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That's overdue: Main Library, many branches prepare for $54 million worth of long-awaited upgrades

One-quarter of buildings at least 85 years old
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Posted at 7:00 AM, Mar 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-27 07:00:23-04

CINCINNATI -- The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County might consolidate the downtown Main Library branch into a single building.

Consolidating the Main Library into the south building and repurposing or selling the north building is at the heart of a facilities plan that includes $54 million in deferred repairs and renovations to the 40 branch libraries, as well as the creation of an operations center. The recommendations were approved late last year after an 18-month review of the library system's buildings and operational needs.

The review found a system in need. The to-do list includes roof repairs, electrical upgrades, HVAC work, sidewalk repairs and exterior and interior painting. Of the 33 branches owned by the library:

  • Ten are between 85 and 112 years old, and three of these -- Walnut Hills, Price Hill and Madisonville -- have never been renovated.
  • Another 10 are between 44 and 58 years old, and seven of those have never been renovated.
  • Three are not accessible, according to the regulations of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and three more are not fully accessible.

State funding cuts forced the library system to defer maintenance for nearly a decade, until 2009, when a local levy was passed, said Executive Director Kim Fender. The 2017 annual budget is about $60 million, including $2 million for building and repairs. At that rate of funding, the full list of needed repairs and renovations will take 27 years to complete.

The Madisonville branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County is one of three that has never been renovated.

The branches are well-used and well-loved by the communities, Fender said. Cincinnati's library is the fifth busiest in the country, and the system averages 20 transactions per square foot. As funding has been available, Fender said the system has tried to catch up on maintenance to make the buildings match the services, recently completing renovations at the St. Bernard, Clifton and Reading branches.

“We'd like to have all 40 (branches) look like those libraries,” Fender said.

The facilities review also found the Main Library, spread as it is over two buildings, was inefficient for both library patrons and library services, said Molly DeFosse, chief finance and facilities officer.

The children's library is on the first floor of the north building, for example, while the popular library of books, movies and other items is on the first floor of the south building. Families wanting to visit both have to cross an outside courtyard or go up a floor to take the indoor skywalk between the two.

Meanwhile, the library's loading docks aren't tall enough for semi-trucks, which means trucks are blocking traffic while everything is unloaded in the street.

Consolidating all patron services into the south building and creating a real operations center -- a building with right-sized loading docks and space designed for materials processing and shipping -- would mean reduced operating costs, more efficient back-of-house operations and better customer experience, DeFosse said. Everything that patrons use, from books and computers to the popular Makerspace, will fit in the south building; operations could be done anywhere in the region.

The Walnut Hills branch of the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County is one of three that has never been renovated.

“When people hear 'consolidation,' they often think that means cuts to services or the collection. That is not the case,” Fender said. “We don't plan to reduce those. In fact, we think these changes could enhance services.”

The south building is 400,000 square feet, while the north building is 150,000 square feet. DeFosse estimates an operations center would require between 75,000 and 100,000 square feet. The library is exploring the consolidation option now, including whether to sell the north building, which could help provide funding for the deferred maintenance plan.

“If we could sell the north building, for any amount of money, that would give us something to work with,” Fender said.

Small, high-priority repairs to the branches are planned for 2017, DeFosse said, while the larger facilities plan and funding are sorted out. Fender and DeFosse said they expect to have a decision about the operations center and the fate of the north building later this year. That decision will allow them to determine priorities and timelines for the consolidation of the Main Library, assuming it happens, and branch repairs and renovations.

“It has to be done in a sequence,” Fender said. “It's a big undertaking.”