The ship soon could sail on Duluth’s ore boat-inspired downtown public library building.

A recent study has found that the 34-year-old facility is in need of serious and expensive attention, and the costs of deferred maintenance at the library have mounted like the fines on a long-overdue book.

An array of options being considered to renovate or replace the building range from $15 million to nearly $35 million.

Jim Filby Williams, Duluth’s director of public administration, said the city can hardly afford to ignore the library’s substantial needs going forward.

“As in our homes, we have the discretion to not make repairs for a while. But we can delay essential investments for only so long. At some point, water starts coming in, and investing in repairs becomes nondiscretionary,” he said. “The … study showed us that several heretofore low-visibility problems at the library will quite soon become glaring problems that will need to be addressed.”

Poor condition

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A capital-needs assessment by a consulting firm called Ameresco identified about $3.4 million in deferred maintenance at the library and characterized the facility as being in “poor” condition.

The same report concludes that without a significant intervention, Duluth’s main library will slip into “critical” condition within just four years.

Consultants estimated that returning the library to “fair” condition would require an annual investment of nearly $600,000 for the next 30 years. That’s more than 17 times the annual average of $35,000 the city has been spending on the upkeep of its libraries in recent years.

“Prior to 2008, it appears that the idea of maintenance at this library was mostly to apply a lick of paint,” said Stephen Bellairs, an architect with MSR Design who called the upkeep spending insufficient. MSR took Ameresco’s assessment and outlined options the city can take to address the problems.

In 2008, the library underwent about $550,000 in repairs but they mostly were cosmetic, including new carpeting and furniture. In 2002, the library’s lobby was updated, its computer lab expanded and access improved for people with disabilities.

‘Energy hog’

A building analysis by MSR pointed to significant inefficiency, resulting in part from the library’s inadequate insulation. Bellairs said some of the facility’s walls have an R-value - a measure of insulation strength - of just 8, compared with the R-25 that would be required as a minimum for new construction in Duluth today. The library’s roof has slightly better insulation, with an R-value of 12, but that’s still well shy of the R-49 now required.

“It’s really kind of an energy hog,” said Erik Birkeland, Duluth’s property and facilities manager, of the downtown library building.

“The building envelope is pretty bad,” Birkeland said. “It breathes way too much, which makes it very inefficient and very expensive to heat.”

Estimates indicate that the library’s annual heating bill is about $75,000 higher than it ought to be because of excessive heat loss from the building.

“That is a lot of money. And now that we know that, we have to do something about it. We just do,” said Duluth City Councilor Emily Larson, who serves on a planning team for the library.

Consultants determined that the building’s original heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment has passed its useful life, and Birkeland noted that modern systems are far more efficient.

Larson said the library in its current state aligns poorly with the image the city is seeking to cultivate.

“It does not match the message of efficiency and sustainability that I think we are about in this city, but it also really is about the straight numbers, too,” she said, explaining that the ongoing savings from improvements to the library could be considerable.

Status quo

The care that staff has taken to maintain the surface appearance of the library may deceive the casual viewer, Bellairs said.

“When there’s been mention of this building falling to pieces, you might walk around and think: ‘Well, I don’t see any ceiling tiles falling down or dilapidated walls or anything,’ but really what is happening behind the fabric you’re looking at is a sign of building that’s right at the end of its useful life,” he said.

Bellairs said an investment of about $15 million would be required to restore the building, upgrading its elevator and replacing its HVAC, electrical and fire alarm systems, among other things.

“And that would get the library exactly what it has now. It would just not literally become uninhabitable in a few years’ time,” Bellairs said

Traci Engel Lesneski, an architect and principal partner with MSR, described the sense of disappointment that she and Bellairs shared in delivering their findings to the planning team Wednesday evening.

“We both have kind of an affinity for the existing building, because it does have a lot of potential, but after learning what we did from Ameresco’s report, that affinity has been diminished significantly,” she said. “Our firm does a lot of renovations. We have a lot of love for old buildings, and we always seem to find potential in them, and the challenge of transforming them is exciting for us. And that’s the lens that we first came into this with.

“I just want to put that out there, because we’ve been kind of hammering on this building a little bit tonight. And I feel a little bad to the building for that. It’s just that the Ameresco report is just so clear that there are a lot that needs to be done to return this building to a serviceable level, and that’s troubling when we’re talking about such large amounts of money.”

Of another era

Library Manager Carla Powers said Duluth’s downtown library has struggled to adapt to the changing demands of its patrons.

“Library service is changing. This was built to be a book library, and libraries are not necessarily solely focused on books these days,” Powers said.

The library’s wiring was installed at a time when few anticipated the digital demands that have since emerged. The library’s crowded computer lab consists of 21 computers, and another eight laptops are available for use in the building. But that’s well below the 75-100 computers that typically would be available for use at a modern, comparably sized public library, Powers said.

People frequently wait in line for computers at the library, and patrons are limited to just 30 minutes of use. Powers said that’s often not enough time for someone to complete a task, such as submitting a job application, filing taxes or even writing an email.

She also said areas for children and teens at the library are undersized, given the library’s mission to encourage young people to read, create and learn.

“We’ve got a lot of space for books but not a lot of space for people in this building,” Powers said, describing how portions of the library aren’t particularly inviting.

Sight lines in the block-long library building also are a challenge. Bellairs pointed to the 140 supports that stud the library’s interior, referring to them as “a forest of columns.”

The library was built with several defined service desks that demand staffing. Powers said a more modern library would make it easier for patrons to search out materials independently and would have more of a collaborative, intuitive feel. She said the library also could take steps that would encourage people to perform tasks, such as checking out materials on their own, freeing up staff to help with programs and assist in other ways that make better use of their talents and skills.

Four options

MSR has laid out four basic options for consideration, all with hefty price tags:

  • Option One would do nothing to address problems with the building envelope but would replace critical systems within the building at a cost of $15 million. A major remodeling of the interior of the same structure could be completed at an estimated project cost of $27.1 million.
  • Option Two would additionally include remediation of the building shell and the replacement of some windows at an estimated project cost of $29.1 million, or it could include new cladding and all new windows at a project cost of $31.9 million.
  • Option Three would involve tearing down the existing building and constructing a new four-story library with about the same 71,650 square feet of space but with a smaller footprint at an estimated project cost of $34.7 million.
  • Option Four would replace the existing library with a downsized three-story, 50,600-square-foot facility at an estimated project cost of $26.6 million.

Filby Williams warned against being paralyzed by the sticker shock of MSR’s report.

“It would be profoundly unwise to postpone a decision that one way or another solves this problem. Putting aside which solution each of us may prefer, the library is a problem that demands a solution,” he said.

Larson is no fan of the first option.

“To me it doesn’t make sense that you would dress something up to look good while it’s still operating poorly,” she said. “That is not being a good steward of the bigger picture.”

Larson said she remains optimistic that Duluth will step up to the challenge.

“We ask other people and other companies and other partners to make investments in our downtown, and it’s really important that we as a city do the same thing,” she said. “I feel very strongly that we do not want to disinvest in our city. We want to demonstrate that we believe in our downtown, as well.”

Searching for direction

On Dec. 4, MSR consultants will share their findings with the public, field questions and listen to comments on the options they’ve drawn up for the library.

Those public comments will inform a 10-member citizen steering committee that will meet Dec. 16 to discuss the library and to form a recommendation that will be presented to the Duluth City Council

“We sincerely want feedback. We really want to hear what people are concerned about or what they think makes sense,” Larson said.

“We want the public to feel like this is their library and to feel invested in what they want it to be,” she said.

How the city would pay for a library fix remains a looming question for Duluth.

Public meeting

WHAT: Public meeting to discuss the future of Duluth’s downtown public library.

WHERE: Green Room of the downtown library, 520 W. Superior St.

WHEN: Presentation at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 4, with an open house Q&A between 6 and 8 p.m.