Duluth looking to remodel, not replace library

Controversy surrounding the future of the Duluth Public Library appears to be a central issue in the city's 2015 election. PHOTO: Duluth Public Library Facebook page

PHOTO: Duluth Public Library Facebook page

Last year it seemed the city of Duluth was barreling toward the demolition of its distinctive library building along Superior and Michigan avenues in favor of a new $35 million building. At the time, the consultant hired by the city was saying that it would cost $31 million to perform necessary repairs and remodeling to the library, so the cost of getting a new one was only slightly more.

Well, in the comments section of my post, you saw Duluth Reader columnist John Ramos share some of the research he was doing on the topic. In a rather triumphant new story out last week, Ramos explained exactly why you no longer see the city talking about replacing the old library.

When a different consulting firm was tasked instead with the question of how to remodel the existing space for the most possible functionality within a constrained budget, an estimate for remodeling fell all the way down to $19 million — much less than the cost of building a new library.

In essence, if you give consultants a list of functions you want, they’ll give you a price. When you squeeze them for a lower price, you lose functions. But, if you give consultants a price, they’ll give you a list of functions they can do. When you ask for more functions without more cost, that becomes a more direct engineering problem.

I wish there were more rigorous questioning of project proposals across the region. Consultants might be experts in their field, but they are in the business of selling concepts. Consumers typically don’t buy a car at manufacturers suggested retail price, so why would their cities or school districts do so with purchases 100 times larger?

Furthermore, Duluth keeps its very unique library shaped like an ore ship in what is, frankly, a great spot for the library.

From the Ramos story:

The report recommends a new entrance on Superior Street, with a lobby two stories high, fronting directly onto the street rather than at a right angle to it, for a more welcoming experience. The Superior Street level is envisioned to be the busiest part of the library, as it is today, but more so. The layout would be considerably changed. It will contain “browsing and media collections, a public service desk, self-checkout stations, patron holds and Internet stations.” It will have a “Teen Area” and a new “Maker Space, or hands-on lab,” which is the latest must-have feature for all kinds of buildings. The Maker Space will “accommodate a wide variety of maker activities on a changing basis, from digital explorations (creating, editing, and recording) to craft-based activities.”

The biggest suggested change involves moving the children’s section of the library to Michigan Street; more space would be created, and more light allowed in, by building a glass-walled addition along Michigan. This would certainly liven up that section of Michigan, as people parked in the lot next to the Depot and walked to the library with their children. “At night the glow from inside the Youth Services area will add visual warmth to the exterior and provide observation of people entering the building, both improving security and the entry experience,” says the report.

Strangely for a plan that is supposed to be on a tight budget, the report also calls for a café on Superior Street, saying that “healthy beverages and nourishment” will help “promote prolonged stays.” The cost to build the café is estimated to be $600,000.

You should absolutely read Ramos’s story in the Reader.


  1. It’s an ugly, poorly functional building that was built in the wrong spot. At the time it was built the Depot, as a museum, was just staring out. Now it has become a cultural focus for the city. Where the library is should have been an open plaza or park framing the Depot instead of hiding it.

    Still, it’s there. I’m glad someone is looking at ways to remodel it for less cost instead of building new somewhere else. There’s been too much replacing perfectly good and adequate public facilities like schools around here with new investment that would never pay off, like the Duluth schools, the St Louis County schools, and coming soon, the new Mountain Iron High School.

  2. Gray Camp says

    Buying a new construction projects or renovation is tricky business – and it gets much trickier when you are a public entity with many stakeholders and collective decision-makers. Being a “buyer” of a construction project takes a specific set of skills and understanding, and too often people are put in that role who are not equipped.
    The most efficient projects are those that have a vision and a budget for the project prior to hiring a consultant, along with a list of “musts”, a list of “wants”, and someone in charge who is empowered and confident enough to help keep the consultant moving towards that vision without the need to get lots of people involved in every decision.

  3. I don’t live in Duluth, but have used the library and liked it. The building has some character. Destroying it would be an act of “civic vandalism.”

    Consultants get away with murder. At least, budgetary murder. Is anybody taking an independent look at the nonsensical advice Duluth is receiving from District Energy St. Paul on the heating system?

  4. John Ramos says

    My stories on the library saved the city $20 million. How much did I earn for my services? About $150. Whereas the consultants who gave us the bad estimates got $58,000. It’s no wonder I let a bit of triumphalism seep into my articles. If I don’t give myself credit, nobody else will.

  5. John Ramos says

    I went back and double-checked. The consultants actually made $62,596 to provide the city with bad information. I made $150 providing accurate information. Who do you think gets criticized more?

    • Gray Camp says

      Does the city or the first consultant deserve more blame, or is it shared? If the consultant provided the features and design the city told them to and then the city later came back and cut $12M of features out of the design, then the consultant really isn’t to blame.

  6. John Ramos says

    It’s shared blame between the Ness Administration and MSR. The city wanted a new library, and MSR worked closely with top city staff behind the scenes to compile a report that led to that conclusion. Everybody swallowed it, too. If not for my articles exposing these shenanigans last June and July, the city would be deep in the process of building a new library today. They had the site selected and sketches drawn up, though nobody knew it, before my first article came out.

    The News Tribune also deserves blame for never questioning or verifying any facts. Whenever the city wanted something in the paper, they called up the News Tribune and within a few days a story came out exactly as the city wanted it. In a full-page editorial published on March 8, 2015, the DNT boasted about their lack of reporting. “Trust experts, move forward with planning,” said the headline. In the same editorial, they said, “The [consultants were] as shocked as anyone by its ultimate recommendation that Duluth needs a new downtown library building”–stating as fact something that turned out to be completely false. Some watchdog.

    The figure of $31 million for a full renovation was a cynical, false number. The new estimate of $19 million does virtually everything the $31 million was supposed to have done, and more things that were not even considered. The only purpose of saying $31 million was to guide people toward the conclusion that building a new library was the right thing to do.

    June 11, 2015 Reader

    July 23, 2015 Reader

    Thanks for the compliment, Aaron.

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.