The debate over whether to tear down and rebuild the downtown Baton Rouge library was revived Tuesday night with the Metro Council ultimately deciding to allow the Library Board of Control to move forward with its plans.
Just 10 months after the council approved a $19 million allocation to replace the 30-year-old River Center branch library, five council members placed an item on Tuesday’s agenda urging the library board to change its plans and do a less expensive renovation of the existing building at 120 St. Louis St. near North Boulevard.
The council voted, 8-2, in favor of deleting the item, after a lengthy and familiar debate from opponents and proponents of the proposed downtown library.
In this most recent discussion, the downtown library garnered additional support from some council members who were in opposition last December. Several council members objected to revisiting the debate that was settled by the December vote to allocate the money.
Among them was Joel Boé, who in December voted against the $19 million allocation, but on Tuesday night said the most recent attempt to kill the project equated to “micromanagement” of the council-appointed library board.
“The Library Board of Control has moved forward under the assumption that there is going to be a downtown library. In 2010, there was an attempt to reduce some of that funding,” Boé said. “It failed.”
Councilwoman Alison Gary said changing the project after it had already been approved would reflect poorly on the city-parish.
“I don’t understand what has changed,” she said. “Revisiting this only makes Baton Rouge look less attractive to people who want to do business with the city.”
Three of the sponsors of the item attempting to change the project on Tuesday’s agenda ended up voting in favor of allowing the Library Board to go with its original plans.
Mayor Pro Tem Mike Walker and council members Donna Collins-Lewis and Chandler Loupe, three of the five library item co-sponsors, voted against their own item.
Walker, an outspoken opponent of building a new downtown library, said he voted against his item because his original intent was only to get the process moving.
“The purpose of putting it on the agenda was to make something happen,” Walker said, adding that he now believes the downtown library rebuild is inevitable.
“I see a new library being built downtown and there’s no way to stop it,” he said. “There was a hard fought battle, but we’ve lost it.” Councilmen Scott Wilson and Ulysses “Bones” Addison voted against deleting the item.
Council members Walker, Boé, Gary, Loupe, Collins-Lewis, Trae Welch, C. Denise Marcelle and Tara Wicker supported letting the library rebuild plans move forward.
Council members Ronnie Edwards and Rodney “Smokie” Bourgeois were absent.
Loupe asked that his name be removed from the list of council members who sponsored the agenda item. He noted that the building has asbestos and lead paint, and a renovation may end up costing as much as a tear down and rebuild.
Loupe also questioned the motivation of opponents who claim to be interested in the fiscal responsibility of the library system.
“A few weeks ago, I approved $37 million for the new Main Library (at Independence Park) and no one was here telling me that it was too much money,” he said.
Boé said he recently consulted with an independent appraiser who valued the downtown library at $2 million and has concluded that renovating the building would no longer make sense.
“Are you telling me you want to spend $10 million (to renovate) a $2 million building?” he said. “The property its located on is worth more than the building itself.”
Mayor-President Kip Holden, who has been relatively quiet on the issue in the past few months, told the council about partnerships he has been working on securing with volunteers and private sponsors that will elevate the downtown library into what he called an “urban learning center.”
Holden said Electronic Arts video game company, which has a presence in Baton Rouge, may allow children in the library to test video games.
He said he’s working with local musicians to offer children music lessons and with the Baton Rouge International School, which may provide tutors to teach children foreign languages.
Holden also said he’s working with tech companies which could install special equipment in the library geared toward math and science programs.
The new downtown library is expected to be 57,000 square feet, twice the size of its current footprint.
Opponents have long criticized the allocation because the River Center branch is among the most underused libraries in East Baton Rouge Parish and is within blocks of another library, the Carver branch.
The library system’s budget comes from a dedicated property tax, and cannot be used for other general parish needs, such as law enforcement or roads.
GALVEZ PLAZA: In an identical 8-2 vote Tuesday, the council also approved the disputed $900,000 low bid of a stage canopy for Galvez Plaza.
Last week, Addison attempted to broker a deal with the mayor’s office where council members were expected to approve the stage canopy in exchange for Holden freeing up funds that could be used to repair bridges.
Loupe clarified that the council would only be voting to approve the bid, absent of any deals.
“The motion is to just approve the canopy. No strings attached. No horses,” he said in reference to Boé’s comments last week that the backroom deal was “horse trading.”
Tuesday’s special council meeting was called after the council lost its quorum on Sept. 28 and abruptly ended the meeting. A council committee meeting is scheduled at 3 p.m. Wednesday.