Scuttling the Walker Library

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Imagine a stand-alone Walker Library in the future Mozaic project, a library over the current YWCA parking ramp or moving the library to span the Midtown Greenway and building a hotel on the current site. These were all unsolicited ideas from developer and architecture firms for a new Hennepin County Walker Library.

Because of the current library’s design, the roof has been cracking and leaking under pressure. After years of analysis by about whether to fix the roof or rebuild, Hennepin County decided it was more cost effective to rebuild than to continually repair the roof. Twelve million dollars has been allocated to build a new building either in the existing location or in a new one. Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman initiated the process with two community meetings at the Walker Library in July. About 25 people showed up each time to give their input on what a new building should look like.

Over a three month period Dorfman hopes to engage the community to elicit their ideas about the new library. Though three months me seem quick, it is part of the strategy. “Given today’s economy,” Dorfman explains, “when we’ve been approved for 12 million we should act on it.” She’s quick to explain that they’ve had cost-cutting everywhere including this project which has already had it’s budget scaled back once.

Initial ideas were brought to the meeting by Dorfman only to spark participants imagination. She emphasized that none of those ideas were paid for, but provided by developers or architects strictly as ideas. She chose not to show those at the meeting and explained why.

Not only does this process mean a new library for the community but the backstory is an ongoing experiment in civic building construction. Dorfman explained that she has deliberately not engaged developers and architects in the process so that the project’s ideas start with the community. She won’t be showing any initial drawings or concepts to citizens and asking for critiques. “That just gets people frustrated because you haven’t asked them about this or that characteristic when you were in process,” said Dorfman. “I have found that with this process, not only does the community feel more engaged and creative, but a huge by-product is that in the end these projects are cheaper to build. The community’s feedback is more positive because they aren’t reacting to a process they didn’t start. They’re part of the project from the inception.” And that community involvement started over a hundred years ago.

Thomas Burlow Walker built houses, hotels and streetcars in this area around 1900. In 1911 the land he donated to the city was used to build the original Walker Library building across the street from the current one. In the 1970s the city searched for a new location to house it’s growing collection. That’s when the current building was built. The old building is currently under historic preservation so cannot be modified for the needs of the current library. So the solution is not necessarily an easy fix as participants in the sessions discovered.
After forming groups, participants discussed topics such as reading areas, technology, collections, programming, children’s areas, teen resources, community meeting spaces and other items. The groups quickly found out that without clearly defined priorities they would end up in “chicken-and-egg” debates about which items took precedent like location or size. But overall input surfaced from the groups and a majority of people voiced interest in various ideas for a new building.

The distillation of those meetings is forthcoming. Commissioner Dorfman says anything is on the table at this point and now is the time to get your ideas to the County about your library.

For questions or more information about the project please call Lisa Miller at 612.348.4304 or lisa.a.miller@co.hennepin.mn.us.

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