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Duluth library may get new restrooms

The Duluth Public Library on Superior Street. (2014 file / News Tribune)

New restrooms soon could be coming to the main public library in downtown Duluth, even though the building's long-term future remains uncertain.

The city proposes to install bathrooms on the first floor of the library at 520 W. Superior St. at an estimated cost of about $250,000.

On Monday, the Duluth City Council will be asked to authorize city staff to apply for an $88,200 library grant from the Minnesota Department of Education to assist with the project.

In describing the need for the work, Jim Filby Williams, the city's director of public administration, said: "This is not a project that we must do, like replacing a leaky roof, but it is a project that very cost-effectively solves some of the most pressing functional problems in the library."

He explained that the current restrooms, tucked away on the top-floor and Michigan Street levels, are relatively inaccessible and difficult for library staff to adequately monitor.

"One of the consequences of them being so out of the way is that they have attracted really negative behavior and introduced some public safety problems," Filby Williams said.

He said the proposed new facilities would accomplish three objectives:

• "It creates centralized, easily monitored, fully accessible restrooms like we should have had all along.

• "It will significantly mitigate that public safety and security problem.

• "And it allows us to relocate the overcrowded computer area to a more open space upstairs, which will function much better for that purpose and will further alleviate the security problems."

As recently as 2015, the city had evaluated the possibility of renovating or even replacing the existing downtown library. A study at the time faulted the building's inefficient design and outdated mechanical systems that were found to result in an estimated $75,000 in annual energy waste.

A citizens' steering committee recommended the building be replaced. But the anticipated $34.7 million cost of the project resulted in sticker shock and inaction.

"The discussion is not over. We just realized that we have an immediate need today for accessible washrooms. ... We can't continue to put off those needs today as we're trying to plan for the future," said Keith Hamre, Duluth's director of planning and economic development.

"Sometimes you have to address some of those needs that you've been pushing off. So, that's what we're doing with the library facility," he said.

"None of us know for certain whether and when we will renovate or relocate the library, and given that great uncertainty, we think it is unwise to indefinitely forgo these needed improvements," Filby Williams said.

The future fate of the downtown library appears unlikely to be decided any time soon.

"We are not actively exploring alternative sites," Filby Williams said.

"Because of the magnitude of the expense to fully renovate the library, an eventual decision will occur only after an additional robust public process that will take time. It's not yet clear whether that might happen within the next couple of years or further out," he said.

Hamre agreed that much work remains to be done before the city will be ready to roll out a long-term plan for its downtown public library.

"We're still discussing and thinking about what is the best location for a downtown library. We're kind of keeping the existing building operating as best we possibly can, without spending too much money until we come up with that long-term plan. But we haven't done that yet," Hamre said.

At a Thursday night agenda session, 1st District Duluth City Councilor Gary Anderson asked if the new restrooms would include gender-neutral facilities, and Filby Williams affirmed current plans call for three types of restrooms: male, female and gender-neutral.

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