Library is on way for Highlandtown

New branch will be first in city in 3 decades

September 22, 2005|By Tyrone Richardson | Tyrone Richardson,sun reporter

With a scoop of dirt in a ceremonial shovel yesterday, construction began for the first new branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in more than three decades.

The $11 million brick and glass building will cover 30,000 square feet at Conkling Street and Eastern Avenue. Scheduled to be completed by 2007, the Southeast Anchor Library replaces the Grand Theatre, which was torn down to make way for the new building. The last new branch, Light Street in South Baltimore, opened 34 years ago.

Since 1997, seven library branches have been closed in the city because of budget cuts, and officials said yesterday that this new regional center will serve many in the community.

"This means that the library will be able to move into the 21st century and offer the latest resources in a modern and up to date location," said Carla D. Hayden, executive director of the Pratt Library.

The building will have a two-story atrium, a cafe, new computers, an 80,000-volume collection and a drive-through window that will allow people to request a book by phone and pick it up without leaving their cars.

The drive-through makes going to the library more convenient, Hayden said. The library will replace the one-story storefront Highlandtown branch, which will remain open until the new building is completed.

Funding for the library is coming from city bonds and private sources. Plans for what is to be the city's first regional library started in the late 1990s and have been delayed by tight funding and site changes. City Councilman James B. Kraft said the library marks a great accomplishment for Highlandtown.

"It's like having a treasure chest sitting on that site, and people saying they are going to open it, and they finally open it and the treasure is exactly what people wanted to see there," he said.

Kraft said construction is rejuvenating the neighborhood. Last year, workers began building a new roof and installing modern heating and air conditioning, plumbing and wiring in the 112-year-old firehouse on Conkling Street, just across from the new library.

During yesterday's ceremony featuring Mayor Martin O'Malley and City Council President Sheila Dixon, neighborhood residents and representatives from community groups said the library has been a long time coming.

"I'm ecstatic," said Mary Jane Tuma, 68, who said she frequents a Baltimore County library because the Highlandtown branch does not carry enough books she likes to read. "I can't wait for it to open, I'm going to be watching."

She won't have to walk to the site to do that. Neighborhood interest in the much-delayed project prompted The Baltimore Guide newspaper to put up a live video feed on its Web site so people can track the progress.

Merchants are hoping the new library will attract business.

"It's a wonderful thing," said Bruce Lindstrom, owner of a coffee shop a few blocks away. "It's been far too long in coming, but we look forward to not merely the groundbreaking but the doors of it opening."

Yesterday, officials emphasized that the library could help students at nearby schools.

"The jewel to reading, to expanding your mind and your spirit and soul, is through what you read," Dixon said. "That's where it all starts. It's not the TV and not the computer."

Critics have said funding for updating the city's libraries have been distributed unfairly, saying that some libraries receive more funding than others.

A library spokeswoman said plans are set to move ahead with a new Broadway branch that is being paid for by the Johns Hopkins University.

tyrone.richardson@baltsun.com

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