Metro Council throws a curveball at downtown library project, airing issues debated back in 2011 _lowres

Rendering of the new River Center Branch Library downtown

Progress on the River Center Branch “library of the future” has been slowed, but not derailed, after the Metro Council put off for another month a vote on allowing the library system to lease temporary space downtown during construction.

Wednesday’s debate revived questions about the library system spending $19 million for a new downtown branch. Those questions about rebuilding the River Center Branch Library were raised, and thought settled, more than five years ago, with the Metro Council voting then to allocate $19 million for a new downtown branch.

Since then, the library system has saved money, drawn up renderings and researched alternate sites to work from while the new branch is under construction. They had hoped to start moving from the current site by March.

But council members have tried to derail the project over the years. On Wednesday, Councilman Buddy Amoroso floated an idea from 2011, one that was not embraced then, that the library system should renovate rather than rebuild the River Center Branch.

Amoroso said he wanted rebuilding the branch to be studied more and called it “fiscal insanity” to build a new one.

“Buddy, those questions have been asked and answered 100 million times,” said Councilwoman Tara Wicker.

Other council members said the library should not spend more than $14,500 a month to lease space downtown while the River Center Branch is demolished and being rebuilt. Some wanted to see more information about the 20 or so facilities the library system passed over to house its temporary site.

Councilman John Delgado questioned if City Hall could house a temporary facility for free, despite the 20 sites the library staff already considered downtown.

The Metro Council voted to defer for 30 days the lease agreement for the planned temporary site at 447 Third St., as well as a $160,000 contract for relocation services for the River Center Branch.

Wicker, who represents the area, said the council members were forgetting how many people in the area use the library and its digital resources on a daily basis. She noted the council members were OK with the library system spending millions of dollars on building new branches in Mid City and south Baton Rouge.

“For people to come to Baton Rouge and visit our downtown, and we don’t have a decent library, it’s ridiculous,” Wicker said. “At some point, Baton Rouge has to grow up and recognize that we should have equitable services all across this community.”

In 2011, a group of council members put an item on the agenda that would have forced the library system to renovate rather than tear down and rebuild the downtown library. But the Metro Council at that point voted to delete the item, with Councilman Joel Boé saying at an October 2011 meeting that an independent appraiser valued the downtown library at $2 million.

Library Director Spencer Watts said after Wednesday’s meeting that his staff will have conversations with the council members in the next month and give them the additional research they asked for. He said bid documents are ready to go. Breathing life into old debates about the necessity of a new River Center Branch, he added, is counter productive.

“We’re way too far down the line,” Watts said.

In other news, the Metro Council approved a $100,000 contract to implement parking changes downtown and $1.8 million to design improvements to the River Center.

Portland, Oregon-based Fregonese and Associates will lead the parking changes, which should include solar-powered parking meters that can be paid via credit card and an expansion of the East River Center parking garage.

The money for the River Center design improvements is a small investment in what’s ahead. The city-parish is planning more than $12 million in upgrades to the River Center theatre and ballroom.