Devil in the details: new library design concerns

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October 8, 2002 // UPDATED 1:31 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon and Kevin Featherly
Ellen Nigon and Kevin Featherly

From a criminally blank wall to rooftop runoff, officials debate

how to make the library work well with Downtown

Perhaps chastened by the problematic Block E development, several City Councilmembers are complaining that a proposed Downtown library design has several significant problems that they want solved before the project moves forward.

Among the problems cited is a 7-foot wall facing Nicollet Mall at 3rd Street, which 10th Ward Councilmember Dan Niziolek said could be a magnet for criminals. Councilmember Lisa Goodman worries that the library isn't being designed in keeping with "green" principles of


The wall that wraps around the library at Nicollet Mall and 3rd is a particularly contentious issue. Although you may never have noticed passing by the just-closed library site, there's a significant slope toward the river. To keep the entire library level, its first floor is above street level at Nicollet and 3rd.

In the new design, a blank wall would be over most people's heads, behind which would be parking. "That seven-foot wall is not acceptable," said Niziolek, who has a background in crime prevention through environmental design.

"Who's going to keep the sidewalk safe are the people who either live or work (inside) there," Niziolek said. "And in this case the people inside the library are going to keep the library safe and vice versa. If you lack interaction between an active internal space and a public space on the outside...the people inside the library can't keep that space safe."

He added, "As we've tried to encourage development to be more urban-pedestrian friendly, we have to set a standard as a city. This is not setting a standard."

Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward) agrees. "I just find it unconscionable that we would try to get something through on our project that we would never allow the private sector to do," she said.

At one time, architects proposed windows into the parking ramp instead of the blank wall, but Niziolek said that doesn't provide the necessary interaction.

His solution? "Push the building to the ground," so that architects could sink the underground parking ramp deeper.

However, that means digging a bigger hole that could cost the project money.

At a library implementation committee meeting Oct. 15, library architect Thomas Hysell of Architectural Alliance offered two potential solutions. He suggested that between the sidewalk and the library, a landscaped berm could slope up to the first floor. Or, he said, they might be able to sink a portion of the floor at Nicollet and 3rd Street, which would result in some lost parking. "Maybe it's a combination of the two," he said.

Green design

Some on the council worry that their new civic monument isn't environmentally


"We should be walking the walk, not just talking the talk on sustainable development," Goodman said. "This is a municipally built building with a life expectancy of 100 years. We have a unique opportunity to build a model for the other kinds of development that we want to see, and instead on site plan and greening and sustainable development issues, we're doing like every other developer."

Goodman's questions included the


"They're putting this huge wing on the building. Why wouldn't they put some solar panels on it and generate some electricity? Is there a source for the heating underground? Why no rooftop garden? Chicago put one on top of City Hall."

As to the rooftop garden, Goodman has an ally in Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Said Rybak, "The garden on the roof is important because that's about more than just a garden on the roof of the library. That's about the city having a serious issue of too much storm water going into the river and creating adverse affects.

"If we're going to go out to building owners and ask them to develop strategies limiting their overflow water, we should be pushing hard to have our own buildings set good examples."

Architect Hysell told the implementation committee that the project has used, and will continue to use, the Minnesota Sustainable Guidelines.

He outlined some sustainable strategies including natural shading and landscaping and using controls that would turn off the lights when the library is bright enough from outside light.

Although architects have not outlined some specific strategies, such as a rooftop garden, Hysell said that nothing has been ruled out. Such specific strategies would be put in place during the next development phase.

Again, cost will be an issue. Rybak has already said the city must raise another $20 million to finish the library project.

The implementation committee voted to form what Hysell dubbed a "Green Ribbon Task Force" to study issues of


Also on the grievance list are several extra-wide parking ramp curb cuts, which will lead vehicles to exit onto 3rd Street, directly into a bus lane that runs against the flow of regular traffic.