An even better Pitkin County Library?
October 23, 2012
ASPEN – A proposed expansion of the Pitkin County Library could come down to a couple of key questions as county voters head to the polls Nov. 6: Can a library already roundly praised as an excellent facility be made better? Does it need to be?
While proponents of Questions 5A and 5B on the county ballot argue that the building can be improved upon with an enlargement that allows it to fully meet the demands put on a 21st century library, opponents say the 21-year-old structure fits with the town’s character. Sufficient improvement, they say, can be made within the existing building and without asking taxpayers to take on additional expense.
Ballot issue 5A asks voters to increase property tax support for the library to raise $141,000 annually for ongoing costs associated with the expansion. The money isn’t for staffing, according to library Director Kathy Chandler, but rather utility and cleaning costs, technology and ongoing capital-replacement needs associated with the added space.
The library’s 2012 operating budget is $3.9 million, according to the county Finance Office.
Issue 5B asks voters to authorize $5.4 million in borrowing, which would be repaid through property taxes over a period as long as 25 years, to fund the expansion project, along with an extensive remodeling of the existing building. The maximum repayment, with interest, is $10.2 million, according to the ballot language.
The cost of construction per square foot, including the addition and a top-to-bottom remodeling of the existing building, is roughly $263, according to architect Willis Pember. The bulk of the cost is not, as one opponent asserted, tied up in an outdoor canopy that would be part of the project, Pember said.
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In essence, the $5.4 million plus $5 million in endowment funds that the library already has on hand would go toward the construction and renovation, adding 7,198 square feet onto the east side of the building. The addition would extend 44 feet into adjacent Galena Plaza, and a canopy would extend another 16 feet out.
The canopy, ranging from 17 feet high on one end to 23 feet on the other, with a high point of 28 feet between, has been a focal point for detractors of the project, but its inclusion is driven by the need for the support pillars that extend downward into the Rio Grande Parking Garage, located beneath the plaza.
As an architectural element, it has garnered a lot of attention.
“I don’t like it. Everybody I’ve spoken to but one doesn’t like it,” said longtime local resident Lani White, a real estate broker who helped form Save Our Library and Civic Plaza to campaign against the ballot measures. “I would like to see the library plaza used more, not covered up with a canopy.”
Proponents say the planned public meeting room that will open up to the plaza and can be used after library hours will hopefully enliven the underutilized plaza. Outdoor seating and wireless Internet service will provide an added draw.
“We think it’s a great design reaching out to the plaza,” said Barbara Reid, president of the library’s Board of Trustees, at a recent election forum.
Whether the canopy will inhibit uses of the plaza has been a matter of speculation.
A Save Our Library flier, disseminated at a recent election forum, claims the canopy “prevents annual performing arts in our civic Galena Plaza.”
The Hudson Reed Ensemble puts on a summertime Shakespeare in the Park series in the plaza, but founder Kent Reed said it’s the city of Aspen’s plan to entirely reconfigure the plaza when it’s torn out in order to replace the parking-garage roof that he’s watching closely. The canopy alone is not the worry.
“That’s our overriding concern – that the integrity of the plaza as a performance venue is kept,” he said.
Looking indoors, opponents say the facility should work within the confines of the existing structure.
But library representatives point out the second-floor mezzanine can’t structurally be enlarged (it can’t be more than 50 percent larger than the main floor). It would have to become an enclosed second floor, adding staffing costs and eliminating the library’s soaring atrium feel. In addition, renovation will mean bringing the building up to Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, which means the facility would lose one-third of the stacks that currently house its fiction collection in the library mezzanine, according to Chandler.
The renovation of the library, according to library board members, will move the children’s library to a more secure spot on the ground floor, allow better placement of its most popular collections and provide much-in-demand meeting space and study rooms. The library is lacking in places where people can talk, whether it’s students working jointly on a project or a tutor offering instruction, according to Chandler. The facility’s meeting spaces saw 580 uses last year.
The main meeting room, moved up from an uninviting basement space to a first-floor spot with plenty of natural light, would be wired for GrassRoots TV coverage, according to Chandler. It could accommodate Board of County Commissioner meetings, when the board can’t use its regular venue, as well as other uses that are televised on the local public-access station.
There are plenty of other meeting rooms around town, opponents counter, including the Rio Grande Commons, space at the fire station and the soon-to-be-vacated Aspen Art Museum building.
Opponents point out that Pitkin County already has one of the largest libraries in Colorado. It’s currently the 27th largest in Colorado, said library board member John Wilkinson. The website http://www.publiclibraries.com lists about 260 public libraries in Colorado.
“I feel we’ve got a very large library for our community,” White said.