The extent of upgrades to the Boise Library’s main branch will come down to a cost-benefit decision.
The city is sifting through qualifications submitted by seven architecture and engineering firms bidding to assemble a continuum of options for the main library.
Building a scaled-back main branch is still a possibility, but it’s one of many.
“We’ve asked them to consider everything from expanding the existing facility, renovation of the existing facility, brand-new construction or an option out there that’s out there that we know nothing about,” said Kevin Booe, library director.
“Right now, nobody is hanging their hat on any option. We want to see what consultants and architects come up with … so that we can determine what is the best choice for the city, both in terms of space but also in terms of usage of public money.”
Mayor David Bieter and members of the City Council count an improved main branch as a priority, but a new facility might be too expensive.
In 2000, the city commissioned a design to replace the existing main branch. Eight years later, estimates for replacing the library were as high as $119 million.
The mayor and council concluded the city couldn’t pay that much and halted plans for a new main branch.
It was 1973 when Boise converted a 1940s-era hardware warehouse on the corner of River Street and Capitol Boulevard into the city’s main branch library. Since then, Booe said, it has fallen behind national standards for per-capita number of titles, computers and square footage.
Ideally, whatever form the new library takes would include better spaces for patrons to enjoy leisure time, as well as more space, more titles and more computer access.
“(Libraries) are, first and foremost, a gathering place,” said Jade Riley, Bieter’s chief of staff. “They are a place that people can really come together as a neighborhood and find a sense of interaction. Second, it’s one of the few places you can not only come together, but also consume all free things.”
But more amenities cost more money, which taxpayers are often reluctant to shell out. In 2006, a $35 million bond that would have paid to build four branch libraries around Boise failed when voters in favor of it — 56 percent — fell short of the two-thirds supermajority necessary for public debt.
After the defeat, the city pieced together an alternative plan that targeted underused retail space for branch libraries. The city built branches one at a time as it had the cash to do so. The city spent about $8.4 million on the three branches built so far. The fourth, in Bown Crossing, will open before work starts on the main branch upgrades, city spokesman Adam Park said.
City staff and elected officers say they want residents involved from start to finish with the planning process to help decide the main branch’s ultimate shape. Booe said he’s eager to hear from the public about the level of investment people believe is worthwhile. Town hall meetings, focus group forums, meetings with neighborhood associations and online commentary will start after the winning architecture and engineering firm is selected and continue until a decision on the scope of improvements is settled, he said.
The cost of improvements to the main branch — whatever they end up being — could determine the city’s options for paying for them. Bare minimum maintenance, including heating, cooling and safety upgrades estimated to cost $3 million to $5 million over the next 10 years, could come from the city’s regular library budget.
“The mayor and council don’t consider that a practical long-term solution because the community’s need for library services would remain unmet and would only worsen over time as the city grows,” Park said in an email.
More expensive options might require additional tax money from a bond or special levy.
The timeframe for improving the main branch is also vague. The contractor Boise hires will have between three and four months to propose options. After that begins the long, contentious process of finding the best cost-benefit formula.
Sven Berg: 377-6275