Library Fails to Carry

Commission Votes for Local Over Regional



photograph by John Anderson



No one had expected such a huge turnout for an event most Austinites simply ignore, but more than 50 citizens turned out to speak their minds at last month's Library Commission hearing. One after another they lined up to advise the commission on whether to endorse City Manager Jesus Garza's plan for a multi-million dollar combination central library and new city council chamber. Almost half the crowd expressed support for Garza's proposal. "If there is a mark of a great city, it's a great library system. More fancy markers (such) as museums, or symphonies, or operas, or even schools are secondary to a great library system, because without a great library, you can't have any of those things be truly great," said Texas Observer co-editor Michael King. "It's important that we not set up a false dichotomy between the Central Library and the branches. If you kill the trunk the branches will die. Those two things are organically related and cannot be separated." The other half of the crowd lambasted the idea of funding a massive new central library/city council facility when the Public Library's budget is already over-stretched and its branches suffering. "I've seen the library go through ups and downs," commented Jeff Janisak, an Austin Library employee. "I've watched from year to year wondering whether I was going to have a job. This [new central library] has not been properly researched and thought through. We need to restore our branches to a level that will properly serve the neighborhoods."

For over three hours, citizens held the ear of the commission. While some couched the argument as a vote for a strong downtown, others, including many neighborhood activists, feared the move would signal the death of the community library - where families and neighbors could easily access their local neighborhood branches. In the end, the commission voted
7-1 to recommend that the Citizens' Bond Committee, which has the duty of setting the ballot for the Sept. 26 bond election, expand and replace local library branches, thereby postponing the construction of a new central facility for at least three years. Yet those who prevailed at the commission meeting believe the issue is not going away.

"The city manager has failed to make a commitment to the [library] system as a whole," says Chip Harris, chairman of the Library Commission. "He has an agenda to close branches."

Garza would not comment for this story, but as he has told the Chronicle before, he believes the Austin Public Library can be made more efficient with fewer, but larger, regional branches. "Isn't it better to close the smaller branches in order to take those savings and put them into buying more research materials, more computers, and better books?"

The winds of change are blowing all around Austin - no longer the sleepy, laid-back haunt of hippies and state government folks, the city is a thriving high-tech center attracting major new players in the industry. With the high-tech boom has come a city hall-generated push for a new look downtown. City government is guiding a growing downtown by selling and leasing city-owned land, often at below market value, to private residential developers, and Garza's proposal to replace the John Henry Faulk building, the current central public library, with a brand-new $98 million facility is part of that downtown focus. The proposed facility as Garza envisions it would house both the central library's holdings, and the city council offices and public meeting space. At 300,000 square feet, the building would be triple the size of the main library's current digs, and would replace the aging city hall annex on Second Street that now houses city council chambers.

"Civic presence" and "synergy" are the words that keep flowing from city personnel when they talk about what a new library facility that encompasses a city hall could bring to downtown. The site for the proposed library/city council chambers, bounded by Lavaca and Guadalupe, and Second and Third Streets, is currently a parking lot used by municipal annex workers and those visiting council meetings. Supporters of a new central library at that location are quick to point out - again and again - that the facility would be within walking distance from the Children's Museum, the Austin Museum of Art site, and the land where the city wants private developers to build residential loft apartments. Already the city has entered into negotiations to buy the Hobby Building, just north of the proposed new library/city council site; the city would like to see it house city staff currently located in various downtown office spaces. City officials are hoping that the new central library will serve as an anchor for what essentially will be a civic plaza. "More people come to libraries than any other municipal building," said John Gillum, Capital Projects Manager for Austin Public Library. "And having it next to new museum and the Children's Museum would be great."

Citing similar projects in Seattle, San Antonio, and Denver, some city officials not only see this as an efficient way to consolidate municipal offices, but believe that it would have the effect of pulling more visitors to downtown. "A library could be a wonderful meeting place for the community, and the city has the land for it," Watson said in a faxed statement in response to this story. "A library would... serve as a magnet to draw people into downtown. It would also make downtown a more desirable place to live." Watson added that any development of public space in the central business district would help move Austin toward the new urbanism concept of a compact city.

While this bond proposal is being pushed as a downtown necessity, interestingly, the new central library scheme has received little vocal support from downtown business organizations. Like many Austin residents, downtown business owners say they're worried about the expense of such a venture and how it will affect other city concerns with which it will compete for funding. In addition to the library, the list of potential bond proposals covers projects such as public safety, health, and parks and recreation, for a total of $400 million dollars. Come June, the Citizens' Bond Committee must carve that down to between $160-200 million dollars to appear on the September ballot. If selected, Garza's proposal for a new library/city council chambers will amount to almost half of the total bond ballot.

"What are the needs compared to other projects in the city?" asks Charles Betts, executive director of the Downtown Austin Alliance. "We simply don't have any info to make any responsible comments on it." And Matt Kreisle of Heritage Austin asks, "What is this going to bump in order to fund a project of this size?"

Still, most agree that something must be done. The current four-story central library is a 19-year-old structure that is bursting at the seams. The John Henry Faulk building was built at a time when libraries were libraries. You checked out books, did research from encyclopedias or back issues of the local paper, maybe checked out vinyl LPs. Now libraries have to keep up with the information age - providing Internet access, CD-ROMs, and video cassettes, while expanding their title holdings for a growing population that expects its libraries to have the classics as well as the newest popular fiction.

Faulk has consequently become inadequate for the needs of the APL. "We have used up all of the private space and have been moving into public space," says Brenda Branch, Director of APL. "There's just nowhere else to go in the building." A crunch in office space for library staff has forced staff to use public service areas on the second and third floors - where much of the space allocated for library holdings has been cordoned off with cubicle walls and turned into working space for the library staff. With only six Internet terminals, the facility lacks enough Internet access for the public; the wait can be hours. Current facilities also make introduction of communication technology fiscally impossible and would take millions of dollars and years to complete.

Although Faulk was closed for more than a year in 1995, the $700,000 spent on refurbishments were more of a BandAid fix than anything else. "The main reason that the main library was closed was that the electrical wiring was unsafe. Several things were done at the same time but... it was not something that expanded space," says Library Commission member Julie Todaro, who heads Austin Community College's Rio Grande Campus library. The APL's Gillum cites the removal of asbestos, wall painting, and recarpeting as things that were done while the old hazardous wiring was replaced. "We certainly would liked to have done more," he says.

There isn't much debate over whether Austin needs a new facility for its central library, but the enormous price tag for a new structure has library activists concerned. As a bond issue, the construction of the new complex would not take money from the APL's budget, but after the building is finished, the cost of running and staffing it will suck much-needed money from already anemic funds. "I'm very skeptical about building a big central downtown library when a couple of months ago we were scrambling to find $190,000 to keep a branch open," remarked Chip Rosenthal of the Save Riverside Coalition at the Commission meeting. The coalition had fought successfully last budget season to keep the much-loved Riverside Branch Library open. Rosenthal is among those worried that staff demands for a huge new facility will take money away from branches that have already suffered staff shortages due to budget cuts. "The system has already gone from 22 to 12 reference librarians," notes Chip Harris.

In fact, many at the city council-appointed Library Commission worry that priorities are getting skewed in favor of Watson and Garza's grand visions for downtown. The downtown library proposal, some commission members say, flies in the face of the APL 2000, a report that the Library Commission came up with that it believes to be a viable restructuring of Austin's library system. APL 2000 was developed with input from staff, committee members, and library users on how APL should progress in the future. Although Garza has not yet presented the plan to city council for review, it was made available during last month's library commission hearing. APL 2000 calls for refurbishing existing facilities and replacing the remaining leased sites - North Village, Riverside Drive, and Twin Oaks. It does not recommend replacing the Faulk building until after the year 2000.

"We approve of the building of a new central library, but not at this time," says Harris. "APL 2000 called for replacing the current rental facilities and, down the road, replacing [the main library]." The North Village Branch has occupied a leased space since the late Fifties, and with several thousand new Austin residents from the recent annexations clamoring for their fair share of city services and funds, many say that the time is now to replace those rented spaces with city-owned ones. "This [new facility] could come at the expense of other library services. At the expense of other branch hours and staff. I'm not sure that this mega-complex downtown is what we need," said Karen Bowler of the Millwood neighborhood at the commission hearing. "It's premature to put this on the bond package."

City officials counter that such concerns are unfounded and wonder why library advocates view a sparkling new central branch as negative. They explain that the city plans to include funds for acquisition of titles for an expanded opening-day collection. With the money from this bond proposal, the city also expects to build two new multipurpose centers that will include library branches. One in the Rundberg area will be part of a 40,000-square-foot, multi-purpose sight; the other will be a 15,000-square-foot site near Montopolis that will replace the Riverside area branch.

Mark Smith of the Texas Library Association considers the library advocates worries to be unfounded. "It's curious that so many neighborhood association people came out to speak against the central library. Austin has had a strong commitment to neighborhood libraries. Our ratio of branches to citizens is greater than any city in Texas," Smith says. "APL needs help in developing its infrastructure. This bond would purchase books and strengthen not only central but local libraries also." However, Smith does acknowledge that no money will be designated for hiring more staff or acquiring new titles for local branches.

Library commission member Todaro agrees with Smith that although local branches are integral, the central library must remain the priority. "We can't have strong branches without having a strong central library. It is important that the main public library stay strong," she says. "A main library has to be strong for the branches to be strong."

Library Commission members may not have agreed with Garza and the library administration's vision for the library system's future - only Todaro dissented in the vote to postpone building a new central library for at least three more years - but they are not waiting around for the next initiative to come along. They recommended another instead: to fund replacement buildings for the three remaining leased facilities, and expansions of the Carver, Terrazas, and Spicewood Springs branches. A majority of the Commission members said they saw this bond ballot process as a way to get what they believe is a more sensible approach to shoring up both Austin's main library and its branches. "If we do it right, we can take care of both," said Commission member Dr. Stephen Brodi. "We have been saying for years that library proposals pass. This might indeed be a special moment for the Austin Public Library."

But Todaro sees the Commission vote as an historic opportunity lost. "I'm afraid if we miss this opportunity, that we will be so grown out that we won't be able to support the branches," she says. "If we skip the bond issue this time, we may have to wait another decade."

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