Future of main library in downtown Tampa: renovation or something more?

After a study spells out many problems, renovate or rebuild is the next question.
The John F. Germany Library in downtown Tampa is “an inefficient building,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. DEMETRIUS FREEMAN   |   Times
The John F. Germany Library in downtown Tampa is “an inefficient building,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn said.DEMETRIUS FREEMAN | Times

TAMPA — Talk about showing your age.

At 47, the John F. Germany Public Library, the flagship library for Tampa and Hillsborough County, is due for an update, according to a consultant's study and facilities master plan. Among other things, the report concludes:

• Built in 1967 and expanded in 1975, the library needs work on its restrooms, elevators, lights and air conditioning, parts of which are original to the building. It lacks fire sprinklers and has issues with exits, stairs, handrails and glass vulnerable to wind-blown debris.

• The three-building complex in downtown Tampa holds the dubious distinction of generating more greenhouse gases, based on its electricity consumption, than any other county-run building except for the 28-story County Center tower, which is nearly five times as big.

• The library's clamshell-shaped auditorium cannot host large programs, offers poor access to patrons with disabilities, can't be used after hours and lacks a covered entrance, which makes it hard to use in stormy weather. And it's ugly.

"When built it was futuristic," consultants with Aaron Cohen Associates of Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y., said of the auditorium. "Today it is outdated."

To address these shortcomings, consultants looked at two options.

The first: Spend $20 million to $30 million to tear down the west building annex and build a new, two-story addition in front of the east building. The addition, which could go where the library's fountains are now, could house meeting rooms and children's services. The site of the annex could be redeveloped.


Spend more — how much more hasn't been determined — to build a new 121,000-square-foot library somewhere else.

No big changes are imminent, officials say. The report has recently been shared with the Public Library Board, which has yet to weigh in.

"We're very early on in the process," said Tom Fass, an assistant county administrator whose responsibilities include facilities and library services.

Still, the report will help the county organize its priorities as it considers options for the library, works to ensure that its facilities match patron demands and plans for maintenance and repairs to aging mechanical systems at the main library.

The library's location is good, officials say, with museums and the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts close by.

One possibility, Fass said, is that the library's site on Ashley Drive could be reconfigured to include space for private development — cafes or shops — that could complement the library, generate revenue to help pay to improve it, or both.

Looking ahead, the consultants said each option they explored offers its own advantages and drawbacks.

Renovation would be cheaper, would allow the library to build on its current patronage and traffic, and could increase the visibility of the library.

For example, building an addition on the front of the main building on Ashley Drive could create community meeting space and the chance to showcase the children's library, which is now in the west building annex.

A second-floor children's library could include large windows that give passers-by a view into the space, similar to the views at the nearby Glazer Children's Museum, said Bill Hand, a county architect who is the manager for the library project.

But the renovation option makes no provision for the Florida history and genealogy operations, which need space for a growing collection of printed resources that are not online, said library director Joe Stines.

At the John Germany library, space for genealogy is maxed out at about 10,000 square feet. "We could use 15,000," Stines said.

Nor does the existing site have much parking of its own and is inefficient in other ways.

Building a new library from scratch would give officials a chance to design a new library as a space for 21st century learning from the outset. It could be designed to be more efficient, with adequate parking and space for genealogy.

But the land, construction and moving books and other resources would cost more. Some patrons might not follow, and moving away from nearby cultural organizations could make partnerships harder.

Also, a law that codifies city and county collaboration on library services says the main library will be at 900 N Ashley Drive. So changing its location would require an act of the Legislature.

"The best thing about (the study) is it's an idea document, and it kind of starts the discussion," Stines said.

As the main library of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System, the 144,000-square-foot library is the reference hub and resource center for patrons countywide and also is the local branch library for downtown residents.

It sees more than 200,000 visitors and circulates more than 250,000 books and other items a year, down from nearly 450,000 eight years ago. That's because of a rise in the use of e-books and electronic media, which are not tracked by individual branches.

The city of Tampa owns the 2.2 acres where the library sits.

"It's an inefficient building," said Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "It is an old building. It is a maintenance nightmare. You're not maximizing the space. It's a money pit."

Buckhorn said the city and county could use money from Tampa's downtown community redevelopment area, which was renewed this month, for renovation or redevelopment of the library. (That said, other potential uses abound, too, including using the money to pay for public infrastructure that would help Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik redevelop his 24 acres near Amalie Arena.)

"I think you could incorporate a very modern library into that site in addition to other components that would maximize the use of the land," Buckhorn said.

The parcel is big enough to accommodate a new library, plus residential or commercial development, both of which would help anchor the Riverwalk, he said.

"I would love to see a modern structure on that site that would provide a gateway into downtown that was architecturally significant," Buckhorn said. "You could do a statue garden. You could do all kinds of things."