Historic building should either be renovated or repurposed with new library built nearby.
The Hamline Midway Library has been a neighborhood treasure at 1558 Minnehaha Ave. for over 90 years. In early February, it received a last-minute reprieve from demolition when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
It is now imperative that Saint Paul residents band together to ensure that the building is preserved for decades to come and to pursue either of two alternatives that would unite the community around a more modern, dynamic library.
Saint Paulites of all stripes have long made clear that we can and should find a way to upgrade library services without tearing down this beautiful building. Now that the library has historic designation, it’s time city officials change their tune.
A false choice between progress or preservation
Mayor Melvin Carter’s office has continued to push for the demolition of the library despite the historic designation. That decision is entirely unnecessary given the existing design for a renovation of the library as well as an idea proposed two years ago to repurpose the library building and build a new library on a site next to Hamline Elementary School and Hancock Recreation Center. Pursuing either of these options and avoiding demolition honors the city’s Comprehensive Plan regarding preservation, stands as the environmentally and historically friendly choice and rejects the city’s flawed and secretive community engagement process that was clearly intended for a predetermined outcome.
The Saint Paul Public Library (SPPL) has presented this issue as one of equity and sustainability versus preservationists concerned only with nostalgia. This argument is misleading at best and cynical and dishonest at worst, creating a false choice between progress or preservation. The truth is, we have multiple options to preserve this historic building and improve the current library. The ready-made choice is one that architects hired by the city proposed early last year—a renovation and expansion option that would provide more space, improve accessibility, and rehab a building that is structurally sound but in need of upgrades.
Alternatives the community would rally around
If the city insists on a brand new building, then let’s dream big and build a state-of-the-art library on public land just up the street where hundreds of children and families already come each day. When this idea was suggested by the community in 2021, the city quickly rejected it, making baseless claims that it was too complicated and would be a security risk and that the city wouldn’t be able to find a buyer for the current library building. But this transformational idea is precisely the kind that the community would rally around and find a way to make happen.
If building a new library down the street requires more than the $8.1 million the city has secured, community groups and neighborhood leaders would surely join with the Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library and other organizations to raise the additional funds. This project would be the unifying vision our neighborhood so desperately needs and deserves.
City process has lacked transparency
To understand this last-minute attempt for a common-sense solution to the library controversy, it’s important to understand the behind-the-scenes dealings of the past two years. In recent weeks, Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library and the mayor’s office have attempted to rewrite history, claiming there was a transparent and meaningful engagement process around the future of the Hamline Midway Library—a process they erroneously claim has led to a clear public mandate to demolish the historic building. History tells a different story.
Prior to its $8.1 million CIB request in April 2021—after holding a single public meeting to discuss options for the Hamline Midway Library—SPPL coordinated and shared confidential correspondence with a private group to strengthen its position to demolish the library building while doing little to no work with the Hamline Midway Council to solicit comments from the neighborhood. At the same time, public responses to the CIB proposal indicated a strong preference for preservation. That sentiment was echoed by the city’s Department of Planning and Economic Development in emails uncovered via an open records request along with other emails making clear that SPPL knew that demolition went against the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
Fast track has silenced preservationists
Last year, the community was led to believe there would be seven months of public engagement before a decision was made between library renovation and expansion or demolition and a new building. Instead, the city fast-tracked the process and commandeered outreach from LSE Architects to ensure that people in favor of preservation were silenced and its own pro-demolition narrative was solidified.
If anyone has doubts about the city’s true intentions, consider the following:
1) The first step taken by the city in its 2022 outreach was to create a small, invitation-only Community Ambassadors group that met behind closed doors and didn’t represent the diversity of opinions in the neighborhood. City leaders then refused to broaden participation or invite any other community organizations to participate.
2) The city created a messaging campaign last year based on a public survey that inexplicably omitted renovation as an option that respondents could choose as a preference. Survey censorship allowed demolition proponents to control the narrative and claim support they didn’t have.
A neighborhood treasure
Hamline Midway Library was selected for the National Register of Historic Places because it’s a neighborhood treasure that ought to remain for future generations to enjoy. Preservation of the building is the most environmentally friendly option. Concerns about accessibility and equity can be addressed through renovation and expansion or a new building at a new location. With national historic designation comes federal tax credits that make rehabbing the library building more attractive and affordable if it were repurposed.
It’s past time we all sat down at the table and collectively moved a project forward that honors our shared commitments to sustainability, accessibility, equity and dynamism. The win-win is there for all to see: Renovate the existing library or build a new library elsewhere and show the community what teamwork, hard work and the spirit of compromise are all about.
— Jonathan Oppenheimer
Jonathan Oppenheimer is a resident of Hamline Midway and co-founder of the group Renovate 1558.
This Post Has One Comment
I was one of the majority of St. Paul Heritage Preservation commissioners who voted against historic designation for this building, and nothing since then has changed my opinion. Readers should be reminded that the nomination never claimed any architectural distinction for the building (because it has none.) It claimed only social significance based on women’s involvement in its creation — something that would probably apply to every library building in the country of that era. Very thin stuff. As for historic tax credits, the city of St. Paul pays no federal taxes. Bring on the wrecking ball and get a modern library built for the people of the Midway.