Rethinking Southwests library

Hennepin County has started planning a redo of the Walker Library, starting with feedback from users

Three decades ago, the underground design of the Walker Library in Uptown was seen as cutting edge, innovative and energy saving.

Those distinctions haven’t withstood the test of time and today it’s hard to find anyone who has kind words for the structure, which has been prone to leaks, lacks curb appeal and is often viewed as uninviting. So when Hennepin County launched an effort this month to gather community input for a new Walker Library, commissioner Gail Dorfman said she only had one preconception.

“I think we do know that it shouldn’t be underground,” she said, drawing hurrahs and claps from the roughly 30 people who attended the second of two public discussions on the issue July 16 at the library.

The recent meetings were the first step in a plan to get a new library built by 2011, which coincidentally is 100 years after the opening of the original Walker Library. Next up is the creation of an advisory committee charged with more intense community outreach. That should be set up within the next several weeks, Dorfman said.

“We feel very strongly that we want the community to drive this project,” she said.  

The county has $12 million ready to invest in the new facility. That dropped recently from $15 million because of budget tightening, Dorfman said. A solid, community-backed plan for the new library will help ensure the cash doesn’t dwindle any further.

Participants in the July 16 discussion were given some history of the existing Walker and its predecessor across the street before breaking up into two discussion groups to brainstorm what they’d like to see in a new facility. Things to consider included location, design, parking and access, programming, meeting space, technology and a bevy of other factors.

The general consensus was that the new library should be in the same location or somewhere nearby, that it offer services to users of all ages, that it be accessible to users of a variety of transit and be recognized as a landmark in Uptown.

Including the original facility in the new design was one idea many seemed in favor of.

“It’s so symbolic and it’s been vacant all these years,” said Pat Blakely, who has lived in the area for 40 years and remembers taking her children to the old library. “I think it would be great to incorporate the old with the new.”

Some participants discussed the possibility of incorporating the original Walker Library as a gateway into a larger facility in the Mozaic mixed-use development slated for Lagoon and Fremont Avenues.

Including public art in the space and having arts programming was another request.

Marty Skoro, of Bryn Mawr, pitched that idea to his discussion group. He said the Walker is the closest library to his home, but he only uses it as a place to pick up and drop off books because it’s not inviting.

“I find myself going off to Ridgedale,” he said.

Leslie Foreman, of the Wedge, said she’d like to see a space dedicated for teens, much like at the Central Library Downtown. She said she has two teenage daughters who love that room.

“I think it’s nice to have a place to go that’s yours,” she said.

Also discussed was how the library might function if light rail were built through Uptown or if a streetcar line went in the Midtown Greenway. The Walker Library is already used by residents throughout Southwest, Dorfman said.

Some of this process might seem a little familiar to those who have lived in the area in the past two decades.

Thoughts of redoing the Walker Library, which opened in 1981, go as far back as 1993, when a study reported several leaks. Nine years later, an engineering report to the Minneapolis Library Board, which then still oversaw the Walker, cited significant structural deficiencies — cracks in the concrete structure of the parking deck.

In 2003, the Library Board looked into relocating the library, an idea that was met with strong resistance from neighborhoods and was eventually decided against. But the seeds were sown for change.

The City Council got involved when it saw the opportunity for possible redevelopment at the site. Instead of just moving ahead with a parking deck repair, council members wanted to investigate the possibility of putting up a mixed-use structure that would incorporate the library. With the Library Board, they appointed a task force in 2004. A request for proposals was sent out, and developers responded with big plans.

None of those were approved. The task force recommended the Library Board pursue building a new Walker Library, but the only change since then was a repaired parking deck in early 2006.

Dorfman said all of that history will inform the new process. She’s not sure why plans for a new Walker Library never really took off, although she speculated that it might have to do with trying to do too much. A mixed-use library is a nice idea, she said — pointing out that there’s a “really cool” example in St. Paul — but that it’s more important now to build something that meets the community’s needs.

“It is not about building a hotel,” Dorfman said, referring to a proposal she’s heard that would make the Walker part of a mixed-use hotel project. “It’s about a library.”

Reach Cristof Traudes at 436-5088, ctraudes@mnpubs.com or twitter.com/sctraudes. Reach Jake Weyer at 436-4367 or jweyer@mnpubs.com.