Carnegie asked to scrap new library, keep two branches
Representatives from Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP) held a community workshop meeting at Temple Baptist Church on Saturday morning, to discuss with area residents progress on its proposed capital campaign project along Brownsville Road.
By the end of the meeting, two proved better than one, as community consensus concluded it was wiser to improve the existing Carrick and Knoxville facilities than to create a new library.
Mary Francis Cooper, director of CLP, explained the capital campaign project began in 2004, with the intent to replace and refurbish existing library buildings throughout the city, using privately-raised funds. Though the original vision involved city-wide renovations, practical concerns necessitated that the project more narrowly focus on those areas needing the greatest improvements.
Around 2010, as available funds dwindled, library service along the Brownsville Road corridor was deemed to be an area in need. Plans commenced to develop the concept for a unified library bridging the geographic gap between, and highlighting the neighborhoods of Carrick and Knoxville.
“The Carrick and Knoxville branches sit about 1.5 miles apart from each other,” said Ms. Cooper. “The original idea was to build one state-of-the-art facility somewhere in the middle, to merge the service areas and create an attraction that would draw visitors from Carrick, Knoxville and beyond.
“But that was easier said than done.”
In conjunction with a team of other library representatives, Ms. Cooper described how, over the past three years, CLP has done a lot to come up with the blueprints for an ideal facility to be placed in an ideal spot in city territory on Brownsville Road.
Through a series of community meetings with nearly all flanking neighborhoods, dot map studies (where area residents were asked to place dots on maps indicating where they shop and otherwise frequent), and surveys regarding existing amenities and services at the Carrick and Knoxville branches, the team extracted criteria for the creation of a new library.
According to these research methods, the ideal facility would provide off-street parking; separate use areas for children, teens and adults; room for collections; community meeting space; and, storage. It would also be both physically and socially accessible to the public and feature a “history room,” similar to the Allegheny City Room at CLP’s Northside branch, which would highlight hyper-local history, resources and other information.
With all of these criteria in mind, the team determined the ideal property would need to be approximately 10,000 to 12,000 square-feet in size, which would be about as large as the 3,8000-square-foot Carrick and the 8,300-square-foot Knoxville buildings combined.
Ms. Cooper said the team searched up and down Brownsville Road to find an adequate space, but ran into trouble at every corner.
“We thought we’d found the perfect spot at the elbow by the pizza shop, across from the cemetery,” Ms. Cooper commented. “But, the owner backed out at the last minute.”
The biggest roadblock, Ms. Cooper explained, came when CLP approached other property owners to acquire a lot.
“(The owners) want several hundred-thousand dollars for the property,” Ms. Cooper asserted, “which raises a red flag.
“(CLP has) never been asked to pay that much for property before. Usually, we pay $1 to URA, or $100 to the city, a nominal fee for the public good of a library. Being asked to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars is a first.”
In an attempt to determine if purchasing property would be money well spent, Ms. Cooper said the team conducted a survey earlier this year, where representatives stationed at Shop n’ Save asked local patrons a series of questions about, among other things, their interest in library services and their willingness to go out of their way to hit a new facility.
Because the results of that survey were vanilla, indicating neither strong support of nor strong opposition to a new facility, Ms. Cooper presented a question to the Saturday workshop: Should CLP use the funds to purchase a new property, or should it reinvest in the existing Carrick and Knoxville facilities?
With a marker in hand, a member of the CLP team prepared to make a pros and cons list. But, before she could scribble down more than a handful of words, several members of the audience spoke up to indicate that it wasn’t worth the time to come up with benefits of opening a new facility when it seemed far more practical to improve upon what the communities already have.
Ms. Cooper paused the cross-talk to remind the audience of a few things.
“The driving force here is not cost-savings, but, rather, how to get the most bang for our buck and create something both the library and the communities will be proud of,” she said. “We can discuss using our money to acquire property, or to invest it in renovations to both branches… each of which currently serves an average of 4,000 visitors a month.
“But, keep in mind, working on both, we can’t give to either the same amount of money we could give to creating one. Neither renovated building would be as state-of-the-art as a new one would be, but both could be updated in ways that meet their individual needs.”
To confirm the consensus, and make sure no one wanted to further discuss creating a new facility, Ms. Cooper asked, “So the message you’d like me to take back to the library board is that you’d like them to do what they can to improve the existing (Carrick and Knoxville) facilities rather than create something entirely new?”
While no formal vote was conducted, heads unanimously nodded the same way, and various affirmations resounded throughout the room.
“Then that’s the message I’ll convey,” Ms. Cooper concluded. “Whatever we decide here today still needs to be approved by the board… They’re aware of the real estate problems we’ve had, and have been waiting for community feedback on where to go from here.
“Once they’ve approved plans to make improvements, we’ll come back out into the communities to discuss our options and see what each building needs to be renovated and repurposed in a way that will satisfy everyone involved.”
When asked by an area resident why there seemed to be a tone of “urgency” in getting such a message to the board, Ms. Cooper emphasized, “We’ve been coming here for three years to discuss this project and haven’t moved forward yet… Right now, Brownsville Road is sitting on this money, and we need to do something before it’s eaten up elsewhere.
“There are other buildings with their eyes on these dollars if they aren’t spent here. We can’t hold on to (the money) indefinitely when there are several other locations with ideas on how to spend it now.”
Check back with The South Pittsburgh Reporter for notice of upcoming public workshops at each branch.