A plan for the top to bottom renovation of the Evanston Public Library’s main branch, a proposal that the Library’s Board of Trustees has been working on for more than two years, finally reached  the City Council for full discussion on Feb. 19. Council generally supported the $10.5 million project but the price tag caused them to pause – especially given the perceived impact the Robert Crown bond issuance would have on the City’s immediate ability to borrow large sums for capital projects.

Under the renovation plan, each floor of the library would be reconfigured to create space designed to address library uses and patron needs that have shifted radically since the library building was constructed in 1994. The greatest impact would be to the third floor, where much of the 12,350 square feet of current “staff only” space would be converted to patron use.

Overall, the renovation would add community meeting space and patron private workspaces, upgrade and add digital media and technology services, reimagine the teen center, expand patron self-service offerings including a space for patrons to pick up holds without library assistance, add a café eating area and space for nursing mothers, add gender-neutral restroom facilities, add comfortable seating areas, and retain art gallery and exhibit space.

A drawing of the third story floor plan is below. The proposed improvements to the third floor include converting staff areas to patron use; two patron-friendly service desks; multiple new meeting and study rooms; a larger teen area; maker and media labs; a computer training lab; added comfortable patron seating; an art display area; new carpeting; and energy efficient lighting.

The estimated cost of renovation, according to the presentation by the library’s architect Wight & Company, would be about $84 per square foot, or $10.5 million total. By contrast, the cost of a new building would likely exceed $50 million – about $400/square foot.

The library would remain open during regularly scheduled hours throughout the renovation schedule, said Michael Barnes of Wight. Nearby libraries have been adjusting to the new environment as well – Skokie plans to renovate the entire building after major renovations in 2012 and Wilmette, Des Plaines, Northbrook, and Arlington Heights, among others, have also renovated in recent years. EPL continues to remain well behind peer institutions in per capita funding as it continues to recover from slashed budgets during the Great Recession.

Several aldermen spoke in favor of the project, with Alderman Melissa Wynne, 3rd Ward, saying, “This is the right time” to renovate. “The types of uses provided in our library are really very different” than they were in 1994, she said. “I think this is really very important – for us to innovate.” She called the proposal an “innovative, interesting, important design.”

The timing, though, gave Council pause. “Can you give a little more justification why we should do two library projects at the same time?” asked Alderman Cicely Fleming, 9th Ward, referring to the library branch component of the Robert Crown project. “The Robert Crown branch makes much more sense to me.”

“Robert Crown fills a service gap” for the library, responded Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons, “but the Main library is our engine [and offers] the most square footage under one roof we can repurpose…. It’s a big ask. I am asking you to consider investment in the community. We will never be able to recreate [what the Main library offers] at Robert Crown.” She allowed that the Main library is not crumbling and leaking like Robert Crown, but said the need for renovation, to address equity of service and the digital divide, was still vitally important to the community.

Deputy City Manager Erika Storlie said she believed it would be risky to obtain general obligation bonds covering both the Robert Crown project and the main branch renovation at the same time. Doing so would “risk harm to our bond rating,” she said.

“Staff is saying we are not going to do the main branch” and Robert Crown, said Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward.

“If we’re going to do Robert Crown right now, we’d have to wait at least two years… without having to risk impact to our bond rating” to issue bonds for the library renovation, said Ms. Storlie.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said pitting one project against the other was “unnecessary competition,” then called on Bill Stafford, the former District 202 Chief Financial Officer and current City consultant, to explain the impact borrowing for both projects might have on the City’s bond rating.

“The main issue here,” said Mr. Stafford, is “if we go to the bond houses with Robert Crown, they are going to be impressed.” He cited citizen buy-in, donation, planning, and other factors. “If you are going to market for Robert Crown, I would wait at least two years” for the library, he said.

While there is no magic formula showing the impact of additional borrowing on a City’s bond rating, Mr. Stafford and Ms. Storlie both said they believe pushing the debt limit – currently $114 million but expected to grow to $150 million with the Crown project – would risk a rating downgrade. A lower bond rating makes the cost of borrowing greater, and the City borrows via general obligation bonds every year to fund capital projects, averaging about $9 million each fiscal year.

“The library project is obviously of value,” said Alderman Don Wilson, “but the logical thing to do is to wait.”

Alderman Judy Fiske, 1st Ward, urged Council to proceed immediately on Crown. “The library, I think we can wait a couple of years,” she said.

“I am one of the biggest proponents of improving the public library,” said Ald. Wynne. “But we cannot risk our bond rating. That’s our lifeline… unfortunately, the library is going to have to wait.”

Director Lyons told the RoundTable later she “did not expect an immediate decision” Monday night but was “happy to begin the conversation with the City Council.” She was pleased to see “interest in the project and elements of the project” but not surprised to hear “concern about how to pay for it… I walked away with a feeling of not if we can renovate, but when we can renovate.”

The cost of library renovation to the taxpayer has not been estimated yet. The Robert Crown presentation included figures estimating impact if the project is funded completely using property tax increases – about $80 per year more than  2018 and 2019 for a home valued at $400,000. No such calculation has been provided for the library, which would require about a third of the bond burden as Crown if fully funded using bonds.

The impact may be minimal, though, because the library continues to retire the bonds used to fund its original 1994 construction costs. The library budget already includes a debt service fund, which was about $367,000 in 2017 and $346,000 is budgeted for 2018. The library pays debt service out of its own budget, and levies property taxes to cover about $6.7 million of its roughly $7.7 million total budget. “Alternative revenue streams” might be one way to fund library renovations, said Director Lyons.

With Council support and a fully formed renovation plan, the question is indeed not if, but when, for the wholesale reimagining of the main branch public library.