After twice being approved by the East Baton Rouge Parish Metro Council, the $19 million downtown library faces yet another hurdle as the council is set to consider again Wednesday whether to approve a contract for the project’s architect.
The library project has won council approval twice in the past 20 months — in December 2010 when it was initially up for approval and in October when the council voted to allow the Library Board of Control to move forward with its plans to build a new facility rather than renovate the existing River Center library branch.
However, the project can’t move forward until the council approves a contract with an architect to design it.
In a memo to council members dated April 26, Department of Public Works Director William Daniel recommended that the council approve the $1.5 million architect’s contract at the council’s May 9 meeting. Instead, the council deferred action on the contract for two weeks after motions to approve and reject it failed.
Assistant Parish Attorney Bob Abbott noted that the library construction is funded by a tax dedicated for the library system and can’t be used for other purposes. Until a decision is made, Abbott said, “the money just sits there.”
At the council’s May 9 meeting, a motion to delete the item from the agenda failed, as did a motion to approve the contract. The council then voted 7-4 to defer the item.
Mayor Pro tem Mike Walker, who voted to defer the item for two weeks, said he is concerned about changes to the project, especially the suggestion that a restaurant may be built on the library’s roof.
“Does the council have any say on those changes?” he asked. “Is the council out of it, from an input standpoint?”
Walker also said he had not been provided with a copy of the contract he was being asked to approve.
“Here we go again with a whole bunch of questions about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it,” Walker said.
Before voting to defer the item at the council’s May 9 meeting, Walker voted to delete it from the agenda, which would have effectively killed the contract.
Walker opposed the library construction when it came to the council for a vote in December, but said in October that he believed it was inevitable.
Donna Collins-Lewis, who said she was opposed to the project at the start, abstained from the May 9 vote to approve the architect contract.
“The library is going to get built anyway,” she said Friday. “A ‘no’ vote will only stall the project. I don’t think they are going to stop it.”
Collins-Lewis said she has not decided how she will vote Wednesday.
Councilwoman Denise Marcelle, who voted against deleting the item from the agenda and against approving the item, said the contract has an uphill climb to get approved.
“I think it’s going to be hard for them to get it passed,” she said. “Our concern has always been that $19 million is a lot of money. It comes at a bad time.”
Councilman Scott Wilson, who represents Central and has been a consistent opponent of the project, said, “I am not about to support paying architect fees. I just have a problem spending that kind of money down here.”
Councilman Joel Boé, who was opposed to the project when it was first announced, said opposing the architect’s contract is a futile exercise.
“In my mind, we have discussed it. It’s a done deal. At this point to stop the architect contract is just counterproductive,” he said. “Nothing is getting accomplished.”
Davis Rhorer, executive director of the Downtown Development District, said the project is at a “critical” juncture.
“Obviously, the library is an integral part of downtown development,” Rhorer said. “Growing residential development downtown would be well served by the new library.”
If the architect’s contract doesn’t pass the council, the Library Board of Control, which oversees the East Baton Rouge Parish library system, may have to go back to the drawing board.
“The board will have to do some serious thinking,” said Mary Stein, co-director of the library system. “There will be a lot of unhappy patrons.”
Stein said she had “made some overtures” to members of the Metro Council, but has not yet met with any of them.
She said it’s too early to begin discussing exactly what the new library would look like, she said.
“We haven’t had one conversation with the architect because we haven’t hired an architect yet,” Stein said.
Stein said having a restaurant on the roof of the building had been suggested, but no decision had been made.
“We love the idea of capitalizing on the fact there will be a roof space, and it probably will be flat,” she said of plans for the new downtown branch, adding that the possibility of a restaurant on the roof is an idea that should “be explored.”
“The restaurant is a fun idea,” Stein said. “But the library is not in the restaurant business.”
Stein said the cyber cafe planned at the new main library complex at Independence Park will be in a separate BREC facility, not in the library.
If the contract for an architect is approved, the next time the project would appear before the council will be when bids are submitted for the construction of the library in about 18 months, according to the memo Daniel sent to the council.