Local Commentary

Commentary: Now is the Time to Fund & Finish F.C. Library Project

By Chester “Chet” W. DeLong

I sympathize with the commuter of the Delaware, Lackawanna and Western Railroad who used the soubriquet “Delay, Linger, and Wait” for that rail line.

In 2012, which was 20 years after an expansion of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library, it was evident to Library Board members that the population estimates of the 1990s were far too conservative. City growth was booming and expected to continue. Attendance and use of the library were very high, the facility infrastructure was beginning to deteriorate. Board members realized an expansion was needed, as well as renovations to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The Board investigated how other libraries were coping with the electronic and online information advances and decided to find an architect who could provide a space study plan for the library. The Planning Commission rejected an initial plan to raze and rebuild, citing the $16–18 million cost as too expensive. At the request of the Planning Commission, the Board conducted additional design and analysis developing the 2014 Master Plan addendum that proposed a renovation and expansion project for $8.3 million. After extensive public discussion and input, this plan was approved by the City and scheduled for a public referendum.

The referendum was approved by 66 percent of voters in 2016 and the project was put into the City Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) with an $8.3 million budget. It seemed that the project was on its way. But there were delays about parking, delays about adding LEED requirements, delays to add streetscape features, delays to accommodate stormwater needs. The Board finally received approval to go to full design in June 2017.

After more public comment and input, the design was finalized in 2019. The project was ready to go for construction, which brings us to present day. Recognizing that inflation since 2014 and that City requirements have added another appreciable sum, the project ended up with a $2.6 million deficit from the original budget, even after intense negotiations with the contractor. Voluntary Concessions will reduce that deficit by about $300,000. The final Maximum Guaranteed Price for construction is to remain in effect only until mid-February. Although construction costs have increased, the City was fortunate to receive lower-than-expected interest rates to finance the project for a savings of $110,000 per year over 20 years.

If the Council decides to delay the project for further study, there will be several major problems. First, any delay can only lead to higher cost, now rising about 5 percent a year. Delay also puts the favorable financing package at risk, and the contractor would have good reason to question the City’s good faith in the negotiations. The final problem is that if delays kill the project, the City will have spent over $1 million in planning and design costs for no gain, not to mention all the staff time used to get to this point. That is not a desirable position for the City to be in.

The suggestion by some Council members that the project be delayed for the possibility of a project “reboot” in 10 years does not make good financial sense. In addition to the above mentioned loss of more than $1 million spent-to-date in planning and design, there is also a three year deadline for spending the money bonded for the project: November 2022 at the latest. If the funding is only spent on a renovation in the next couple of years to modernize systems (heating and cooling, security, low voltage) and to address ADA code compliance, the Library will suffer from at least a 25 percent reduction in space. Will the public and Council seriously consider an expansion or raze or rebuild in ten years?

Last week’s Falls Church News-Press guest commentary also discussed the level of transparency for the library project. We feel there has been more than adequate transparency: the project has been included in Capital Improvement Plans since 2009. The Board conducted a space study in 2013 that included significant public engagement. The Master Plan Addendum in 2014 and subsequent referendum also included reaching out to the public. Since 2017, the library project has been a regular agenda item on the public Library Board meetings. City staff and the project architect conducted additional public forums for design. The project management team has been to approximately 20 public meetings between the Planning Commission and City Council to present and discuss the project. So let’s have no more “Delay, Linger, and Wait”.

The surplus is available to fund this project now, and the Council has the opportunity to finish the Library project without further borrowing.

The Board agrees with Council Member Dan Sze when he said at the Jan. 27 Council meeting: “If we don’t build it now, we never will.”

Chester “Chet” DeLong is a member of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library Board of Trustees.