Meeting on library reuse attracts many suggestions


The light-brown section on the left is the portion of the old library building the Carnegie Library System will vacate at the end of 2010. The area in green is currently occupied by the New Hazlett Theater. (image courtesy of Loysen + Kreuthmeier Architects)

After being occupied by the Carnegie library system for 120 years, the search is on for a reuse of the former Allegheny Regional Branch library building.

Since the lightning strike which caused the library’s closure in 2006 and eventual relocation to Federal Street last summer, according to Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Suzanne Thinnes, the library system has planned on moving its remaining collections from the Allegheny Center building.

Thinnes said high future costs for building maintenance prompted the library system’s October decision to vacate the building by the end of 2010. Currently, half a dozen librarians manage the non-public collections stored in the building, also occupied by the New Hazlett Theater in the adjoining Carnegie Music Hall and a senior citizen center that occupies the basement.

“The Heritage Collection will move to East Liberty’s new branch. This includes the Iron and Steel Collection, British patents, civil war materials, government documents, drawings from the the 1600s,” Thinnes said.

The library system will leave 45,000 square feet vacant — that’s two-thirds of a building in immediate need of structural, energy and accessibility renovations.

Realizing the challenge ahead, The New Hazlett Theater organized a community meeting on Thursday, Feb. 4 to allow community members to offer input for a future reuse. The meeting also involved a presentation of the building’s needs by Loysen + Kreuthmeier Architects, which the Hazlett hired to oversee the reuse study.

“There’s kind of a very immediate need, which is to reduce utility costs because the current costs are exorbitant,” said Karen Loysen.

Loysen and her associate Sallyann Kluz told community members that beside many code and accessibility issues that would need to be addressed, the building’s 40-year-old heating, cooling and electrical systems would need to be replaced. Also, significant structural damage resulted from the clock tower’s leaking roof.

“We’re trying to be proactive in our energy uses since we’re going to be the only tenant soon [in the portion of the building above ground],” said Sara Radelet, executive director of the New Hazlett Theater.

Presenters said once the library leaves at the end of the year, the city, which currently owns the building, will stop paying the library’s portion of utility costs. If the space doesn’t have a new occupant by then to share costs, the Hazlett’s utility bill will increase dramatically.

Kruz presented a slide show of other Carnegie Library buildings that have gone through reuses. There was the library in Michigan which was converted into an intermediate school; the library in Seattle, Wa. which is now an upscale restaurant, predictably called Carnegie’s; and the San Francisco, Ca. library, reincarnated as an Asian Art Museum.

Responding to someone’s question if there was already interest in the space, Radelet said, “So far there are calls that come through for space for four people for some organization’s art office or people who need 8,000 square feet for a 15-person office. But they’re all small uses.”

Many attendees said even if the space eventually had multiple tenants, the building required a larger “anchor” tenant to stabilize it.

Bernie Beck, president of East Allegheny Community Council, suggested that a regional college like the University of California or Penn State could use the facility as a branch campus. Others suggested CCAC might be looking to expand their Ridge Avenue campus.

Much of the debate focused on possible funding sources to cover the preservation costs.

“I think ultimately people aren’t going to throw bad money after bad,” said Tom Sokolowski, head of the Warhol Museum, a partner in the reuse search. “Whoever can show the best management and the best reuse will get the funding [from foundations].”

Sokolowski suggested that a large group like the MacArthur Foundation might find a $5 million grant to preserve the historic building a minor sacrifice.

“I’m just concerned that you might be fighting with the Garden Theater for the same sources of funding,” said Julie Peterson, vice-president of the Central Northside Neighborhood Council.

John Canning, a representative of the Allegheny City Society, said his group was concerned that whatever the reuse might be, the decision makers should be sensitive to the large public lobby and atriums that were built for public enjoyment.

“There should be a recognition of the historical significance of the public spaces, not that they always have to be open to the public, but that they can be open sometimes,” Canning said.

John Patterson, executive director of PCTV, offered the community TV station as an interested party in a possible multi-use scenario. He said his station has been interested in moving from their Western Avenue studio for years.

“The synergy of having multiple groups [working together in the space] could be positive,” said Sokolowski, adding that bringing any bigger idea to the space would require reconnecting East Ohio Street to Western Avenue.

The presenters said that Andrew Dash from city planning is looking into whether the city could rent to for-profit entities.

As the meeting wound down after two hours, Kruz thanked those in attendance, saying, “I can’t believe there’s not more negative feedback.”

“Wait until the second meeting,” an attendee joked.

Radelet said at least two more community meetings would be planned for the near term, since the reuse study by Loysen + Kreuthmeier Architects should be finished by mid-March.


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