Underground library’s fate up in the air after surprise vote

The City Council blocks Walker Library repairs. Does it mean closing the subterranean facility -- or a better library rising in its place?

To the surprise of Minneapolis Library Board members, their plan to fix the roof of the Walker Library was crushed by the Minneapolis City Council May 14.

The Council voted 9-3 against authorizing a $440,000 bond sale to fix widening cracks in the subterranean library's roof underneath its parking lot.

The defeat again puts the star-crossed building's future in doubt. The Library Board had spent months holding hearings, studying reports and considering options for the 23-year-old Uptown institution -- the city's third-most popular community library. It finally decided to sell bonds backed by the 2000 library referendum -- a sale that needed Council approval.

The Council denial forces Library Board members to re-examine a proposal they've already rejected: making the 2880 Hennepin Ave. S. library part of a condo tower.

Councilmembers Dan Niziolek (10th Ward) and Gary Schiff (9th Ward) want to see the Walker bulldozed and replaced by a ground-floor library topped by three or more stories of housing. There would be several floors of underground parking as well.

"I would like to see a very strong mixed-use building where we have a grand library on the first level and housing on the levels above it to really contribute to the vibrancy of the area," said Niziolek, who represents most of Uptown.

Grand plans

Essentially, Council opponents of the Walker fix say the Library Board is throwing good money after a bad building. The Library Board says its fix is the most cost-effective.

A report to the Board last October by RSP Architects stated a mixed-use Walker replacement would cost the public $1.5 million. Niziolek says property taxes from the condos could pay off the shortfall in 15 years.

Library Board President Gregory Gray said his independent, elected group is best able to decide the fate of city libraries. "The plans that they've brought forward just haven't financially made any sense," he said.

The former North Minneapolis state representative added, "Frankly, from a personal standpoint, I find it rather silly, that at a time when we're as short on funds as we are, at a time when we're fighting with the Legislature and the State Auditor, who has already said that libraries are not essential services, and we've laid off 29 percent of our staff, and now they would have us build a brand new library."

Niziolek said the Council is doing the job voters hired it to do. "The constituents I represent, as well citywide constituents, look to the City Council to be responsible for the finances of the city. So when they say, 'Are we compromising the independence of the Board?' No, I think we're clearly operating within our fiduciary responsibilities as a Council to ensure that tax dollars are spent in the most appropriate way."

Library Board member Rod Krueger termed Niziolek's move "unfortunate, and it's going to cost the taxpayers more money because of the delay and possible closure of the library."

Former Councilmember Pat Scott, a Kenwood Isles Area Association board member who has raised money from neighborhood groups for the Walker, echoed Krueger's evaluation: "The City Council has kicked the citizens of the Uptown area in the stomach by essentially saying they want our library to be closed."

Niziolek flatly denies supporting a permanent shutdown of the Walker. "The library's staying there. Public institutions need to be in prominent locations, and this is a great place for it.

"The only thing that's been done in the neighborhood is basically creating fear that they were going to lose their library. When I spoke to people in my neighborhood about mixed-use, they were excited by it, provided that the library stays."

However, Library Director Kit Hadley won't rule out the possibility that the facility might have to be shuttered.

"Obviously, our concern here is that the crack in the parking deck is threatening the waterproofing, so if the problem gets worse, we would have to figure out what to do," she said. "There's a whole range of what could happen, and I'm not sure it really helps to speculate."

Water world

Alex Wakal retired April 30 after 25 years as superintendent of library buildings and grounds. The very first construction project he worked was the Walker Library.

Wakal says there's no telling how long the building can go without repairs before it begins to suffer major water leakage. Right now, the rigid rubber waterproofing encasing the building is holding.

"It could hold for several years and not have a problem, or we could have a freeze-thaw cycle this winter that might just be enough to start a leak," Wakal said. "We've already delayed doing any work on that deck for several years; how long can you stretch your luck?"

Wakal said a 1995 renovation fixed leaks under the greenspace and plaza above it but that the parking deck wasn't repaired at the time because of a lack of funds.

He said if the deck were fixed now, the building would likely be watertight for years.

"We know it will be good for another 20-plus years," Wakal said. "Or we could spend another year or two doing further studies in the hope that we can find a developer."

He said he looks at how long the Sears project on Lake Street languished and wonders how Niziolek can get a developer to provide the city with an essentially free mixed-use facility.

"One of these City Councilpeople who were talking about mixed-site is, of course, an expert because he sat on a committee someplace," Wakal said, noting that his retirement has freed him to speak his mind on the city's machinations.

Razing hell

Councilmember Barbara Johnson (4th Ward), chair of the Ways and Means Committee, said she prefers her Council peers defer to the Library Board chosen to oversee the system.

Johnson said her Ways and Means Committee will discuss the ramifications of denying the Library Board the funds to fix the parking deck/roof.

She said she was one of many who were surprised by the margin of victory. "I think it kind of snowballed," she said of Schiff's and Niziolek's effort. "People saw there was a weakness, and they kind of glommed onto it."

At the May 14 Council meeting, Niziolek and Schiff both spoke against the Walker funding, as did Councilmember Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) and Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Zimmermann, who represents part of Uptown, called the library branch "a dank dungeon."

He said afterwards that he "was a little surprised at the size of the vote. I got lobbied [by Niziolek and Schiff] and I said, 'Oh, this is obvious.'"

Zimmermann said the Walker wasn't on his radar screen until a few days before the vote, but that he considers the building a failed experiment and likes the redevelopment idea.

Schiff said that an eight-story development on the site at "seems appropriate."

Wakal said that when the building was being planned and constructed in the late 1970s, there were reasons for burrowing into the ground at Lagoon and Hennepin rather than soaring above it.

"One of the driving factors in going underground was that they were looking at having a very active corner there but also providing greenspace -- residential units are next to it," he said. "And now, trying to put in an eight-story building and fill that lot up, you're going to be within 20 feet of those apartment buildings. So any of those people who live in that unit over there with their little balconies, get to sit on the balcony and look across at a wall. That's why we haven't had a lot of community support for mixed-use at that site."

Wakal said he's frustrated by the bureaucrats and backstabbing at City Hall.

"That's one of the reasons I decided to retire," he said. "It got to be too much politics and everything. Between the issues like this at Walker and [South Minneapolis'] Roosevelt [Library], and the city trying to second-guess the Library Board and the Library Board trying to cater to the whims of City Council people."