Library’s plan to build anew on North Side meets strong opposition
Monday, December 17, 2007
By Diana Nelson Jones,
When Carnegie Library officials decided last year not to reopen the Allegheny Regional branch — the second Carnegie Library in the country and one that had been damaged in April 2006 by lightning — traditionalists and preservationists were livid.
After heated public meetings, most North Siders accepted plans for new construction at the site at Federal and Parkhurst streets, even some persnickety advocates of preservation.
The hoped-for groundbreaking this fall is now set back to spring, but there could be another delay.
Two weeks ago, in the wake of City Council’s draft of a resolution to approve transfer of land for the new library, it received a petition for a public hearing, from people who want to reopen the old branch. The hearing will be tomorrow at 5 p.m. in the New Hazlett Theater in Allegheny Center. (To speak before council, register in advance by calling the city clerk’s office at 412-255-2138.)
The library’s administration has been unequivocal about the need to leave the current location, but one petitioner, Glenn Walsh of Mt. Lebanon, wrote in an e-mail, “Carnegie Library is not a private club that can do as they please. Carnegie Library is a public trust, funded by the taxpayers! They operate out of buildings owned by the taxpayers. This is all intentional, the specific will of Andrew Carnegie.”
Of 58 petitioners, 16 live outside the North Side but in Allegheny County. Two live near Harrisburg.
Most are residents of Allegheny West, whose civic council in November 2006 opposed the relocation in its minutes, said Gloria Rayman, the civic council president.
“We also support opening Federal and East Ohio streets [cutting through a traffic circle] to make the existing library building more viable,” she said.
The site of the new construction at 1210 Federal St. in the Central North Side, was approved unanimously by that neighborhood council in September 2006, said Claudia Keyes, president of the board.
The Manchester Citizens Corp. and East Allegheny Community Council have not taken positions.
Of 19 library branches to be updated, six have been completed, either by renovation or new building, said library spokeswoman Suzanne Thinnes. The Allegheny branch jumped to the front in priority after the lightning hit. While subsequent repairs cost $2 million, library officials had already determined that the cost of adapting the building for energy efficiency, accessibility and technological upgrades could not be justified against the needs of the other branches. There has been no service at the library for the past 18 months.
The proposed new building would be 15,000 square feet and include a children’s room and program space, a separate area for teens, a meeting room and a room for Allegheny City history materials.
Tomorrow’s hearing prompted a rash of chat on North Side Web sites, most in favor of the move.
The branch in Allegheny Center, with its Richardsonian Romanesque style, is protected from demolition by historic status.
Denise Mahone, a young mother on the Central North Side, credits the Carnegie’s decision to build on a stretch that, for years, has not been child friendly or socially well integrated.
She said the Federal Street location was “site specific in the best sense of the term.”
“Preservation and new spaces are not mutually exclusive,” she said. “In this neighborhood, the emphasis will always be to marry the historic with places that reflect the present.”
David Shlapak, a Central North Sider, said the fight against a new library “is a classic case of people knowing how to spend other people’s money.”
“We can continue to fight until we get a perfect solution no one can pay for, or we can say, ‘This is a positive step, let’s go forward.’
“The Federal-North corridor is the heart of the North Side, and revitalizing that area should be a high priority,” he said.
Petitioners, however, say the best way to preserve Carnegie Library buildings is to use them as libraries.
David Tessitor, an Allegheny West resident who spearheaded the petition drive with Mr. Walsh, said the new construction “is a way to support under-performing real estate speculation projects” at Federal-North while the best chance for success on Federal is to build north from Allegheny Center by first unblocking its arteries.
“There’s a strong sense among neighborhood residents of seeing Ohio Street opened through and Federal reconnected” by getting rid of Allegheny Center’s traffic circle,” Mr. Tessitor said.
“With the library gone, there’s less impetus for that to happen. When we build new, we undermine the history that’s there.”
Diana Nelson Jones can be reached at email@example.com or412-263-1626.
First published on December 17, 2007 at 12:00 am