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St. Pete’s Main Library at 60: The next chapter

Bill DeYoung

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St. Petersburg's President Barack Obama Main Library has been closed since early 2020. Renovations on the 60-year-old building continue. Photo (Feb. 15, 2024) by Bill DeYoung.

St. Petersburg Main Library, date unknown. Photo: St. Petersburg Library System.

The St. Petersburg Main Library turns 60 next week. The $1 million, 40,000-square-foot concrete, stone and glass building opened in February, 1964 with much fanfare – the Northeast High School Band played, prayers were said and balloons released.

Mayor Herman Goldner called it a “dream come true.” Said Mrs. Edwin L. Kelley, the president of the city’s Friends of the Library group: “As the city grows, the library must grow.”

At the same time, major renovations were underway at the Municipal Marina and Albert Whitted Airport, and both the Museum of Fine Arts and the Bayfront Center Arena were in the early phases of construction. (A Florida Power Corp. bond issue raised the $5 million needed for both the library and the arena.)

This was just two months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy brought America to its knees; civic pride was just what average citizens needed to get their spirits up.

The library’s architect was William B. Harvard, designer of the Williams Park bandshell, who would go on to create the “Inverted Pyramid” municipal pier nine years later.

Built on the shores of 11-acre Lake Jorgensen at 3745 9th Ave. North – an indicator of the city’s ongoing westward progress, away from downtown – the Central Library, as it was originally known, included a covered reading deck by the water, an outdoor garden, a 200-seat lecture hall and a starting catalogue of 225,000 books. There was parking for 120 cars.

It replaced the antiquated Mirror Lake Library, constructed in 1915, as the city’s main library.

At the Central Library dedication Feb. 23, 1964, Mrs. Kelly – who fought tirelessly for its creation –  received an award from the mayor. She was effusive in her praise for what was then a state-of-the-art facility.

She also peered into the future. “Our work isn’t done,” Kelley told the citizenry. “We need new branch libraries in every corner of the city, and we’re going to work to see they get there. But we need your help.”

St. Petersburg has seven public libraries today, and is a part of the greater Pinellas Public Library Cooperative, which includes more than a dozen member libraries throughout the county.

Libraries, of course, have changed significantly over the decades. First and foremost, the internet has replaced the “stacks” as a central resource for research. Every library in the country has a bank of computers and other digital tools.

Despite the evolution of reading habits and the wholesale improvements in technology, libraries continue to promote literacy, and community, and provide educational resources for everyone with a membership card.

And, most certainly, people still like to check out books – for free – and read them.

St. Petersburg’s Main Library closed, like everything else, as the Covid-19 pandemic spread in the spring of 2020. Business resumed, briefly, at the end of that year and into ’21. Then it closed again.

To this day, it has not re-opened.

The last – and to date only – major renovations to the Main Library were carried out in 2009, to the tune of $1.2 million. In 2018, then-mayor Rick Kriseman announced a $6 million renovation, to be paid for in part by Penny For Pinellas tax dollars.

Kriseman also said the library would be re-named for former President Barack Obama.

The St. Petersburg Main Library was re-named for President Barack Obama Feb. 26, 2021. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

The re-naming ceremony took place Feb. 26, 2021. Officials said at the time the renovations would now cost $7.4 million. Construction, it was hoped, would be complete by early 2023 at the latest.

In April 2022, due to pandemic-caused cost increases, the price tag was upped to $13.4 million. Although a significant amount of asbestos had been removed in the 1980s, more of the carcinogenic building material was discovered as the building was being gutted for renovation (more than 100,000 books and periodicals were removed and safely stored). 

Last July, community enrichment administrator Mike Jefferis told the St. Petersburg City Council that due to an “increased scope,” coupled with soaring construction costs and the unexpected asbestos remediation, the project was now budgeted at $16.9 million. There was, he said at the time, a budget shortfall of $13.04 million.

City bonds, energy investment and capital improvement funding, along with Penny for Pinellas dollars, would cover the red ink.

Deck overlooking Lake Jorgensen, Feb. 15, 2024. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

“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,” Jefferis told the Council, “and doing the best we can for our community to make sure that we’re making the resources go as far as they can.”

Added City Architect Raul Quintana: “Frankly, we’re getting a brand-new library on the inside. 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.”

Biltmore Construction workers inside the library building Feb. 15, 2024. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

City Council has not publicly discussed the library since last July.

The City released a statement Thursday through its public information office: “The Welch Administration believes a robust and comprehensive library system is integral to the success of St. Pete neighborhoods, along with our city’s overall health and well-being, and that belief has powered the city’s intentional push to expedite the $16 million renovation and ongoing construction at the main library to transform the historic building into a state-of-the-art facility.”

In addition, the statement read, “substantial completion” is expected by Spring 2025.

 

The library system

The President Barack Obama Main Library is the central hub of the St. Petersburg Library System, which includes these branches:

Childs Park Community Library, 691 43rd Street S.

James W. Johnson Community Library, 1059 18th Avenue S.

Mirror Lake Library, 280 5th Street N. Built in 1915, it is the city’s oldest library; a $1.2 million, 8,000-square-foot addition was put on in 1997.

North Community Library, 861 70th Ave. N.

South Community Library, 2300 Roy Hanna Drive S.

West Community Library (St. Petersburg College), 6700 8th Avenue N.

The new Clearwater Main Library (90,000 square feet) opened May 1, 2004. Photo provided.

In addition, the St. Pete system shares resources and information with the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative member libraries:

Clearwater Main Library opened May 1, 2004 with 90,000 square feet. The Clearwater Library System has six branches.

Largo Public Library. A new 90,300-square-foot facility opened July 31, 2005. In 2018, it was named The Florida Library Association Library of the Year.

Seminole Community Library. Opened Aug. 10, 2003. A joint project on the SPC Seminole Campus, it’s a public library and a college library in a single three-story integrated facility.

Gulfport Public Library. Renovations in 1994 nearly doubled the size of the library to 12,000 square feet. It houses the nonprofit LGBTQ Resource Center. In 2018, the library won the GLBTRT Newlen-Symons Award for Excellence in Serving the GLBT Community; in 2019 it won the National Medal for Museum & Library Service.

Gulf Beaches Public Library. A 3,600-square-foot space was added to the existing building to create more shelving and reading space, bringing the total square footage of the library to 10,000. Renovated in 2022.

Barbara S. Ponce Public Library (Pinellas Park). Built in 1969 with 7,000 square feet. Remodeled in 2001 and expanded to 30,972 square feet.

East Lake Community Library (Palm Harbor). Opened 1999; renovations in 2016 and 2019.

Safety Harbor Public Library. Opened 1994. Renovation in 2009 added 9,300 sq. feet.

St. Pete Beach Public Library. 8,200 square feet, renovated 2021.

Tarpon Springs Public Library. New 20,000-square-foot facility dedicated in January, 1997.

Dunedin Public Library.Opened Oct. 4, 1996.

Oldsmar Public Library. New 20,000-square-foot facility opened Jan. 2, 2008.

Palm Harbor Library. Opened Sept. 17, 1988.

The newest Largo Public Library, 90,300 square feet, opened July 31, 2005. Photo: MPS Engineering.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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7 Comments

7 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Robb Winger

    February 20, 2024at11:00 am

    The City Council’s fiscal irresponsibility continues to run rampant, and what’s worse are the results, or serious lack thereof, in this case. I question the expertise of the persons responsible for the contracting of this project. While the COVID crisis was a factor, and delays do cause increased costs, to see that the costs almost doubled as of last year with an additional 25% increase on the original cost as of now defies belief. The article notes an increased scope and additional asbestos remediation as a source of increased costs, however the asbestos remediation was a known issue prior to even the original renovation start date, and why on earth would you add more scope when a project has already so far overrun original estimates? I am fully in favor of civic improvement projects, but once again, like the Deuces affordable town home development project, we are seeing unrestrained spending with what seems to be little consideration of any cost/benefit analysis. The taxes on my home doubled in 2022, and I am happy to see that increase go to projects of VALUE, to see it spent wisely to improve the lives of those who live in our city. I am not happy to see it being dumped into a project that has clearly been mismanaged and is becoming downright profligate. As to the contracting, while it is anticipated that flexible materials costs are a factor, those must never be left open-ended as it seems these were. Contractual provisions must be made for cost limits, and when those are approached or exceeded, it’s time to look at alternative materials that still meet the budget, or other areas of improvement that can be trimmed. What were the performance guarantees on this? Are there any opportunities to hold the contractors fiscally responsible for this failure? I don’t buy into the sunk cost fallacy, it is past time to change course on this one, City Council, before the costs balloon even more. I predict by the time it is done, it will cost over $20 million.

  2. Avatar

    Steve Sullivan

    February 18, 2024at9:32 am

    The current Mayor did not neglect the needed repairs and maintenance over the years nor did he start the current construction. How are you going to blame him. And, P3’s are not always the answer. Those arrangements can get very expensive

  3. Avatar

    Steve D

    February 17, 2024at11:23 pm

    Private investment doesn’t seem to have this problem. P3 it, and the problem goes away.

  4. Avatar

    Velva Heraty

    February 17, 2024at8:51 pm

    Such a “tell” for this administration. So very disappointing for our community, especially children.
    The focus on baseball, mega-yachts, and destroying Whitted Airport tells a big story about what’s really important to our local politicians.

  5. Avatar

    OriginalJud

    February 17, 2024at7:33 pm

    Used to love going to that library, very sad that they have taken it away from their citizens for so very long and our taxes remain at such a high pace and the influx of extremely overpriced real estate in the city now.

  6. Avatar

    Mike Connelly

    February 17, 2024at6:52 pm

    When in doubt go to the library. When there is one …. 500mm to Baseball comes 1st

  7. Avatar

    Teresa

    February 17, 2024at12:23 pm

    Sad that they can’t get their act together to fix it. I live not far away and all the other branches are inconvenient.

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