Library officials return from failed election with a scaled-back vision

by Chad Abraham, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Eight months after voters quashed their expansion plans, Pitkin County Library officials will go before the county commissioners today with a “dramatically reduced” strategy to improve the facility.

A library plan to increase property taxes so the institution could use $5 million in bonds for a 7,000-square-foot expansion onto Galena Plaza was rejected, as was a tax proposal that would have funded the operations of the expanded facility.

Since then, library officials have contemplated both the voters’ message and the facility’s needs, said head librarian Kathy Chandler on Monday.

“We talked about the letters to the editor, the things that were said in the [pre-election] meetings,” she said. “We’re really trying to address those things.

“We know there is a lot of cynicism in town, and we don’t want to get tarred with the same brush.”

Before the commissioners today will be a supplemental budget request. If approved, money would be transferred from the library district’s roughly $6 million capital reserve fund to pay for architectural fees for a scaled-back project, Chandler said.

“We want to deal with strictly what the library needs,” she said, adding that the reserve fund could pay for the entirety of the improvements and the operation of the expanded facility.

Two of the main takeaways from the election are that the library should stay within its easement and use its own money, not taxpayers’, for improvements, Chandler said.

The renovation plan for the 32,000-square-foot library still involves building a meeting room on Galena Plaza, where the library has a 44-foot easement that was issued 25 years ago. But the original proposal to build on an additional 16 feet of city land outside the easement has been dropped.

“People didn’t like that,” Chandler said.

The meeting room would be available for people needing a space before or after the library’s regular hours. Library officials, as they did before the election, also envision a new children’s library and smaller meeting rooms inside the existing structure.

A recent $1.3 million pledge devoted to the Galena meeting space “will greatly assist our plans,” says a library memo to the commissioners.

 Chris Janjic/Special to the Aspen Daily News
Annie Pausback browses through books at the Pitkin County Library on Monday afternoon. Cramped spaces and outdated facilities have necessitated a renovation, library officials say.

Chandler declined to discuss the party behind the pledge, saying it will become public information in the fall. That money is in addition to the library’s existing capital reserve fund, which came from two bequests 16 years ago dedicated to the expansion of the facility.

But she said the timing is critical. The city plans this spring to begin work on the grade of the alley on the library’s south side to improve drainage, and to reinforce the waterproofing of the Rio Grande parking garage roof.

There will be considerable savings if the library is able to coordinate its construction project with the city’s work, the memo says.

“In meetings during the library’s land-use approval process, we understood neighbors to prefer that the neighborhood be disrupted just once rather than experiencing a long series of these various projects,” according to the memo.

Despite the rejection at the polls, the library’s immediate needs remain, Chandler said.

Those include separating the children’s section of the library — to prevent adults walking through the kids’ area to the music and DVD libraries, and to keep the noise from activities in the youth library from impacting the adult section, Chandler said.

Modernized meeting rooms inside the library also are needed, officials have maintained.

Chandler said ideally such rooms would include intelligent white boards and other features.

“We have so many visitors who routinely ask for rooms to Skype in,” she said, referring to the online video-chat feature. “People assume that you have [such features] because most of the libraries built in the last 20 years have them.”

The library district already has spent $531,270 on architectural fees, Chandler said, with most of that amount going toward the city’s approval process for the prior project.

Reducing the scope of the original project will drop the square-footage cost between $200 and $300 for new construction, and to $30 a square foot for new amenity space within the existing building, Chandler said.

“We don’t want to lose the public’s favor, but we also want to be responsible stewards,” she said. “We really need to try to rethink this, and to get this done when the whole neighborhood is ripped up.”