My first window into Renton city politics was on the TV. One evening I tuned in to a City Council meeting and watched two elderly residents sitting in a vast empty hall that was dominated on one flag-draped wall by a raised dais on which seven Council members sat. The couple was there to complain about noise on their street, but the real action was the debate on the future of the Renton Public Library between King Parker and Marcie Palmer. It was 2009, and the train was leaving the station.
King Parker liked to liven things up by pounding on the podium, but his basic point was that the King County Library System (KCLS) had tax authority and could pass on operating costs to taxpayers, costs that Renton was struggling to unload in the wake of multiple annexations and a looming market crash. Marcie Palmer’s concern was that in her assessment, her constituents strongly expected the library building to be maintained as a library, and as a secondary concern, that long-time library employees be retained in any transition to KCLS. The annexation of Benson Hill had really forced a decision; library services had been diluted to an unacceptably low per capita level as documented in a 2008 Master Plan Study. The plan to acquire the Big 5 site was already on the table, and entailed building out a 15,000 sq ft site to replace the existing 22,000 sq ft facility over the Cedar River at 100 Mill Ave. King Parker was not moved by the sensitivities of the community, which were not in attendance in the near-empty and hollow heart of the council chamber. It was decided that a measure be placed on the ballot while proceeding with staff planning for the inevitable KCLS transition.
I talked to Aaron Oesting, then Assistant Director at the Library, about the Master Plan findings. What was surprising was that public input to staff had been incredibly thin, perhaps a dozen people. Then, two weeks before the vote, the Renton Reporter published a front-page table comparing the cost of the new library versus the Cedar River library and concluded that the Big 5 site resulted in reduced costs. If memory serves me, costs of upgrading the existing site were said to be 23M versus 16M for a new library at the Big 5 site, but I don’t have their publication to verify that. In further conversation, library staff said the cost estimates published in the Renton Reporter had been incorrect, apparently due to a clerical error, and that the totals were much closer to parity. The ballot measure passed, and again if I recall correctly, the margin in favor was 128 votes or less, out of thousands. Many people thought they were voting to rescue the city’s budget. The Renton Reporter ran a headline announced the outcome, the city was to move forward with acquisition and planning for the Big 5 library site.
Since then, a more concrete assessment of a Cedar River renovation has been done by Miller-Hull, a Seattle architectural firm retained by KCLS. The findings can be summarized as follows: The Cedar River site is generally in good shape architecturally, but with significant hazards. It is not built to current standards and reasonably would require a structural retrofit for any future public use. The following deficiencies were highlighted: 1) the 80 linear ft “tee” beams spanning the river are flexurally weak for expected loads, but can be reinforced to required loads by coating with a carbon-fiber based cladding; 2) internal columns require a seismic retrofit and repositioning of buttressing brick walls; 3) internal walls must be largely torn out during remodel; 4) certain exterior brick walls require a seismic retrofit; 5) insulation is insufficient and must be upgraded all around; 6) all window glazing must be replaced to improve energy efficiency; and, 7) the fire systems must be fully upgraded with a dry fire suppression system.
In spite of this, the entire job of retrofitting and upgrading the Cedar River site is budgeted on a hard cost basis at $8M, including contractor mark-up. The report is on line at the KCLS website, under Board of Trustees, under Meeting Agenda for June: and can be downloaded at http://www.kcls.org/about/board/2012/06192012/boardagenda.pdf (Renton Library Update).
Unspecified “soft costs” to be incurred by KCLS in readying the building for use raise this cost to over $10M; according to KCLS to $13.1M. For comparison, the cost of the Big 5 site buildout is $10M, to be paid for by bonds, including $1M already spent by Renton in acquiring the site under authority of the previous vote. Interestingly, when taken on a per unit square footage basis, and using the most recent cost numbers from the KCLS letter, the cost of the Cedar River site is cheaper than the Big 5 site: 582 dollars/sq ft. versus 633 dollars/sq. ft for the Big 5 site, based on redesigned floorspace of 22,500 square feet at the Cedar River site and 15,000 sq ft at the Big 5 site.
Moreover, it appears likely that unless the Cedar River site undergoes these retrofit and key structural improvements, it will be lost to the City of Renton at some point in the not distant future, and that any assurances to the contrary are gratuitous and unsupported. The difficulties in assuring public safety in a building that has been identified as being subject to sudden, “life ending structural failure” of certain internal walls and columns (Miller-Hull report), and the high operating costs associated with the poor energy efficiency of the building, would appear to doom it’s future as a public structure – unless the needed work is done!
Therefore, a full accounting of the cost of the project should include a write-down and one time charge for disposing of the existing Cedar River building, which cannot be simply be allowed to drop into the water and would have to be deeded at discount to cost of repairs. Given this full-accounting perspective, there is a significantly shift in the overall cost of the project in favor of a retrofit to the Cedar River structure. Unless a major public use (such as library use) is found, it will be extremely difficult to raise $8M to complete the needed retrofit, and at some point the city will be forced to complete repairs, surrender the building to the wrecking ball, or sell it at a discount to cost of renovation, which would be a total betrayal of the representations made by elected officials to date, including Mayor Denis Law.
The Miller-Hull study did not apparently give a precise estimate of building lifetime extension. The library was first opened in 1966, and underwent a major upgrade in 1986. It would helpful to know whether the newly proposed renovation can extend the useable life of the building by 30 years, or by 50 years, a very significant time over which to amortize the excess costs. The Miller-Hull study did however indicate that the proposed scope of work would be sufficient to support “long term building operations” and enable “typical KCLS functionality” for decades to come.
Reading the report, one has a strong sense that the proposed retrofit will correct the identified structural issues and dramatically reduce operating costs. In short, the future is bright for the Cedar River building — if the money is spent there instead of on 3d Street.
Considering all future costs, it is not clear that construction cost is the deciding factor in making a judgment as to which of the two sites should be advanced to bid. If there are cost differences, they may be substantially smaller than previously alleged, and on a sq ft basis, may entirely disappear or be reversed. Furthermore, the cost differences are not necessarily compelling reasons for abandoning the Cedar River site if the public decides that other factors are more important.
. All facts in, it is not clear that this is true, as demonstrated by the previous remarks. What’s that old saying, “fool me twice, shame on who?”
The KCLS letter further concedes that the City of Renton has final authority over site selection. Nonetheless, the August 7 vote will irrevocably commit the City to one site or the other and it is important that the public, for or against, interested or indifferent, be given a full accounting of the costs and the consequences of the upcoming vote. Councilman Randy Corman, in his blogs, has provided detailed financial statements that cast into doubt the cost basis reported by KCLS (http://www.randycorman.com/) and can guide an informed voter.
It is true that the permitting process is expected to be protracted given the ecological importance of riparian lands to the survival of vanishing species, but it would appear that KCLS will be able to continue operating the existing structure during the wait. What is perhaps more troubling is the significant disruption to operations to be expected during actual construction, disruption that would have to be compensated by other branch libraries so that cost overruns to accommodate the public during a retrofit of this scale can be avoided. KCLS seems uniquely enabled to accommodate temporary redistribution of its customer base.
These may be acceptable inconveniences if the public believes that the Cedar River site is a site that identifies the heart of the city, uniting its business district with the recreational facilities on the west and east of the freeway and the Cedar River trail, and enjoying established plantings and amenities (including a gorgeous seasonal view of salmon and cherry blossoms) that cannot possibly be duplicated at the new site.
Another point, the Big 5 site will be essentially topped out by the planned structure, but the Cedar river site can be expanded to 28,500 sq ft on the first floor and additional 2nd story additions can be contemplated, such as on the north or south banks. Thus, investing in this site now can reduce future capital costs for additional public facilities. KCLS says it doesn’t want a larger facility, preferring smaller storefront and pocket libraries served by a central truck warehouse and distribution center in Granite Falls, but there is no reason that the public meeting space in the Cedar River facility can’t be expanded beyond the typical KCLS service model. Mixed uses and public meeting rooms are included for example at the Redmond City Library, which pales by comparison to the potential of the Cedar River facility. The Cedar River building is capable of serving multipurpose public needs that cannot be accommodated at the new site.
Being “ahead of the curve” also means building on historical foundations and traditions that define Renton as a place and as an identity. Many believe that the Big 5 library is a mediocre structure that fails to impart what urban planners call a “sense of place” —because it does not align to its environment the way the Cedar River structure does, it could be “anywhere USA”, and because, stated frankly, it is a cookie cutter style glass box banality dropped into an urban grid and surrounded by the pavement and congested streets of an ageing downtown. There are other opinions, but the reviews have been decidedly mixed. New lamps for old?
Finally, following a truly amazing effort by citizens to gather signatures for a referendum, the voting public has been given one more chance to consider its future. I make no recommendation, but I do ask that the facts not be published selectively, and that the accounting be a full cost accounting, including the costs of a teardown of the existing structure or loss of the building as a public facility. That is what we must discuss. If the existing building were just fine, then what would be the problem? The good news is that $8M will fix it up for the next generation or two to enjoy, and KCLS is committed to assuming the operating costs — if the city will spring for the upfront money to save it.
So let’s have a vote, and let’s see a bigger turnout this time.
Kal Lambert, Renton
Lambert Patent Services, LLC