Plans for new branches won’t be changed, say county library officials

Beckwith declines to discuss decisions made by trustees

By Gloria Lloyd

St. Louis County Library officials are being pressured by citizens from throughout the county to change their plans to build new libraries, but say they will not change their plans in any way — and County Executive Charlie Dooley said he does not plan to intervene.

Residents from throughout the region converged on last week’s meeting of the Library Board of Trustees with pleas to the board to save the Lewis & Clark Branch in Moline Acres, which is scheduled for demolition, and the Tesson Ferry Library, slated to be moved to Gravois and Musick.

“I know you didn’t mean to make a bad decision on the Tesson Ferry Library, but you did,” Green Park Ward 1 Alderman Carol Hamilton told the board. “I’m asking you, and I’m begging you. I know it’s on your shoulders to do something about it. We’re asking that you halt the project, make this right and let us do something at the current site so that they can all be happy in south county, and we can continue to go to that library.”

“The Lewis & Clark Library, once lost, would not be replaceable,” said art historian Mary Reid Brunstrom, echoing the sentiments of dozens of architects and historians attending the March 17 meeting.

Library Executive Director Kristen Sorth said she wants to emphasize how the new libraries, part of a $108 million project that is unprecedented in the history of the library, will benefit library patrons.

“It’s a really exciting time, and I feel like it’s a really good story. Sometimes you get so focused on the difficulties that you forget that we provide this amazing service for St. Louis County and that we want to continue providing it forever … We want to help our residents,” she said. “I want the lasting legacy to be that we did something completely amazing for St. Louis County and that we continue to provide excellent, world-class service for them.”

Library officials are tentatively calling the new Tesson Ferry Library the “South County Regional Branch.” The library has also downgraded its earlier estimate of costs for the South County Branch, from $20 million to $16 million, including the $2.9 million land purchase and $1 million for the architect, Christner.

For the past year, every citizen who has made a public comment during library board meetings has been opposed to the new Tesson site.

Although roughly 16 speakers signed up at last week’s meeting at library headquarters in Frontenac, board President Lynn Beckwith did not let them all speak, abruptly ending the meeting without hearing from some residents who had waited hours to speak and signed up as required.

As residents pleaded to keep their libraries, Beckwith at times appeared more concerned with holding speakers to the three-minute time limit than with listening, paying close attention to cutting speakers off at exactly three minutes — at one point, he peered around Treasurer Elena Garcia Kenyon at the timer as early as 30 seconds into a speaker’s three-minute comment. Another time, he cut off St. Simon’s Catholic Church Deacon Paul Stackle more than a minute too early, stopped by the protests of the crowd.

Besides north county residents Beckwith, who lives in Florissant, and Kenyon of Hazelwood, most members of the library board live in west county: Vice President Edith Cunnane of Creve Coeur, a former County Council member, Secretary Chingling Tai of Creve Coeur, and the newest member, Stephen Sachs of Ladue, appointed in 2010.

In his comments to trustees, Stackle cited the lack of south county representation on the library board as a problem.

“If there was one member from south county, we probably wouldn’t be in this predicament right now,” he noted, adding that the hundreds of children who attend elementary school at St. Simon’s regularly walk to the Tesson Ferry site and would not be able to go to the Musick site. “I think that’s an injustice to our children and the area.”

Cunnane, Tai, Kenyon and Sachs did not respond to requests for comment. Sachs was out of town and did not attend the March 17 meeting, and Cunnane attended by phone, as she has some previous meetings.

In an email, Beckwith declined to discuss any of the board’s decisions, saying, “I am declining that opportunity because I believe it is the collective voice of St. Louis County Library Board of Trustees that counts concerning the Tesson Ferry and Lewis and Clark Branches and not that of my individual opinion as president.”

The trustees are appointed by Dooley without approval from the County Council, since library boards are exempt from the County Charter mandate that appointees be confirmed by the council.

For his part, Dooley said he has not talked to anyone on the library board and has no plans to step in and save the Lewis & Clark Branch or the Tesson Ferry Branch, adding that citizens were informed of the library’s plans before the passage of the Proposition L tax-rate increase in 2012.

“This is not breaking news. This is something they’ve been talking about for over two years, and now there’s this issue about should they (change their minds),” he said. “The tax was passed on the idea that there would be new buildings at these two sites. That was said for the proposal. So I would think that the library trustees are going to go forward with the process.”

When library officials provided information to the public for Prop L, they cited the library’s master facilities plan, which called for a new Tesson Ferry Branch Library “on a new site” due to “multiple sinkholes.”

In a sinkhole study commissioned by the library in 2008, Midwest Testing Laboratories found no evidence of sinkhole damage to the library itself, but saw evidence on topographic maps from 1934 of a “former sinkhole” that had been successfully remediated prior to library construction. Midwest Testing also notes manholes on the site drain “into the throats” of sinkholes on surrounding roads Lin Ferry Drive and Lindbergh Boulevard, but not on the property itself. Those sinkholes are listed by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which does not list any current or former sinkhole at Tesson Ferry.

At the time, Midwest Testing’s study said a new library could be built on the property as long as remediation of any potential problems was undertaken.

“Many reports were made to the board about this during this time — about both of these reports,” Sorth said, citing the sinkhole study and an earlier preliminary study that found visual evidence of sinkholes at the site.

Trustees accepted an architect’s recommendation not to build on the current site, and the recommendation carried over into two facilities plans to the current day, she added.