A public meeting last night about the potential closure and sale of a downtown building owned by the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County wasn’t exactly smooth sailing.
More than 100 people crowded into a room at the downtown library for the meeting, one of the only public input sessions yet held about the library’s controversial move tapping the Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation to help it look into the sale of its downtown north building.
Library board members were there but didn’t address the audience, and as the meeting rolled on many attendees grew more and more angry at the proceedings.
“We love our library,” one attendee said as a facilitator tried to shush applause from the audience. “But the way this has been run — with so little public input, a kind of denigration of the public, as this meeting has been structured — I feel insulted.”
Hamilton County Commissioners President Todd Portune was in the audience. Portune earlier this year dinged the library for lack of transparency around its facilities plan. Commissioners in September ousted then-board president Allen Zaring after his term ended and appointed a new board member, educator Karen Clemons. Portune tweeted out his initial impressions last night.
“Library public hearing on needs is not starting well,” he wrote. “The Library Board has started the hearing trying to restrict subject matter of public's speech. Community objects to the framing and limiting of the issue as Main Library vs. Branches.”
Instead of a Q&A between library board members and the public, Holbrook Sample, a regional manager, presented the crowd with the library’s physical facilities plan and made the case the library needs to decommission and perhaps sell the north building of its downtown campus. He also showed the crowd a picture of his rescue dog for reasons that were not made clear.
After Sample’s presentation, Jill Billman of Burges and Burges Strategists, a facilitator hired by the library, began the public discussion with some ground rules: Attendees would be asked to answer a series of pre-written questions. There was to be no applause or other reaction to speakers. Board members might provide some clarifying information, but would not answer in-depth questions or otherwise respond to the crowd. Public comment would last for an hour.
The crowd wasn’t having it, however, and immediately veered from Billman’s first questions about library branches elsewhere in the system back to the importance of the library’s downtown north building. Most statements were greeted with loud applause. Multiple attendees expressed anger at the “condescending” way in which the meeting was being held; some asked Billman how much the library was paying her.
Billman promised that all questions were being recorded and would be posted and answered on the library’s website.
All public comments save one made by a former library employee who said she trusted the library's board to make the right decision were critical of the library's plan. Many attendees rejected the idea that improving branch facilities had to come at the expense of the downtown campus. Some suggested the library launch a capital campaign to meet its funding needs.
If FC Cincinnati could get public money for stadium infrastructure, one attendee suggested, why can't the library ask for similar assistance?
Sample said the library needs $50 million in deferred maintenance and facility upgrades, including work at several branches to make them accessible to people with disabilities. The system would also like to create a separate facility to house all of its circulation functions, some of which now take place in the north building.
“The quality of our facilities varies greatly throughout our library system,” Sample said. “And when the quality of facilities varies, the quality of the service varies.”
Sample also revealed the results of the library’s latest appraisal of the north building: The facility, constructed in 1997 for roughly $40 million, is worth about $4 million today, according to an independent appraisal commissioned by the library from an Appraisal Institute certified professional. That’s less than the Hamilton County Auditor’s $15 million valuation and an earlier estimate done by real estate company CBRE, which found the building was worth $8.5 million. That estimate was controversial as well.
"It is pretty rare for a property that encompasses an entire city block to become available, although a couple recent deals have been done like the newly announced Kroger being only a stones' throw away," Michael Moran, CBRE senior vice president, told The Cincinnati Enquirer earlier this year. Moran’s father, William Moran, serves on the library board and cast a vote in favor of the plan to close and re-purpose the building. Moran is also on the development and finance committee of 3CDC. Those are potential conflicts of interest, say opponents of selling the building.
Critics pointed out the sale of the building wouldn’t make a dent in the library’s needs.
“The sale of this building and the reduction of public space here does nothing to pay for these branch updates and accessibility updates, which are vital and needed,” one attendee said. “More money is needed, yes. I and so many others would be some of the most avid campaigners for increasing library funding.”
The library has said that building is underutilized and that just 24 percent of its space is taken up by public-facing functions like the Maker Space, Teen Center and other facilities. The rest is administrative space, library officials say. Sample also cited a study by the library it says shows the downtown campus as a whole has too much space.
The average usage at branch facilities is 31 activities per square foot, Sample told the crowd, as compared to roughly 7 activities per square foot at the main library. The figure counts anyone who checks out material, uses a computer or asks a question.
“We have been adapting to changing customer use of our library over the years,” Sample said, alluding to a shift toward digital media and other trends. “The provision of services has changed, and that has changed the intensity of use in many portions of our library. It’s left parts of the main library underutilized.”
Critics of the library’s plan to decommission the north building, however, point out that this doesn’t count everyone who comes through the library’s doors. The downtown location is a popular spot for those seeking to escape the heat in summer and cold in winter by coming in to read magazines, play board games and simply sit and rest.