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Anchorage library boosters launch new campaign for upgrades

Nathaniel Herz
Anchorage Public Library director Mary Jo Torgeson in the circulation area of the Z.J. Loussac Library on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. The city will be asking the state for money to renovate the entrance to the Z.J. Loussac Library.
Bill Roth
Anchorage Public Library director Mary Jo Torgeson in the Z.J. Loussac Library on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014. The city will be asking the state for money to renovate the entrance to the Z.J. Loussac Library.
Bill Roth
The city will be asking the state for money to renovate the entrance to the Z.J. Loussac Library. Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014.
Bill Roth
Fresh snow blankets the entry of the Z. J. Loussac Public Library in Anchorage on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014.
Bill Roth

Visitors to Anchorage's Loussac Library in Midtown can access more than 400,000 volumes, plus 60 public computers linked to dozens of databases.

But first, they have to get inside.

Doing so requires scaling two steep flights of stairs and walking along a plaza pockmarked with cracks and crumbling concrete, to access a second-floor entrance.

It's enough of a disincentive that Kjerstin Thomas, 36, said she used to take her two young children to another library instead, miles away in Mountain View.

"It's hard for moms with a baby in tow," she said Wednesday, having just climbed to the top of the steps with her 4-year-old son.

Loussac boosters and the library's director desperately want to see the steps gone, replaced with a gleaming glass front that would let visitors in through the ground floor.

Other improvements are planned, too, like moving the circulation desk downstairs and blocking off the road that passes under the library. But there's a steep price tag: $15 million.

'THE MONEY WAS TIGHT'

Last spring, a group from the nonprofit Anchorage Library Foundation, along with library director Mary Jo Torgeson, traveled to Juneau to lobby for an $8 million state grant. But they came back empty-handed -- even as legislators doled out tens of millions in funding for other projects, like renovations to the city's hockey arenas and construction of a new recreation center with indoor tennis courts.

As the Legislature begins a new session, boosters are preparing for another campaign, after laying the groundwork by touring local legislators through the building.

This year, though, a state budget crunch will likely make money for capital projects even more difficult to come by.

"Last year, the money was tight," said Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, co-chair of the senate's finance committee. "This year it's tighter."

The library's woes go beyond the steep steps and sketchy entrance.

The underside of the second-floor plaza gets scraped regularly, to keep chunks of cement from falling to the street below.

When it rains, water leaks into the second floor from a glass ceiling above the circulation area. In December, a pipe burst, flooding the first floor.

And an outdated heating and ventilation system contributes to some $375,000 in annual energy costs.

On a walking tour of the library earlier this month, Torgeson ticked through a list of improvements laid out in a master plan for Loussac that was developed with community input and released last spring.

Beyond a new entrance and facade, the plan also calls for a new elevator and upgrades to various interior spaces.

For now, though, Torgeson said the city is focused on the remodeling of the entryway, which would cost about $15 million.

'NOT JUST COSMETIC'

Many of the library's current problems stem from its initial design, which was selected in 1981 from 14 entries in a competition.

At the time, Anchorage was flush with oil money from the newly built trans-Alaska pipeline, and was starting on a building spree that also produced the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts, Sullivan Arena, the Egan Civic & Convention Center, and Dempsey Anderson Ice Arena.

The money began to run out, however, before the library could be completed -- and ultimately the city abandoned a parking garage that was supposed to connect to the second-floor entrance.

The city spent $41 million on the building, which opened in 1986. But ultimately, there wasn't even enough cash left to put heating coils in the steep steps leading up to the plaza.

That led to ice forming in winter and to the steps being branded the "stairway of death" by a newspaper columnist, until the city installed a shelter over the two flights in the 1990s.

Visitors do have an alternative -- they can walk underneath the plaza and across a driveway to an elevator, or an interior stairwell, that will bring them to the entrance.

But the steep pitch of the stairs still draws ire.

"It's not just cosmetic," said Nanette Stevenson, 61, as she stood on the plaza at the top of the steps. "You stand here, watch a young mother take their kid down there -- it's death-defying."

The decrepit state of the exterior, and the entrance, contrasts with the ambitions of the library's original boosters, said Susan Urig, an Anchorage Library Foundation board member.

As an example, she recalled standing inside Loussac with 3,000 people to watch then Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor deliver a speech from a landing on the library's grand staircase, on the one-year anniversary of the opening of the building -- an event, Urig said, that had "gravitas."

Some of that gravitas still exists, in spaces like the ornately decorated Ann Stevens Room on the library's third level. There, visitors can sit in leather chairs, rest their feet on Persian rugs and read by the light of a chandelier.

"You can see in that room what the community leaders were aspiring to for Anchorage," Urig said. "That's the message of: 'You're important too. Come in here, and own your space.' "

PLOTTING A NEW APPROACH

As it is, Loussac still appears to get a surprising amount of physical use, given the global shift toward electronic media.

The library's annual reports only publish data for the whole Anchorage system, which includes several branches.

But those numbers show physical visits rising from about 760,000 in 2009 to 780,000 in 2011, according to data collected by the library. (That number jumped to 940,000 in 2013, though that was partly due to the data newly including people who used the library's meeting rooms.)

Last Wednesday, 85 visitors were on the third floor alone. Some were using public computers -- looking up their tax bills, watching YouTube videos or playing online games. Others were using their own laptops to check Facebook, type essays or take online courses.

Still others sat reading hard-copy newspapers, magazines or graphic novels.

Torgeson, the library director, said that 11 legislators have toured the building over the past six months.

Since last spring, when the renovation project failed to get funding from the state, supporters have been plotting out new approaches to push for their request, which has jumped to $10 million from $8 million.

They've met with Mayor Dan Sullivan and worked with him to put a $2.75 million bond for the project on the ballot in the city election this April, said Mary Rasmussen, an Anchorage Library Foundation board member.

They're planning another trip to Juneau, or even two. A private fundraising campaign is also in the works, to augment the public money.

After their efforts last year, Rasmussen said library supporters had been disheartened to see Loussac left out when the Legislature put millions towards other Project 80s buildings last spring.

They were also frustrated to see a grant for construction of new indoor tennis courts in Turnagain, which was included in the Project 80s package.

"I got a lot of phone calls from people saying, 'How did this happen? They put this in instead of the library,' " Rasmussen said.

Afterwards, when she met with Sullivan, city Assembly members and key legislators, she said she "always felt the story changed, whatever audience you were with."

Long list of requests

Legislators attributed the omission to Anchorage's long list of requests last year -- and they also said that they were reluctant to give the library more funding after earlier grant funding had gone unspent.

"They hadn't used any of it yet," said Meyer, the co-chairman of the Senate's finance committee. When it came to Project 80s buildings, he added, "we were kind of more focused on those that needed immediate attention."

Rep. Lindsey Holmes, R-Anchorage, who sits on the House Finance Committee, said she was told by the boosters during the budget process that they'd already secured funding for the Loussac project.

"Some of us were told by library folks, 'Don't worry -- the money's in there,' " she said, though she couldn't recall which group told her that specifically. "I think there were a number of us who kind of felt that way, that they'd been told not to worry about it. So we didn't worry about it."

Both Meyer and Holmes said that the library's supporters have taken smart steps since the end of the last session, like providing the tours for legislators and getting the bond measure on the April ballot. (State legislators are more likely to fund projects if they're matched with local money.)

The city has also made library funding the top request in its state legislative program -- the annual wish list of projects submitted to Juneau.

But there are no guarantees, given that this year's capital budget is expected to be spare after a $2 billion decline in state revenues.

"Every dollar we spend is a dollar we're taking out of savings," said Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, and co-chairman of the House's Finance Committee. "I am telling everybody right now, lower your expectations."

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311.

 


By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com

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