This year is the 100th anniversary of Webber Park Library. It would have been a perfect year to open the new Webber Library, as had been promised by County Commissioners Mark Opat and Mark Stenglein at the Grand Reopening of Webber Park Library in January of 2008, one year after being closed by the Minneapolis Library Trustees and less than one month after their final board meeting. At their final board meeting former Minneapolis Public Library Director Kit Hadley commented that she was “thankful that the importance of individual communities, in particular North Minneapolis and its relationship with Webber Park, had been made loud and clear.” At the January opening optimism was in abundance. The community was in a celebratory mood, which was elevated when Commissioners Opat and Stenglein announced that they would be moving ahead with a $15 million project to rebuild the Webber Park Library. Our community was promised “the rest of the library” and we were told of the library that would be built, complete with teen space, innovative technology, expanded collections, a reading lounge and would be more than twice the size of the current library. The planning began in 2008 and construction was to begin in 2009. Indeed, if it had, we would be celebrating our 100th anniversary year with a bang and new library.
So what’s happened? Has complacency set in on the part of the community? Are we no longer making it “loud and clear” that we value Webber Park Library as an essential element of the fabric and the health of our community? It’s not as if Hennepin County isn’t resolved to improve its library system. Many library projects are moving ahead and indeed some are leapfrogging over the plans to rebuild Webber Library, and are happening ahead of the scheduled building of our new library. It doesn’t appear that the community is any less passionate about Webber Park Library. The newly formed Friends of Webber Park Library group has already met four times, has attended two community events and is beginning with plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary. If library patronage is an indicator of value, then the community is speaking loudly. Librarian Ellen Buskirk reports that usage is up and is often near maximum capacity. Perhaps Commissioner Mike Opat is correct in saying, “The people of North Minneapolis don’t ask for much and they don’t get it either.” The Friends group isn’t asking for something, they are asking, “How can we help?” The patrons fill the library on the three short days that it is open and perhaps are trusting that a promise made, will be kept.
Soon after the consolidation of the two library systems, Hennepin County moved forward with plans for the new Webber Park Library. They identified the parcels of land that faced 44th Avenue, Humboldt Avenue and Victory Memorial Parkway as their preferred site and began purchasing property. They hired KKE Architects, Inc. and preliminary designs for the new library were drawn. In the fall of 2009 Commissioners Opat and Stenglein held two community meetings to unveil plans for a makeover of Victory Memorial Parkway and the preliminary plans for the new library. However, they also announced that the rebuilding of the new library had been put on hold indefinitely. They could not negotiate a sale of the property at 1423 – 45th Avenue, and refused to move ahead until that issue was resolved, despite having already purchased the former Kowalski’s property, and two other adjacent properties that face the parkway. They stated that the only plan that was acceptable to them was the plan to have the library on the parkway, at the corner of Humboldt and 45th Avenue. Schematic designs had been drawn representing a library on 44th Avenue and another with the library on the 45th (parkway) parcels that had been purchased, but these were not available for consideration. To date, those have been the only meetings planned for community input on the new library.
Kevin and Valerie Holler are the owners of 1423 – 45th Avenue. They are not interested in selling their land; they purchased it as a perfect place for Kevin’s glass block business and their future retirement home. The Hollers first learned that the County wanted to purchase their property when they discovered plans on the Internet to invoke eminent domain in order to obtain their property. They protested that action and the Commissioners decided not to move forward with that method of obtaining the land. The Hollers have not been able to obtain a permit from the City of Minneapolis to conduct their glass block business on the property. The site had previously been a gas station and they felt their business would be compatible with that level of commercial use. The Hollers believe that the best location for the new library would be on 44th Avenue, facing the community that it is to serve, and that they could coexist with a library and whatever other development the County had in mind, stating “human ingenuity and creativity can make it work.” The County counters that without the purchase of the 1423 – 45th property, the library and development plans for that area would be compromised. They also state concerns about possible ground contamination from the former gas station.
The future of the new library gets murkier with the County’s announced “Request For Proposals; Lease With Option to Buy” for the former Kowalski’s lot. An inquiry to Commissioner Opat regarding the “For Lease or Sale” signs on the property and an inquiry into why there is no forward motion on the Webber Park Library project, received the following response: “In short, we are making the portion of that block not acceptable for a library available for redevelopment. As for the library projects, we are still pursuing some of our library projects at this point. However, we will have to revisit our library plans yet this year in light of budget stresses and the lack of progress on some of the planned projects. The New North (Webber) library will likely be re-evaluated at that time. Obviously, we cannot continue to budget and plan for a project where an acceptable site has not been acquired. Hopefully we will receive a good proposal such that we can put some energy into the balance of the block.”
The Hennepin County website spells out the Request for Proposal. In the purpose section of the RFP the County states, “The County is seeking proposals for a Property lease that will not to exceed five (5) years with an option to purchase the Property at the end of the lease period. This period of time would allow the County to advance development plans for the land immediately to the north and permit the establishment of a lot line between the Property and the land to the north. Following the lease period, it is anticipated that a sale of the Property would take place.” The background section of the RFP states, “The County purchased the Property as part of a land assembly designed to promote the redevelopment of the land in the immediate area. Part of the redevelopment scheme was to provide for the construction of a new public library. It has since been determined that the preferred site for the new library is on adjoining property, immediately to the north on the property fronting 45th Avenue North.” If an acceptable proposal is received and approved, the contractor will access to the property on September 1, 2010. Assuming this happens a library on 44th Avenue would not be possible.
Maybe it’s time to wipe the slate clean. Is it possible for open and honest discussions to resume, with the possibility of a resolution for the greater good of the community? How many more years will the community have to wait for that resolution if compromise, or better, consensus doesn’t happen. Commissioner Opat is correct that the people of North Minneapolis don’t ask for much, and so far we’re not getting it either. Maybe it’s time to ask. Contact Mike Opat at Mike.Opat@ co.hennepin.mn.us and Mark Stenglein at Mark.Stenglein@co.hennepin.mn.us and let them know you want a solution.