to start thinking about consolidating all kinds of governmental services (Schools, police, fire, libraries, social services, etc…) or we will no longer be able to afford them!!!

    The days of having over 500 school districts in Michigan should be over! That’s five hundred superintendents, five hundred school boards, thousands and thousands of administrators, all leaving less and less money for the actual in-class instruction. Now take this dismal model and multiply it by all the other municipal departments and what you are left with is one hell of a lot of overhead.

  9. By Stewart Nelson
    November 27, 2008 at 12:02 pm | permalink

    Libraries create another “place” in the downtown area where people can come together. It is like a farmers market but people come to feed their intellect and share ideas. It is another venue for exhibits and performances and embrace literature. I feel the greatest gift we can give to future generations is to instill in them a love of reading. What better place than a public reading room?

    Webster defines “Great” as—-greater in dignity, rank, importance, or interest . Who would argue that Ann Arbor is not a “great” city? I did not say “large” city like NY, SFO or LA.

    Happy Thanksgiving!

  10. By Stewart Nelson
    November 27, 2008 at 12:26 pm | permalink

    I meant to say Major…not great!

  11. By Kris
    November 28, 2008 at 10:52 am | permalink

    Stewart Nelson,

    I challange you to stand behind your statement that “can’t think of a major city without a world class library”.

    1. What cities are you referring to?
    2. What is a world class library? Judged by who?
    3. Based against these standards how does AA rank?
    4. Based against these standards, how do the UM resources rank?
    5. What about the plan for a new downtown library changes the approach from an implied sub par approach to a world class one? I certainly haven’t seen anything revolutionary in the plans that create a step function in services/quality.

    Again, lets list the needs and put together a plan, to simply throw money at this (as $900K has already been wasted) is short sighted and wasteful.

  12. November 28, 2008 at 11:11 am | permalink

    I was at the Toledo library yesterday and it sure is nice. I would love to see something like that here.

    This issue is dead for now but sure to come back in a year or two. When it does, I have a few suggestions for the Board.

    Stop saying we need a new building because the current one is old and run down. That’s like saying you need a new car because it has a flat tire. Sump pumps and elevators can be fixed. 50 years is not old for a building. When you do this, it sounds like you’re making excuses to build a monument to yourselves.

    Don’t even think about closing the downtown library for two years while you build the new one. That will never fly.

    Concentrate on the positive. Show us pictures of really nice libraries in other cities our size, and artist’s sketches of what you have in mind. Tell us what the new library could be.

    I’m skeptical but could be convinced. You are not doing a good job of convincing me.

  13. By MarkAA
    November 30, 2008 at 10:42 am | permalink

    It is fiscally negligent to even think about building a fancy new downtown library. The one that is there is serving the community just fine. With so much material now available via online sites, fewer people need to even visit a physical building to view/use materials now than in the past, and as time goes on even fewer will need them. I suspect envy over Ypsilanti’s over-the-top library facility is driving Ann Arbor’s library “needs” more than any actual need.

  14. By Steve Bean
    November 30, 2008 at 11:20 am | permalink

    MarkAA, for some people their only online access is at the library. And personally, I use the downtown library more now than in any time in the past 25 years. Maybe things aren’t so obvious as they appear.

  15. By Kris
    November 30, 2008 at 10:04 pm | permalink

    Mr. Bean,

    Why should tax payers fund web surfing for the public? I am in full agreement that the web is an great place to perform research, but I see the library providing too much support of random surfing at the cost of the tax payer. Maybe they should start charging for time (like an internet cafe).

  16. By Steve Bean
    December 1, 2008 at 12:26 am | permalink

    Wifi seems to be free at most cafes now, but I understand your point. Maybe putting a time limit on daily, weekly, or monthly use? Likewise on hold requests and other services. I think those kinds of questions are reasonable to consider if user demand is exceeding staff and equipment supply. But let’s not be quick to judge someone else’s “random surfing”–literacy enhancement and continuing education come in many forms.

    Rather than worry about what other people are doing at the library (they’re in a library–I don’t much care what they’re doing as long as they’re not disruptive), I make the most of its availability and the services it provides. In other words, I get my money’s worth. I think that part of the idea of the new building is to build on the success of the library and make it an even better contributor to the community. I’ll gladly pay a few more dollars a year to help make that possible–and I’ll continue to get my money’s worth by using the new services.

    I encourage you and MarkAA to communicate directly with the library board about your concerns and ideas.

  17. By John Q.
    December 2, 2008 at 1:43 pm | permalink

    Wow – lots of uninformed commentary to respond to here.

    “Why should tax payers fund web surfing for the public? I am in full agreement that the web is an great place to perform research, but I see the library providing too much support of random surfing at the cost of the tax payer.”

    Since when was it decided that my tax dollars should be limited to using the Internet for research? Should we also empty the library of popular fiction, magazines and anything else that doesn’t meet your standards? I’m glad that the library provides the research resources that it does but I’ve never been to a library that serves the public where the materials in print have been limited in the way that you propose for the Internet computers.

    “they don’t create a haves/have-nots situation that shows Ann Arbor’s crass class system”

    Which libraries in the area are “have-nots”? Not Ypsi, not Chelsea, Dexter is building a new library. What community that is willing to pay for library services is being left out?

    “I’m still amazed by this pushed for an entire new library when the public would be better served by more branch libraries near their homes.”

    The system has 3 branch libraries already. Where would you propose additional branches? And what about all of the people who live in the downtown area?

    “2. Auditorium – why would the library have an auditorium?”

    The library is open in the evenings and weekends when the schools are not. The library often has programs on the weekend and evenings when the schools are closed. The library also has programs during the day, when the schools are in session and there is limited availability of their facilities. Opening up those facilities just for the library to use results in costs to the schools for staff time to have someone monitor and clean-up and energy costs to have lights on, heating, cooling, etc. The library can easily justify the space and having it located in the library makes a lot more sense than what you propose.

  18. By Kris
    December 3, 2008 at 10:29 pm | permalink

    John Q.

    You state that my comments are uninformed, but you offer no conflicting information other than your own opinions. I also see no attempt to voice your own alternatives, simply blind following of an economically outdated plan.

    Regarding computer, when did web access become a right? Why should I pay for other people to have access?

    I did not say there should not be a downtown library, simply that any additional monies should be spent on more branches. Smaller and more widely distributed branch libraries can be scaled easier and technologies and populations change.

    As stand by my statement that a 300+ person auditorium is a waste of money. There is no need for an auditorium this large during the day, and a great number of similar rooms available at night. You voice concern over paying to use these other auditoriums, but I guarantee you that the price for occasional use over the next 25 years will not approach the cost to build, furnish and maintain the auditorium at the library.

    As stated before, the library needs to go back to the drawing board and avoid this albatross of a new building that will saddle the city in dept. and severely limit flexibility.

    What do we truly need? Not flights of fancy from a survey that had no references to cost, thus leading to flights of fancy.

    How else can the needs be met? Reuse of common resources is environmentally responsible, fiscally responsible and just plain good business!

    How can we hold down costs? This limits the burden to the taxpayers and allowing for other changes sooner as needs shift further.

  19. By John Q.
    December 4, 2008 at 3:10 pm | permalink

    “Regarding computer, when did web access become a right? Why should I pay for other people to have access?”

    Why should you pay for books? Why should you pay for anything? People should have equal access to information. If you are offering access to all kinds of books than the Internet access should be equally broad.

    “As stand by my statement that a 300+ person auditorium is a waste of money. There is no need for an auditorium this large during the day, and a great number of similar rooms available at night.”

    Again, fact-free analysis. I would expect that there are numerous times during the day that the library needs a facility of this size. As for the rest of the claim about costs, they are based on the assumption that an auditorium space would be rarely used. Again, you have no basis for making that assumption.

  20. By Dave Askins
    December 4, 2008 at 3:23 pm | permalink

    John Q. wrote: ” … the claim about costs, they are based on the assumption that an auditorium space would be rarely used. Again, you have no basis for making that assumption.”

    I think this relates partly to the point that Jim Rees makes in [12] above: “I’m skeptical but could be convinced. You are not doing a good job of convincing me.”

    If the library does eventually bring this before the public for a millage vote, to succeed they’ll need to present a convincing case that — among other things — this auditorium will be heavily used by giving a clear vision of how it’s going to be programmed.

    During the DDA September 2008 DDA board meeting Josie Parker discussed briefly the general approach to programming the auditorium:

    “Board member John Mouat inquired about how the proposed 400-seat auditorium would be programmed. Parker stressed that it was not a full-performance stage. For example, it will not have fly space. But it would be big enough for small orchestras and bands. Parker predicted lots of lectures would take place there. She pointed out that the capacity of the theater had an impact on the parking requirements for the new facility. Last year, without the 400-seat auditorium, the downtown location counted 600,000 door swings made by patrons visiting the library in person (1.7 million system wide).”

  21. By A Humble Reader
    December 11, 2008 at 12:00 am | permalink

    The received “wisdom” seems to be that the downtown library is 50 years old and needs to be completely razed and replaced. In fact, much of the current downtown library was built in 1991 when it was significantly enlarged.

    It may well be that the library would be enhanced by additional space. But I’m far from convinced that it is necessary to spend $70 million on a new building. How much energy retrofitting and repair could we have gotten for the $900,000 that was spent on architects and other fees for this misbegotten project?

    What the downtown library sorely needs is more staff and a more welcoming environment which it used to have.

  22. By John Weise
    December 12, 2008 at 11:16 am | permalink

    MSNBC did a segment on how library use is increasing dramatically across the nation. It seems relevant to this thread.