Renovating 1558 heartbroken by SPPL decision to demolish Hamline Midway Library
by Jonathan Oppenheimer, Tom Goldstein and Bonnie Youngquist
Renovate 1558 is heartbroken by the decision of the St. Paul Public Library (SPPL) to demolish the historic Hamline Midway Library, a choice that unnecessarily divides our neighborhood by demolishing a city-owned building in good condition. Although the Hamline Midway Coalition Board requested that this decision be put on hold to allow for a robust community engagement process, the St. Paul Public Library administration and Mayor Carter’s office ignored these calls. and precipitated this decision. The district was led to believe that this was a fair, thorough and transparent process, but by all accounts it was not: SPPL made an initial CIB decision after a meeting in line ; then did no sensitization for 11 months; made a final decision 3 months into a 7-month engagement process in 2022, after only 2 in-person meetings that did not allow for debate and discussion in front of community members; while sending out a single, highly biased public survey that did not allow respondents to note a preference for preservation, and refusing to publish the more than 200 comments from that survey. Along the way, SPPL convened a hand-picked group of project ambassadors, refused to make their meetings public, and rejected several calls to seat a committee member who supported preservation. And almost every public statement from SPPL over the past 3 months has refused to acknowledge the huge support for preservation – as if we don’t exist.
Clearly the neighborhood never had a fair choice: SPPL clearly intended to demolish the library from day one, despite clear majority support for preservation, as evidenced by the city’s CIB survey l last year, when 69% of respondents said renovation was a high or very high priority; by CIB letters from the public in favor of preservation outweighing those for demolition four to one; by the thousands signing a change.org petition to preserve the library; and by no organized support for the demolition. Given SPPL’s stated commitment to adhere to the IAP2 policies that SPPL would do what the people decide, this decision goes against the fair process that the community deserves and that SPPL has promised.
It is simply not true that demolition is the “sustainable” option: architects around the world agree that the greenest building is the one already built, given the carbon embodied in existing buildings. A singular focus on operational carbon ignores this important fact, which means that at a time when we face a global climate crisis, we are making the environmentally unfriendly decision. This choice signals a clear lack of leadership in environmental sustainability. Additionally, demolishing a historic building, which has been deemed eligible for National Historic Designation, is directly against the guidelines of the City’s Comprehensive Plan and our District Council’s Neighborhood Plan guidelines regarding preservation. All to obtain a building barely 30% larger than the current one.
One of the main arguments in favor of demolishing the library and building a new one is that it is a “fair” decision. Yet, SPPL has never defined the parameters they use to process equity; the current inequalities they see existing in our library; how a new building will address these inequalities; or what background work they did to come to these conclusions. It is unfair to everyone, especially the most marginalized members of our community, to simply use “equity” as a meaningless buzzword. It is true that currently people with reduced mobility cannot easily enter the current building through the front door, which is why LSE’s “Option A” design held such promise as a winner -winner for our neighborhood, as it offered a carefully designed ramp to allow for access for those who currently cannot enter from the front. We believe this option answered the only clearly defined question of fairness, as it relates to accessibility.
LSE Architects presented a clear win-win for the neighborhood with their renovation and expansion option, which provided more space and better accessibility for people with reduced mobility – but SPPL never wavered in its resolve. to demolish this building senseless, no matter how clear the opposition to this option. If the director of the SPPL library and the mayor’s office wanted a new building, they always had the choice to build new somewhere else, and they still have that option. This would allow a new buyer to come in and occupy a beautiful building that has been loved by community members for 90 years and would add a lot of character to the Hamline-Midway neighborhood. There is no evidence that SPPL ever took this option seriously, despite years of citizen engagement to come up with different versions of it, instead they rejected it at every turn stating that it was just too much. complicated or expensive. We will never know because it has never been explored with any seriousness.
We hope SPPL will listen to the thousands of neighbors who support preservation; to our District Council, who thoughtfully asked for a postponement of this decision; and to Historic St. Paul, East Side Freedom Library, and the Minnesota Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians, all of which support the preservation of the library building. We hope that SPPL defers its final decision until at least August 16, when the National Register of Historic Places reviews its addition, as such a designation will cement this building’s place in history and make it eligible for building credits. tax that can be used to renovate it in the future. We hope SPPL reconsiders its decision in light of its commitment to let the people decide the fate of the building, a commitment that has been ignored at every turn over the past 15 months.