A deceptive public process undermines democracy in St. Paul

by Barbara Bezat, Tom Goldstein, Jonathan Oppenheimer, Roy Neal and Bonnie Youngquist

Two months ago, Saint Paul Public Library (SPPL) announced plans to demolish the historic Hamline Midway Library, saying the decision was the result of “extensive work with community members and a team of ‘internal and external industry experts over the past four years’. years.” In reality, the outcome was a foregone conclusion, with library director Catherine Penkert and her management team advocating for a new building from the outset.
Not only did Penkert rule out outright the possibility of finding an alternate location to build a new library and market the current building to organizations or businesses wishing to renovate and repurpose it, but she orchestrated a campaign to portray the building as being in “disrepair”. and “poor condition” such that only a new building would seem capable of providing the modern amenities and upgrades required by the 92-year-old structure.
We know this from emails and other documents discovered as part of a data practices request submitted to the city in October 2021. For example, in an April 8, 2021 email to Stacy Opitz, library marketing and communications manager, who prepared the “case review”. document for the three libraries slated for “transformation”, Penkert advised Opitz to point out that the $21.1 million budget would be used to “transform 3 crumbling neighborhood locations…Collapse is not the right word but you get where i’m going – insist old and falling.
Subsequently, when the case review document was made public, only the description of the Hamline Midway library included the words “constraints”, “poor operation”, “significant problems” and “problems”, while the descriptions from other libraries was simply referring to the upgrades needed to update those buildings.
Similarly, a March 29, 2021 email from Barb Sporlein, SPPL Deputy Director of Operations, to Director of Planning Luis Pereira regarding the condition of the Hamline Midway Library, claimed that “every component of the building is failing and in critical condition – all need to be replaced or upgraded However, a condition assessment report by Ameresco Company found only the HVAC air conditioning pumps and chillers to be in “critical condition”; all other elements of the building were described as being in “fair” or “good” condition.
The Ameresco report also stated that the Hamline Midway Library’s concrete foundation and substructure, basement and superstructure were all in good condition. This conclusion was echoed by Jane Dedering of HGA Architects, who in a May 5, 2021 email to Penkert and Sporlein wrote: “Structurally the building is very sound. The roof and floor framing plans specify steel beams and plates, with It appears the only issues are water intrusion damage in two places: the ceiling at the corner where one of the a reading area joins the plaster ceiling and on the west wall of the basement where there have been water leaks. just above the foundation. An assessment of the building by St. Paul Public Library in early 2021 determined that the basement water problem resulted from a grading and paving issue and that structural elements, including concrete, were not affected.
Yet, in a letter sent to the Heritage Preservation Commission on July 22, 2022, Director Penkert disregarded these findings, saying that “the foundations of the existing Hamline Midway Library building are in poor condition and need replaced, whether the above-ground portion of the building is renovated or demolished and rebuilt.
Unfortunately, demonizing the building was just one of the tactics Penkert and his team used in an effort to sideline community concerns. Another was simply to claim that the public was “divided” over the future of the library, even though the overwhelming evidence showed otherwise.
For example, as part of the Capital Improvement Budget (CIB) process in March last year, 318 people responded to a survey indicating their preference for projects that should receive CIB funding. 69% ranked the “renovation of the Hamline Midway Library” as their highest priority, compared to 48% who preferred a “rebuild” of the library. More importantly, survey respondents overwhelmingly ranked the “Rebuild” option as the lowest priority among CIB funding choices.
Despite these comments, SPPL submitted a proposal in mid-April 2021 seeking CIB funding solely for the demolition and reconstruction of the existing library. It was only after intense opposition from the neighborhood that Penkert informed the CIB committee five days later that SPPL wanted to “revise its proposal” to include the option “Renovation + expansion of the current building”.
It would be the last time Penkert would let public pressure influence his decisions.
In response to the neighborhood outcry, Penkert worked with staff from SPPL and LSE Architects to create a community engagement process that minimized public interaction (only two in-person gatherings where public comment was limited to head-to-head conversations -one-on-one and placing sticky notes on pre-organized theme boards); formed a hand-picked cohort of “community ambassadors” who met privately while ostensibly representing the public; and designed an online survey in which respondents were not allowed to answer the most important question facing the community: do you support the renovation and expansion of the library or the demolition and to rebuilding?
As part of this strategy, SPPL simply ignored the nearly 3,000 people who signed our change.org petition against the demolition, as well as the hundreds of signatures we collected from library patrons and neighborhood residents. surroundings that promote renovation and preservation.
Healthy public engagement does not seek to stifle dissent, push for predetermined outcomes, or provide residents with limited opportunities to share their opinions, whatever they may be. Yet these are exactly the tactics that SPPL has employed, while claiming to follow IAP2 protocols for “public participation” in which “balanced and objective information” will be provided to the community.
As blatant as these tactics may be, they pale in comparison to the “whisper campaign” hatched within SPPL, through accusations directed at us that “SPPL and LSE staff” had been “cursed, bullied, belittled and bullied in the course of this process,” a claim repeated by Deputy Mayor Jamie Tincher in a letter she wrote to the Hamline Midway Coalition, as well as staff at Friends of the Library and LSE Architects. To date, we have found no evidence that this disrespectful behavior ever took place, and none of the accusers have provided details of the alleged perpetrator.
For those, like us, who may be wondering why SPPL would be so determined to demolish an iconic building that has helped anchor the surrounding Hamline Midway neighborhood for the past 90 years, the answer can be found in an article on the turnover of library staff in the April 2 issue of Pioneer Press.
With a headline that reads “25% of St. Paul Public Library workers quit during pandemic,” the reporter writes that “[b]Behind the scenes, however, staff say the waters have been anything but smooth. Over the past two years, St. Paul’s libraries have lost nearly a quarter of their workforce — at least 55 of approximately 235 full-time and part-time employees — to retirements and job losses. departures.
What better way to distract the public from burnout and low morale than by focusing on a “brand new building” that promises all kinds of new “bells and whistles”?
As noted earlier in these pages, it is absurd for SPPL management to suggest that a building should be demolished because there is water leaking in the basement or a main entrance that is not accessible to the ADA. Many of the problems in the current building are the result of willful neglect and deferred maintenance, problems that can be solved by soil remediation, mechanical improvements and, in the case of accessibility issues, renovation.
Ironically, LSE Architects presented a design in April that will preserve the existing building, add an extension to the rear and fix accessibility issues to the front. And our group presented a concept at a forum we held in April that proposed a glass addition to the front of the building that would add the necessary expansion space without having to demolish any exterior parts of the current building.
Preservation is not about nostalgia; it’s about honoring the past while embracing the future. Public structures, like the old Henry Hale Memorial Library, are owned by the community, and demolition should never be on the table just because a building in good condition has been neglected and needs typical repairs and upgrades. .
It is equally important to note that SPPL’s ​​emphasis on the low carbon emissions of a new building completely ignores the large greenhouse gas spike that occurs at the start of a project, as well as the carbon incorporated into all new building materials. In doing so, SPPL makes new construction appear to be the most sustainable option, when the “greenest building” is actually the one that already exists.
A thoughtful renovation and expansion of the current building will not only properly address equity and access, but it is also the most sensible way to protect the environment, maintain the dwindling number of historic buildings in Saint -Paul and meet the needs of 21st century customers and customers. Personal.
To overlook this reality and spend $8.1 million in public funds on a one-story structure that will only be 30% larger than the current building is simply irresponsible. Such an outcome will also needlessly divide the community for years to come, an outcome that could have been avoided had SPPL leaders embraced public concerns rather than focusing on their own private agenda..
The authors of this editorial are members of the Renovate 1558 group, which is committed to reinventing the Hamline Midway Library through renovation and expansion, or by relocating the library and repurposing the current building. You can learn more at renovate1558.org.

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