Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously stated the library project is expected to be completed in 2022. The project is expected to be completed in 2021.
In front of a standing-room-only audience Monday night, by a 5-2 vote, the Falls Church City Council gave its final approval to a $11 million expansion and renovation of the Mary Riley Styles Public Library. The vote culminated a more than three-year delay since City voters approved a bond referendum for the project by a 2-to-1 margin in 2016.
City Council chambers were packed with library supporters and they were not disappointed with the final vote.
In the only change from the preliminary OK given two weeks ago, Councilman Dan Sze put his support behind the project, turning a 4-3 vote into 5-2. In the end, only the two youngest members of the Council and professed frequent library users with their school-aged children, Letty Hardi and Ross Litkenhous, stood by their “no” votes on grounds of wider fiscal issues.
Now, the library will be open just through this coming weekend before closing down for a one-year renovation effort.
Within three weeks, a temporary home for the library will be opening the first week of March at the temporary classroom trailers at Thomas Jefferson Elementary School. According to Lionel Millard, the City’s project manager for the effort, library staff had already begun boxing up books that will now be transported to the new temporary digs.
While the current library location will close as of this Monday, Feb. 17, the building construction will not begin for a few more weeks while the contractor that agreed to a “guaranteed maximum price” with the City earlier this month works out terms with its subcontractors so the work can begin by mid-March at the latest.
The deal with the construction firm of Centennial for $7.866,308 was also OK’d by the Council late Monday night by the same 5-2 vote.
The key vote was to dedicate $2.3 million of the surplus the City found itself with this winter to add to the $8.7 million that voters OK’d in the 2016 referendum to pay for everything associated with the project, including the relocation during construction.
It is expected, according to Millard, that come the early summer of 2021 the project will be completed and the site reopened to the public, expanded, ADA compliant, more spacious and aesthetically impressive.
A lengthy queue of library supporters came before the Council to voice their support for the project, with no one taking the side of further delay.
The speakers built on the 36 public comments that came to the Council in writing, and a strong statement of support published as a guest commentary in last week’s News-Press from veteran library board member Chester W. DeLong, in his mid-90s still active along with his wife, former four-term mayor of Falls Church Carol DeLong. DeLong was vigilant, along with other board members, in seeing through the arduous process before and since the passage in 2016 by a 2-to-1 vote of a public bond referendum supporting the project. “Lets have no more ‘delay, linger and wait,’” DeLong wrote.
Library Board vice chair Jeff Peterson, past president of the Village Preservation and Improvement Society (VPIS) spoke in favor of the project, as did 45-year City resident Michael Volpe and Mollie Novotny. “The project is not extravagant and won’t get cheaper,” she argued.
Former City Vice Mayor and now president of the venerable civic betterment organization, the Citizens for a Better City (CBC), Hal Lipmann presented the Council with the CBC executive board’s unanimous vote on Feb. 6 of support for the expansion.
Since the building’s original construction in 1957 and expansions in 1968 and 1992, it has deteriorated markedly, he said, now “badly in need of repairs and/or upgrades to bathrooms, the heating and cooling systems and the elevator.”
It cannot handle the continued population growth in the City, having already outgrown the existing 27,000 registered borrowers, expected to surpass 35,000 in the immediate period ahead. The project will make the library ADA compliant, “an important consideration given the existing possibility of regulatory enforcement action against the library for ADA non-compliance.”
The lopsided 66 percent support for the project in the 2016 referendum suggests the public would also support a follow-on referendum is another $2.3 million were added to the original cost, he noted, and further delays will only result in even higher costs.
Since 2013, at least, he said, the project “over time has been scrutinized, debated, and subjected to every bit of considered thinking and analysis anyone could ask for. With the additional fund needed available through the recently-announced unexpected surplus in City funds, it seems to us the time to act to get the project approved and underway is now.”
In defending her position against the expansion measure, Council member Hardi said, “My reservations are bigger than the library. This is not a cold hearted matter, but there are too many funding issues before us. Will the project match the debt it will take on? Will it be a ‘forever library?’ We need more money for traffic calming and there are uncertain financial times ahead.”
Litkenhous, the other “no” vote, said as a veteran of commercial real estate industry, he’s concerned about “doing the project in a smart way fiscally.”
Council member David Snyder said that further delay would cost more money with no guarantee the project would be better, noting it is the government’s job to “act on contending claims among scarce resources.”
Council member Phil Duncan said that “as a small community, we feel more acutely the weight of capital improvement needs. In this case, he said, “The library contributes to the economic vitality of the City, with twice the number of card holders and residents of the City meaning that visitors are coming and spending money here” and equity as a factor for lower income families. The project, he said, “perpetuates the continuity of the community in Falls Church.”
Vice Mayor Marybeth Connelly cited the value of conservative fiscal policies that have put the City in a position to afford the project, and Mayor David Tarter said he supported most of what was said in favor of the project.