It’s been five years since then-St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman proposed renaming the city’s main library after former President Barack Obama.
But the library — the only building in Florida named after the nation’s first Black president — has remained closed for the past two years as it undergoes renovations.
Cost estimates for those renovations have since doubled and the work has been delayed with no end in sight. Instead, the building has been used to train police dogs “to deter break-ins and vandalism,” according to a February email from a police sergeant.
Since the President Barack Obama Main Library closed in March 2021, renovations have been beset by hurdles — the coronavirus pandemic, inflation and rising construction costs, and asbestos abatement totaling at least $1.5 million. There is also a new mayor.
The police dog training came in response to vandalism of the library. That February, someone spray-painted black X’s over the St. Petersburg logo, the word “Obama” and a No Parking sign, according to police spokesperson Yolanda Fernandez. There was also a racial slur in black spray paint on one of the large metal construction containers.
A criminal investigation into the vandalism is ongoing. City officials and contractors are adjusting their estimates for construction. The work can’t begin until a guaranteed maximum price is approved by the City Council and there’s no timeline for when that will happen.
The project was projected to cost $6 million in 2018, when it was announced that the building would be renamed after Obama. But most of the funding was not expected to be available until 2020. Since then, cost estimates have more than doubled to $13 million but could be much more.
“I’m frustrated like anybody in our community,” said City Council member Richie Floyd, who lives nearby. “A big part of the reason I live where I live is I wanted to live by the main library, and it’s been closed for years. It’s very frustrating. I hope they get the show on the road soon.”
New name, new library
It was Kriseman’s idea to name the city’s main library after Obama.
That announcement came on Presidents Day and during Black History Month in 2018. The mayor’s spokesperson said at the time that the Obama name would not go up until renovations were done but that the mayor’s staff would explore ways to start work ahead of when Penny for Pinellas sales tax money would become available in 2020.
A sign with the new name of the library was installed in late January 2021. A spokesperson said a decision was made to install the sign rather than letting it sit in storage. The library closed to the public two months later. Its collection of 100,000 books and materials were cataloged, packed and moved to a climate-controlled “faux library” warehouse. The stored materials can be checked out through other libraries.
Spend your days with Hayes
Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
The 40,000-square-foot library was built in 1963 and designed by noted St. Petersburg architect William B. Harvard, the man behind the former inverted pyramid St. Pete Pier and the bandstand in Williams Park. But it was in need of renovations. The job called for Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant restrooms, an upgraded rear patio and outdoor gathering space. The interior spaces also needed to be reconfigured. The library at 3745 Ninth Ave. N was touched up in 2009 with $1 million worth of work.
“Not a simple capital project”
Before construction could start, the city had to competitively select consultants to plan library improvements and building conditions. City architect Raul Quintana said COVID-19 had a lot to do with the initial delay.
Then workers found asbestos. Quintana said permitted work could not begin before the building was “gutted” to remove the asbestos and brought up to fire code. That work began last April and was finished in November, $1.5 million later. Another $2 million has been spent on design and other costs.
“We’re caught up in a highly variable cost-escalation environment that’s not new to anyone in the market right now,” Quintana said. “That’s been really the driver in the past six to eight months to complete the design, the pre-construction and get into construction.”
“This is not a simple capital project,” he said. “There’s a lot of complexities here.”
Mayor Ken Welch took office in January 2022. Welch, the city’s first Black mayor, changed plans to build more public meeting space and office space and add science, technology, engineering, arts and math programs for kids.
“We all know that libraries are the great equalizer,” said city Leisure Services Administrator Mike Jefferis. “It’s important that our government gets it right.”
Hours after the library was broken into and vandalized, Sgt. Christopher S. Turbee of the Uniform Support and K-9 unit sent an email about his conversation at the library with city officials and construction workers.
“Apparently there have been recent break-ins where graffiti is being sprayed inside the building,” he wrote Feb. 6. “Not only are they good with us using the building for K-9 training, but they would be grateful for the added Police presence to deter criminal activity.” He added that the police’s legal counsel was briefed on using the city-owned library for training, and that he would instruct police dog handlers to make the library a place to sit and type reports during their shifts for added presence.
Eric Taylor, the superintendent of Biltmore Construction, which was overseeing the pre-construction, replied: “This looks like it could be mutually beneficial to all parties involved. … Except the bad guys!”
Police held one scheduled formal training at the Obama Library three days later on Feb. 9 that involved five dog handlers and lasted two hours, said Fernandez, the police spokesperson. She said police did not return for a second training because the building was too open inside — not ideal for training to find suspects in places with obstructed views.
Fernandez said the police dog unit trains several times a month, as handlers are dispatched to commercial and residential burglaries routinely. She said police often use empty buildings, such as city recreation buildings and the Municipal Repair Services building, for trainings.
She said there was no record of police using St. Petersburg City Hall for training when it was under renovation in 2019.