Central Library Project Update

Price tag at three times that of City Hall.

Among the big-ticket items on the city's list of potential bond projects, the central library was the biggest, and this week the Bond Election Advisory Committee agreed in a nonbinding straw poll that the price would not exceed $90 million. That sounds like a big number, but it's still about a 30% cut from the $124 million proposal by a facilities subcommittee. The discrepancy between those two figures could set up quite a struggle between what the BEAC believes voters will accept and what library advocates deem necessary for a first-rate central library, which ultimately will have to be decided by the City Council.

The larger figure is enough to build a state-of-the-art 300,000-square-foot central branch downtown, possibly on the site of the Green Water Treatment Plant. At three times the cost of City Hall, the project is monolithic on a scale that has never been seen in the history of Austin bond issues. Still, the head of the Austin Public Library system's facilities program insisted the project's budget was well scrubbed. "This is not a project that is designed to build monumental landmark architecture," John Gillum told the bond committee. "This is a budget that we believe will deliver to the city a building that will serve it well, built out with durable materials that will be sustainable."

Committee member Mike Clark-Madison (former Chronicle city editor, and still a contributing writer), made the library presentation, saying it was imperative to move the central library branch project forward this bond election. The central library, cut from the two most recent bond issues in favor of new branches, is critical to a complete functioning library system, he said. And the landlocked Faulk Branch, built in 1979, cannot expand vertically, as originally intended, because of the Capital View Corridor ordinance, passed in 1984.

As UT School of Architecture Dean Frederick Steiner pointed out, however, compared to central library projects across the county, Austin's $124 million price tag put it on the high end, at about $400 per square foot. In the last decade, the cost of central branches has ranged from the low end – Phoenix at $43 million and Salt Lake City at $65 million – to the high end – San Francisco at $105 million and Seattle at $165 million.

Austin is at two distinct disadvantages, Gillum said. First, the city has shifted all the costs of the library to bonds – even secondary costs such as furniture, security, technology, and expanding the library's collection. The city simply has no money to stock the library, he said. That's coupled with a lack of assistance from other sources, which other states have had. The Austin Public Library Foundation, while fully capable of fundraising, has yet to make a big push on supporting a new central library. There are no big-name donors on this ticket, or any partnership in the works with Travis County, UT, or other public entities. And without a firm proposed site, it's still uncertain whether costs such as a parking garage could be shared with a private developer sharing the same piece of land.

For those who think the library's cost has grown in recent months, it has. The original proposal from the library system was $106 million to build a shell, with a 200,000-square-foot build-out, leaving a 100,000-square-foot build-out for a future bond issue. Clark-Madison said the facilities subcommittee decided such a two-election approach would leave voters with the impression that the city had failed to meet its initial budget on the central library branch.

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