Thursday, December 11, 2008

Another Casualty of the Library Closings

You know that old Monty Python routine about the parrot, the one where shopkeeper Michael Palin claims, "'He's not dead. He's only resting."? Well you might say the same thing about Moshe Safdie's addition to Philadelphia's Free Library - first presented to the public in 2003.

The other day, I called Sandra Horrocks, the library's vice president for communications and development, to find out the status of the $175 million project in light of the Nutter Administration's plan to shutter 11 library branches. (Read my column on the system's downsizing here). Back in in April, when I wrote a column on the opening of a new cafe in the original Trumbauer building, project director Linda E. Johnson promised the library would absolutely, definitely break ground in December '08. But, not surprisingly given the branch cuts, Horrock says that the start date was postponed again by the library board on December 3- this time indefinitely.

She wouldn't go so far as to say the project is dead. "It's not over," she insisted. "We hope it will go forward. We were going to go to ground breaking this month. We had permits….But for economic reasons, and what’s happening with branches, the consensus was that it was inappropriate." She said the library board will reassess the postponement quarterly.

Sigh. The expansion and renovation of Philadelphia's central library on the Parkway is just as important to the future of the city as preserving the 11 branches. Library officials dreamed of creating a 21st Century information hub to serve a wide cross-section of city residents, especially those who don't have access to computers, the Internet and other information technology. They envisioned the modernized building as a kind of intellectual rec center where teens could hang out in comfy chairs (Not the Monty Python kind), young readers could sprawl on a carpet to read a book and adults could linger over a book with a latte in hand.

Safdie, who designed the much-praised Salt Lake City Library, was selected to design the expansion back in 2003 after a competition that was hailed then as a new model for handing out important civic commissions. He reworked the building several times as construction costs spiraled. But there's been virtually no work done since 2006, insiders say. "I'd say this project is dead," one person involved with the project told me. "No one wants to admit. It's more like "Dead Man Walking."

And in related news, the Preservation Alliance this week called on Mayor Nutter to reconsider his plans to close the Carnegie legacy branches, which account for four of the 11 to be shut down. Director John Gallery said he was particularly concerned about the fate of the historic four, especially if the city puts them up for sale or leaves them vacant for a long period. Meanwhile, at least one of the libraries, Holmesburg, isn't even owned by the city.


Blogger Unknown said...

This is sad news... That is a truly inspiring addition to the main branch. It would have done much for the city...

8:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Advocates for libraries have to in the same breath demand that the city collect the massive overdue property tax debt owed the city. $568 million is owed the city, and the city is hesitant still to allow foreclosure to collect. But we have no alternative. Is a better alternative to lose Carnegie libraries, something that could never be replaced? I prefer the sheriff sale of deadbeat owners' properties to losing our cultural legacy. You have to hold the mayor and city council's feet to the fire. Here's the city's own data:

12:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For people who don't realize how broken property tax collection and foreclosure is in the city, take a look at the zip codes that owe significant property taxes. Many are middle class neighborhoods that can afford to pay, but the city lets 1/3 of all owners or more simply not pay property taxes. For example, 19146, or SWCC/Schuylkill, has some 32% of all owners allowed to just not pay their property taxes. They pay nothing not only for new and continuing libraries they use or would use, they pay nothing for schools, police, fire, etc via their property taxes. If you want to assure funding for these projects, you have to assure that the city can't sabotage it's own property tax collection and foreclosure system. Here's the city's own data:

12:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's better for the city to have a beautiful central library that adds incalculable value, and to do what it's supposed to do by law in collecting and foreclosing on owners who have big property tax bills. We have to do the same thing for water, gas, and L&I fines as well, and bring teeth back into the system. We've gone too far out of balance. I think you'll find owners can pay just fine when they realize they must or have the property sold for them by the Sheriff for payment. We can't just throw mail out we don't want to deliver or simply not collect property taxes at auction because we want to be nice to everyone that voted for us. The system's too corrupted. People think they can get away with not contributing what the BRT says they owe. Here's proof from the city's own numbers:

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Then, what about Full Market Value? Property taxes have to be based on real values in real time, because a city must exist in real time with real costs. This is ready to go, the BRT admits it, yet Council broke for a month long X-mas break before introducing even a single piece of legislation to change the millage to make the implementation as smooth as possible for the politicians? This is where the new library revenue will come from -- updated, correct assessments. It's time.

12:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does this mean that I'll get my donation for the expansion back?

12:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, thank goodness. It is ridiculous to attach modern additions to Beaux Arts buildings. There is a perfect and elegant solution. Convert the court building across the street into a second library building, and you basically have a matched pair with tons of space. Courtooms would make wonderful reading rooms.

1:34 PM  

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