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Main Library renovations approach $17 million

Mark Parker



The President Barack Obama Library has remained closed for over two years, and renovations will now cost $16.9 million. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

St. Petersburg City Council members recently heard updated cost and timing estimates on the extensive Barack Obama Main Library renovation project for the first time in over a year.

Due to a significantly expanded scope, inflation and “life safety” issues caused by asbestos, the cost has soared from $13.4 million in April 2022 to $16.9 million. There is now a budget shortfall of $13.04 million for what officials projected to cost $7.4 million in April 2021.

Mike Jefferis, community enrichment administrator, told council members at the July 14 meeting that administrators recently shaved $1 million off the total through contract negotiations. In addition, library director Mika Nelson recently received an approval letter for a “pretty sizable grant.”

“I just wanted you to know that your city team has been working very hard to try to mitigate this very strange environment that we’re in and doing the best we can for our community to make sure that we’re making the resources go as far as they can,” Jefferis said. “But this has been a very unique project, and it’s important that this group and our community knows that we’ve worked very hard to mitigate that.”

The library’s entrance before demolition. Screengrab.

The main library opened in 1964 at 3745 9th Ave. N. and underwent asbestos removal in the mid 1980s. City officials knew an encapsulated section under the roof remained, but contractors found exponentially more than expected as they embarked on the renovation project in April 2021.

The carcinogenic building material seeped into wall cavities, and the $1.48 million abatement process took precedence over any other repairs or remodeling. Workers also realized the facility’s bookshelves supported the roof, and administrators relocated over 100,000 books.

While the materials are still available upon request via other libraries, storage facility rent will top $1 million. When the library closed shortly after its renaming ceremony, city officials expected construction to conclude by late 2022 or early 2023.

However, administrators told the council in April 2022 that Mayor Ken Welch decided to increase the scope of the “generational” project. Asbestos removal, a funding gap and soaring construction costs exacerbated by Hurricane Ian further delayed the project.

City Architect Raul Quintana oversees the renovations, and needed approval for supplemental appropriations totaling $13.04 million, for Biltmore Construction to finish the project. About $11.5 million would come from St. Pete’s Penny for Pinellas allocation, with city bonds, energy investment and capital improvement funding covering the remainder.

“Frankly, we’re getting a brand-new library on the inside,” Quintana said. “The structure itself is fine; the perimeter is not changing. It’s still the classic, mid-century modern building that we’ve all seen and love.”

The library’s entrance after demolition. Screengrab.

The demolition phase is complete. For the first time in the library’s history, workers will now install fire sprinklers throughout the facility.

Quintana noted that the institution would receive extensive mechanical and electrical infrastructure upgrades and accessibility improvements for people with disabilities. It will also become the library system’s technological hub.

“The emphasis here is really creating spaces that are multifunctional,” he added.

The entrance canopy and façade will also receive upgrades. Storm-hardened windows will increase energy efficiency, and workers will improve the site drainage system.

While Councilmember Ed Montanari expressed his displeasure for significant price increases, he noted that construction costs are “going through the roof.” He said Hurricane Ian magnified the issue in Florida – but believes the project is worth seeing to fruition.

“We value education here in our city,” Montanari said. “We’ve got a city council and a mayor that values reading, and having a library that is state-of-the-art, where people want to go and expand their minds, is very foundational to our city.”

A graphic showing the project’s increasing costs. Screengrab.

The council unanimously approved the funding request, and Quintana expects the project’s second phase to commence by Sept. 1. He said that would take about 16 months to complete.

Workers then must transfer the collection and prepare the facility for operation. Quintana expects the Obama Library to reopen in Spring 2025, about four years after it closed.

“If we can improve on that, we will,” he added.

Jefferis said Quintana “challenged” Biltmore Construction and the project’s subcontractors to increase cost and timing efficiency. Nelson said the reimagined library will feature rooms for community programming and digital literacy instruction.

It will also offer workforce readiness initiatives and highlight the Career Online High School program. Nelson said stakeholders “tried to leverage every square foot” to meet growing demands and new trends.

“I know it hasn’t been easy,” said Councilmember Deborah Figgs-Sanders. “But we’re going to ride it out, and we’re going to ride it out with you. Because one of the things that we have to continue to strive for is the love of reading and our books, and making sure they are accessible to the community.”






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    July 21, 2023at3:37 am

    Amen Karen. Amen.

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    July 17, 2023at3:08 pm

    Libraries are never a bad investment.

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