November 20, 2017

Closure Plans for Cincinnati Library’s North Building Spark Concerns

Bridge between PLCHC Main Library North and South buildings

Bridge between PLCHC Main Library North and South buildings
Photo courtesy of PLCHC

As the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County (PLCHC) considers the future of its Main Library’s North Building, community members continue to object to the library’s lack of transparency regarding its plans, the elimination of public space, and possible conflicts of interest.

The library intends to close the North Building—half of its flagship downtown branch—and has entered into an agreement with the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) to explore sale, lease, or repurposing options for the space. The closure, as part of PLCHC’s $54 million building plan, could open an entire block of prime real estate for development. Although opposition from groups such as the Our Library, Our Decision! Coalition has been largely nonconfrontational, one coalition member was banned from the library—and later reinstated—for displaying a protest sign within the library. Some staff members also feel their concerns are not being heard.

A CALL FOR CLOSURE

The Main Library, consisting of the North and South buildings, occupies a full city block in downtown Cincinnati. The South Building was constructed in 1955, with an addition built in 1982; the five-story, 132,500 square foot North Building was completed in 1997 and cost nearly $40 million. Originally constructed to house the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (since moved to Cleveland) and print collections including periodicals, public documents, and patents, the building now holds the library’s Children’s Garden, Children’s Learning Center, Homework Center, MakerSpace, TeenSpot, and study areas. According to director Kimber Fender, these services take up only about 24 percent of the building, with the rest devoted to administrative space, storage, shipping, and behind-the-scenes functions.

An 18-month consultant study completed in October 2016 determined that the Main Library, both North and South buildings, averaged 6.9 uses—items borrowed, reference questions, program attendance, and computer sessions—per square foot. Even adjusted to subtract the non–public service spaces of the building, this came up far short of the library system’s total average of 31 transactions per square foot.

This is due at least in part to the Main Library’s challenging layout. The two buildings are separated at ground level by East 9th Street; the bridge connecting them is only accessible from the second or third floor. Thus a family wanting to check out materials from the South Building and also use the children’s or teen space in the North Building needs to either take the elevator up several floors or cross a busy downtown street.

The review also revealed systemwide needs that include replacing four branches, making five branches fully accessible, renovating two branches, upgrading the HVAC and elevators in the Main Library, and general maintenance, from roofs to furniture, for all branches. To help raise the necessary funds, the North Building could be repurposed, leased, or sold. The South Building, according to the study, is big enough to hold all public services, with operational functions to be relocated offsite.

PLCHC’s board of trustees approved the North Building closure on June 13. The plan was not formally announced at the time, however. Rather, it was revealed by the Cincinnati Enquirer after the paper filed a public information request.

When asked about the reasons behind the closure, library officials cited financial concerns, with Fender describing the library as being at a financial “tipping point” in a speech to the Library Foundation in the spring. State spending cuts have shrunk the library’s funding, potentially jeopardizing its capital improvement plan. PLCHC has seen a 59 percent increase in circulation since 2000—the 41-branch system was the second busiest in the United States in 2016—but funding has decreased more than 26 percent, according to testimony Fender gave to the Ohio Senate Finance Higher Education Subcommittee in May.

Currently there is no official plan for the North Building. 3CDC has entered into a pre-development services agreement with the library, allowing the company to assess the building’s value and determine what uses or interests might result in putting it on the market. PLCHC has no offers on the building. However, the library intends to go forward with plans to move public services, Fender said. “For now we’ll continue to occupy the North Building,” she told LJ, “but as those departments move to the South Building, those sections of the North Building will be closed off.”

Administrative departments will be moved to a site that has yet to be determined. Of particular importance, said Fender, will be relocating shipping services. The library circulated more than 21 million items last year, but “our loading dock is so short that semis cannot back into it. They have to unload on the street.”

“We’re not reducing any services,” she added. “We have sufficient space in the South Building to have all the services without reducing them, and making it a more seamless interaction for people who come into the building. Ideally we would see this increasing the use of the main library and not diminishing it in any way.”

COMMUNITY CONCERNS

At an August 8 board meeting, some 20 protesters—many from the Our Library, Our Decision! Coalition —gathered to voice their displeasure to PLCHC’s board of trustees. The coalition, formed when the library’s plans were revealed in August, includes members of the Democratic Socialists of America of Metro Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky; the Socialist Alternative of Cincinnati, the McMicken FreeSpace (a “non-hierarchical, democratic volunteer-run infoshop/lending library/activist hub/strategy center/solidarity network initiator,” according to its Twitter homepage), and the Library Defense Network (spearheaded by Kristy Cooper, a former librarian who earlier this year helped colleagues terminated from Westland Public Library, MI, organize).

Coalition member Charles Campbell, a professor of Greek and Latin at Miami University, OH, pointed out that board member William Moran’s son, Michael Moran, is the senior vice president of CBRE, one of Cincinnati’s largest commercial real estate firms, which performed the initial building assessment. William Moran sits on a committee of 3CDC, but holds no paid position there.

According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, “Moran responded by saying his son performed ‘a favor for the library at no cost to the library’ and has no further involvement with any possible deals. William Moran also verified his own position on a committee for 3CDC.” Board president Allen Zaring noted that plans for the possible closure of the North Building were announced as far back as October 2016, and that plans for its sale have not yet been finalized—the board has only voted to consolidate services into the South Building and to enter into an agreement with 3CDC.

At a subsequent meeting on September 18, called by the Hamilton County board of commissioners so that Fender and the library board could answer questions about plans for the North Building, only two out of seven board members joined Fender and library fiscal officer Molly DeFosse. About two dozen community members attended, and afterward several voiced their objections that the commission had not asked the library representatives about conflicts of interest.

In addition, concerns have been expressed by coalition members, Cincinnati residents, and library staff that selling the North Building could eliminate important public space in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, and that the public has not been encouraged to weigh in. Board meetings are held once every two months on Tuesday mornings—a difficult time for community members to attend. The board has agreed to hold a meeting for the general public, but not until January 2018.

“Cincinnati is facing a real crisis of housing, of drug addiction,” Campbell told LJ. “We should be expanding public space, public services, [and] libraries, not contracting them. And if a library board and administration says we just can’t come up with any ideas, that’s a failure of imagination.”

A North Building staff member who wished to remain anonymous noted that while none of their colleagues object to moving services to the South Building or reorganizing the North Building’s layout, they also feel that they have not been offered an opportunity for input. Library administration “didn’t tell us anything about what was happening,” the staff member said. “We found out at the same time that the public found out. We don’t have a timeline for when we’re moving.” That will happen at some point in the next six months, according to Fender. Library staff have begun cleaning out their spaces in case they are given short notice.

Decisions at PLCHC tend to be top-down, they added. For a meeting convened so North Building staff members could give input, “they told us we had to find people to cover our departments,” and staff members reportedly felt uncomfortable about speaking up in front of library administration, who “have been really resistant to listening to the public. They [say] patrons will get used to this.”

BANNED, REINSTATED

On the afternoon of Friday, September 22, Campbell used the library’s Maker space to make a sign saying, “3CDC: Hands off our library!” From there, he moved to the 9th Street overpass, where he joined a group of patrons watching a chess game, and took the opportunity to distribute coalition leaflets about the possible sale of the building. A security guard approached Campbell and ordered him to stop, explaining that he was violating the library’s standards of behavior by “petitioning and distributing non-library approved materials on library property.” The guard also told him to reposition his sign so the message would not be visible.

Campbell agreed not to give out the leaflets, but refused to turn the sign around. “I just told him that doesn’t make any sense,” Campbell recalled. “I asked him, ‘If I were wearing a t-shirt with this same exact message, would I be kicked out of the library?’” According to Campbell, the guard responded that in that case, he would have been told to turn his t-shirt inside out—explaining, Campbell told LJ, “’You can’t express political views inside the library.’ And I said, ‘That can’t be true…. If I walked in here with a t-shirt of some city council candidate, or some mayoral candidate, you’re not going to stand here and tell me that you would force me to turn that inside out…. This is not a form of solicitation. I’m allowed to passively express myself without bothering others.”

The guard then told Campbell that he was trespassing and would have to leave. When Campbell refused, a second guard, contracted by the library from an outside security agency, was summoned. The two accused him of “trespassing on private property,” according to Campbell. He was handcuffed, taken to the security office, cited for criminal trespassing and given a court date, and banned from the library for six months, effective immediately.

On Monday, September 25, PLCHC officials held a press conference to discuss the incident—which they termed a “mix-up”—and to offer him an apology. His ban from the library was lifted, and the security guard who first approached him was suspended. Campbell, who was waiting outside for the announcement of his reinstatement—the coalition had been advised of the board’s plan ahead of time—then entered the room and spoke out about the decision to suspend the guard. “That person should not have been reprimanded,” he noted. “They were acting on either the stated or implicit will of the administration and board, so I don’t think it’s right to make somebody a scapegoat for what is at the end of the day your own agenda.”

The guard has since been reinstated at the library. When Campbell showed up for his court date, his name was no longer on the docket.

LOOKING FORWARD

Library officials await the results of 3CDC’s predevelopment service agreement, which will end in mid-January 2018. Previous appraisals of the building have ranged from $15 million to $7.7 million, with the most recent value set at $8.5 million. Fender asserts that no conflict of interest exists with the consultants retained by PLCHC. “Ohio has very strong ethics laws, and our board members are…expected to always be aware of any potential conflicts when voting on anything,” she told LJ. “There have been no payments from the library to 3CDC and we have not decided to sell the building and have no offer on it. So I don’t see how there can be a conflict at this point.”

The coalition has launched a Change.org petition, “Defend Cincinnati’s Public Library Against Private Developers.” Members continue to hand out leaflets outside the library, and it has proposed its own candidate to fill the seat vacated by PLCHC board of trustees president Allen G. Zaring in September. However, the Cincinnati board of commissioners recently announced the appointment of Karen Clemons to the board. Clemons, an African American woman and an elementary school principal in the Cincinnati Public Schools, will serve in an at-large capacity, and a new board president will be elected internally.

The North Building sale, said Campbell, “comes down to a question about the use and value of space. The library board…[has] all of this data about the use of space and what they call transactions per square foot. They say based on this metric of transactions per square foot, we can’t justify keeping this much space in the downtown branch.” That metric, he noted, depends on what is counted as a transaction.

“People congregate in the pedestrian over pass to play chess—that doesn’t count as a transaction…. Getting a drink of water. Coming inside and resting and cooling off in the air conditioning. Warming up in the heat. That doesn’t count.” He added, “We really want to change the conversation and talk about…how to use this space to meet the public good.”

In the meantime, said the North Building librarian LJ spoke to, library staff are frustrated by lack of information or a timeline, and not only for themselves. They added, “Our patrons ask questions all the time that we don’t have answers for.”

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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Comments

  1. anonymous coward says:

    They have 40 branches for 800,000 people. Without this branch they would go from 1 library for every 20,000 residents to 1 library for every 20,500 residents.

    I can see how terrible this is and how upset people would be about it.

  2. apparently also an anonymous coward says:

    They aren’t closing the entire Main Library. They’re moving all of the services into one of two gigantic buildings – and the larger one at that. I also don’t see how people won’t be able to come in and warm up or play chess. It’d just be in a different spot.

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