`No' to Highlandtown library

April 09, 2001|By Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr.

BALTIMORE CITY is about to condemn and demolish 12 buildings at Eastern Avenue and Conkling Street in Highlandtown to build an $8 million, 45,000-square-foot branch for the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

Supporters say that building a mega-library there will bring the Highlandtown business district back to life and improve the Pratt's service to the public. They are wrong.

The $8 million building plan is not a wise use of taxpayer money at a time when we are cutting programs, closing fire stations and library branches and thinking about layoffs of city employees.

It would save money and make better sense for the library system and for Highlandtown if we put the new library in the 17,000-square-foot space being vacated by the Bibelot bookstore at The Can Company in nearby Canton.

I never have seen a library work as a magnet for business. Library patrons are not shoppers. They go to the library, get what they want and then go home to read or do their homework.

If the city wants to create a better business climate in Highlandtown, it would be better to spend $8 million building an office and parking complex for state or city workers on the large and mostly empty parking lot behind the spot where it wants to build the library.

Office workers would create business for shops and restaurants. They might also become homeowners nearby.

The Highlandtown plan also does not make good financial sense for the Pratt. Our libraries are starved for funding. All of the Pratt's branches have reduced hours and most need renovations. It is hard to justify spending $8 million at one location when the city is talking about closing five to 10 branches during the next few years.

It also would cost money to relocate the businesses that are being evicted for the proposed mega-library. The city's record on condemning and relocating businesses is not good.

At 45,000 square feet, the Highlandtown library would be five times as large as the busiest branch in the Pratt system. If built, we'll have to stock it, staff it and pay a heating bill. Where will we find the money? By closing other libraries in other parts of the city?

In addition, the city will lose the tax revenue from the businesses that will be evicted. Using the Bibelot store for the new library would help reduce the taxpayers' burden.

The Bibelot site could be converted to a library at little cost in months. It already has bookshelves, an information desk and checkout counters. It is in a shopping center, steps from a busy supermarket, with parking and built-in foot traffic. A library branch would be a natural companion to Donna's Coffee Bar, a locally owned business that occupies some of the Bibelot space.

We could save even more money by consolidating two branch libraries in Canton and Fells Point into one branch at the Bibelot site. The staffs of the two branches could be combined, allowing the library to be open longer hours, costing less and improving library service.

In addition, the consolidation would save the cost of renovating the two older libraries, neither of which meets modern standards for wheelchair access. Both are in areas that have a shortage of parking, and it will cost a fortune to renovate the buildings.

I would rather see a private developer bear this expense.

The two libraries could be converted into spectacular residences. Real estate specialists say the city could sell them for as much as $500,000 each.

Further, a library at the Bibelot site would occupy vacant space at a historic site that was preserved. The Highlandtown proposal calls for demolition of the historic Grand Theater.

Nicholas C. D'Adamo Jr. is a member of the City Council from the 1st District. He chairs its Committee on Budget and Appropriations.

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