What happened to St. Pete’s Main Library?
Decorum calls for absolute quiet inside a public library. For St. Petersburg’s longtime main library, however, the silence has been deafening.
When the President Barack Obama Main Library closed for renovations in April 2021, shortly after its renaming ceremony, city officials expected construction to complete by late 2022 or early 2023.
However, an increasing scope, asbestos removal and a significant funding gap delayed the project. In April 2022, administrators told the St. Petersburg City Council that they were addressing those concerns and would bring a new, full proposal back for review by the end of the year.
More than two years have passed since the facility shuttered, and save for caution barriers blocking the entrance, the outside appears untouched. The issues exist behind closed doors.
Mike Jefferis, leisure services administrator, and City Architect Raul Quintana oversee the “complicated project.” They sought to explain the delay and reassure the public that a reimagined hub for the city’s seven-library system is still moving forward in an interview with the Catalyst.
“We like to say this is really a generational project,” Jefferis said. “Meaning we only have one chance to get it right.”
They first had to clear unexpected hurdles, starting with the realization that the facility’s bookshelves support its roof. Workers had to relocate over 100,000 books – still available upon request via the other system libraries – before progressing.
The library, built in 1964, underwent an asbestos removal project in the mid-1980s. City officials knew an encapsulated portion under the roof remained, but contractors found exponentially more than expected.
“Over the years, that asbestos kind of fell onto the ceiling and down into the cavities of the walls,” Quintana said. “We ended up having to remove all the walls internally in that building.”
The abatement process took precedence over any other repairs or remodeling efforts. That is now complete, and Jefferis said the “shell of a building” is now ready for the next construction phase.
In addition, Mayor Ken Welch was settling into office last spring and believed “there is more that we can do here.” He made additional design and programming modifications.
Cost remains an issue.
The Obama Library project’s price tag was $13.4 million in April 2022, with around a $7 million funding gap. While he couldn’t provide a new total, Quintana noted the “significant cost escalation” nationwide and said it would be higher than last year’s amount.
He said inflation and labor availability are particularly impacting projects first planned years ago. A local design firm is finishing the bidding process, and Quintana expects to present a “total package” to the city council in July or August.
That includes a guaranteed maximum price and a funding agreement. They may have to use money earmarked for other projects.
“We’re not trying to skirt the question,” Jefferis said. “We really don’t have the information.
“We’ve got to sit down with the mayor and decide – ‘hey, this is where the ballpark is on all the items we looked at last year. Are there any areas that we can make adjustments to? Are there any areas that are maybe not as big a priority as they were last year, knowing what we know now?'”
Following the asbestos “life safety factor,” Quintana noted they would implement storm windows, add parking, create closer spaces for disabled visitors, reconfigure the entrance and renovate the patio.
The interior will feature new mechanical and plumbing infrastructure. Quintana said they would also “create a hub for the technology within the library that’s central to the entire system.”
“The doggone thing will last another 50 years without having to deal with it,” he added. “There was this chain of events that really required that we do this project holistically.”
Jefferis explained that the library’s community spaces would align with the mayor’s focus on education and youth opportunities. It will also provide rooms for tutoring and convertible areas for multiple uses.
He noted that Mika Nelson, library director, “has been stuck” with the 1960s design. She is helping guide the building’s evolution alongside its collection and digital services.
Jefferis stressed that STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) offerings would be a focal point. “Mayor Welch is very committed to creating a facility that is an innovation zone in itself,” he said.
Jefferis called the wealth of information and educational opportunities libraries provide a “great equalizer.” He said every stakeholder group in the city utilizes the facilities, and having free access to knowledge is “absolutely critical.”
That underscored the motivation to keep the collection available through the renovation process. Residents can visit the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative (PPLC) website, request any materials once held at the Obama Library and pick them up from another location.
Jefferis and Quintana believe they have weathered the “perfect storm” presented by the pandemic, cost increases, supply chain disruptions, labor shortages and “more asbestos than we could have ever imagined.”
Quintana expects funding appropriations in August and to commence construction by the start of October. While an opening is at least 14 to 16 months away, he said, “The project is going to happen – we’re close.”
“There would be nothing worse than us opening this library and going, ‘gosh, we didn’t hit the mark,'” Jefferis added. “The mayor evaluated this … and really made some bold decisions to redirect and make changes. And I think that’s something that the city should be very proud of.”
May 25, 2023at5:06 pm
I was wondering what was going on with the library! I remember going there as a child in the 60s and am praying they don’t destroy the cool mid-century modern exterior! Libraries are integral to any city and we need this project to be prioritized!
May 25, 2023at5:32 pm
Clearwater and Largo libraries are significantly newer than St. Pte
May 25, 2023at6:46 pm
I live in the neighborhood and have been sorely disappointed at the lack of progress and priority of this project. It’s been two years and now they say another year and a half. Ridiculous! I never see anyone over there working and the cost is astronomical! FAILURE of the current and previous administrations!
May 25, 2023at8:41 pm
Thank you for the update!
May 26, 2023at10:17 am
The article explains the delays pretty well. Removing asbestos is a complicated, highly regulated process. It takes time that was not anticipated in the initial plan. Be patient, the results will be worth it.
May 26, 2023at10:29 am
Sounds like this project won’t be done in most of out lifetimes, such a waste.
May 27, 2023at5:23 am
I hope it’s worth the wait.
May 30, 2023at3:59 pm
I looking forward to visit the Library too
Please invite President Obama
May 30, 2023at5:13 pm
Like the article said, the library already underwent an asbestos removal project in the mid-1980s.
June 1, 2023at11:35 am
Why is it called the Barack Obama Library? Did he donate money for it? Was he here for the dedication? Public libraries are funded through local taxes.