City Council, Library Board begin search for new downtown library sites

Put on your thinking caps and tell us your ideas. Go ahead and dream a little. Just type your ideas into the comments at the end of this story.

Click to view cool panoramic photo!Imagine the Northfield Public Library celebrating its centennial in 2010 in a new building perched over Highway 3, linking east and west, incorporating a pedestrian/bicycle bridge and symbolizing the city's future.

What about a new library near The Grand, with a shared downtown parking ramp and public space linking everything to the old library, which is transformed into a new use?

Too far outside the box? Maybe, maybe not, judging by the conversation launched at Monday's City Council work session.

No decisions will be made for months, and all ideas will be fair game as the council and the Library Board try to figure out how to keep a public library downtown.

"We probably have no option but to look at a single-level building on a new site," Library Board Chairman Mark Gleason told the council.

Councilors stared at the aerial site photos, pored over possible ways to tack on additions, and listened as consultants crunched the numbers over and over,

Councilors agreed: The beautiful, stately, comfortable library that has served Northfield since 1910 probably will have to be replaced. It's not in disrepair, in fact it's one of downtown's most striking landmarks. It's just that at a little over 12,000 square feet on two levels, it's just way too small to serve a growing and increasingly demanding population that will need an estimated 31,000 square feet within the next 20 years.

And no, the Internet won't make the library obsolete. Councilor Pokorney asked the same question. Consultant Robert Rohlf, a librarian and city administrator turned consultant, said communities with the highest educational levels and most computer use are overwhelming libraries with demand for free library access to expensive subscription databases and research materials. He noted that the Hennepin County Library branch next to Ridgedale Center in Minnetonka is in one of the most affluent areas of the region, with the highest home computer access, yet it's the busiest branch in the system.

Don't look for blueprints anytime soon. There are big problems ahead. The consultants ballparked the cost of a new 31,000-square-foot library at $9.2 million, and that doesn't count furnishing, fixtures or land. The city has no budget for a new building, so it would need a voter referendum and a fundraising campaign. That effort would come just as the YMCA is trying to get established and the school district is considering a referendum for operating money and the city just committed to a new outdoor pool.

The immediate consensus was that any new site needs to be downtown. But with little open land, lots of parking and traffic issues and very limited city resources (translation: money), councillors agreed they'll have to get creative to find a solution.

Despite all the problems, councilors and library board members, who showed up in force to offer their help, agreed that a new library could be just the issue that brings people together to think about how such a project could reshape and revitalize the entire downtown.

"We need to look at community needs," said Councilor Dixon Bond.

Mayor Lee Lansing asked whether a library could be combined with a school library or other services. Rohlf said there have been attempts to combine different kinds of libraries or libraries and city offices, but most don't work.

"You end up with two mediocre libraries," Rohlf said.

Councilors asked City Administrator Al Roder to work with the library officials to come with a plan and timeline for addressing the issues and agreement on who is responsible for what parts of the plan.

So where could a library be? How do you define downtown? Will you support a referendum for a new library? What else do you want to know about this topic?

You can see more information and download the full draft report at

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Integrating the library into the region?

I really liked the idea of using the library project to finally get a safe way across Hwy 3, but that is probably a really really expensive idea. And any plan to expand in place runs the risk of destroying the very viewshed that makes the library such an asset to downtown. I had suggested in offline conversations that perhaps a joint effort between Dundas and Northfield along the Cannon River, integrated with the trails system would make good sense. But I do not know if keeping the existing library as a satellite location would be feasable, both because of the cost and because it is my impression that a library needs to be a "one-stop" solution, rather than a "hope it's here and not there" solution.


Minnesota needs more mosquitos?

Personal design

I've long favored expanding horizontally to Division and filling the block. The greenspace around the library is unused and the concrete wall facing Division is ugly.

Expand the library horizontally to Division and place a line of storefronts along Div. The city gets a rental revenue stream, there's more space for stores downtown, and the library stays in it's location.

Either that or knock down City Hall and build a combo building on that block.