The board that oversees the East Baton Rouge Parish library system decided on Thursday to leave the $19 million downtown library project on its schedule of construction projects while it meets with Metro Council members over the next 30 days to hear their concerns.
Library Board Chairwoman Kizzy Payton said after the meeting that the board is “trying to figure out what the council wants” and whether board members can address concerns council members have expressed about the project.
“We’re trying to do whatever we can to salvage the project,” Payton said. “It’s too important to the city to let it die.”
Library System Director David Farrar had placed an item on the board’s agenda for Thursday to remove the River City branch library project from the construction schedule.
In response to questions from board member Tanya Freeman, Farrar said he did so at the request of acting city-parish Department of Public Works Director William Daniel.
Daniel serves a dual role as Mayor-President Kip Holden’s assistant chief administrative officer.
“I was instructed to put it on there by him,” Farrar said. “Why would I turn it down? He represents the mayor.”
Farrar said after the meeting that Daniel told him that’s what Holden wanted done.
Daniel, however, denied saying that when contacted late Thursday. Holden did not respond to several requests for comment this week on his position.
Daniel said he told Farrar he thought the library project should be temporarily taken off the system’s construction schedule for further review to address the council’s concerns.
“I told him the mayor supports the library 100 percent, but the council has concerns and that he should try to address them,” Daniel said.
Freeman said at the meeting that the council’s opposition to the project was the “elephant in the room.”
The library project can’t move forward without the votes of a seven-member majority on the council to approve contracts.
Several residents spoke for and against the library during the lengthy meeting.
“We need that structure and we need it downtown,” said Rene Singleton. “You promised it. I want the library.”
But Alex Helwig said there is no reason to tear down the current downtown library building and replace it with a large, new “showplace” building.
After debating the issue, the Library Board of Control voted 5-2 to spend the next 30 days meeting with council members.
They asked that the city-parish not bring an architectural contract to the Metro Council for approval during that review period.
The current plans, which Payton said could be revised after meeting with the council, call for tearing down the existing 32-year-old River City Branch library and building a new 57,000-square-foot facility at the site — nearly twice the size of the current building.
Critics say the new building, which would be constructed using revenues from a dedicated library tax, is too large and lavish and that less expensive renovation options should be pursued.
The process used to select an architect to design the building has been mired in controversy.
R. Gray Sexton, an attorney for a losing candidate, architect Trey Trahan, has charged that the selection process was tainted by misconduct by two city-parish public works officials and two of Trahan’s rivals in the architectural community.
The controversy revolves around what Sexton says was misleading information insinuating that Trahan’s design suggestions weren’t original but had been copied from a library design done by an architectural firm in the Netherlands.
Sexton said the misleading information was distributed to at least two members of a selection committee that was charged with hearing presentations and recommending an architect to design the downtown library.
Parish Attorney Mary Roper said her office looked into the allegations and found no wrongdoing on the part of the two DPW officials named by Sexton or the selection committee.
After oral presentations by three finalists on May 19, the selection board recommended the joint venture of Washer Hill Lipscomb Cabaniss Architecture of Baton Rouge and Schwartz/Silver Architects of Boston be awarded the contract.
The mayor’s budget for 2011 included $19 million in dedicated library tax funds for the project, as the library board requested.
Total costs for the project have been estimated at $21.4 million, including an underground parking lot with 46 spaces.