City keeping public library’s value private

Hip in '79: The Portland Public Library. (photo/Chris Busby)

City keeping public library’s value private 
Voters may be asked to OK deal on “faith”

By Chris Busby

The proposal to move the Portland Public Library into the Portland Public Market may be put up for a citywide vote this summer. The plan asks Portlanders to approve spending over $5 million and selling the downtown library building to help pay for the move. 

There’s plenty of public money at stake, but city and library officials are keeping a key financial detail private: the estimated market value of 5 Monument Square. 

Library officials estimate it will cost about $13 million to buy, renovate, expand, and move into the adjacent market space. About a quarter of that cost – over $3.3 million – would be covered by selling most of the library’s main branch and offices, according to the plan. 

The city recently received an appraisal of the property (Portland-based Amidon Appraisal Company was hired for the job), but that figure will not be released to the public before voters are asked to decide on the entire deal. 

“Premature disclosure of the information would hurt our competitive bargaining position” during any future negotiations for the library building’s sale, said city attorney Gary Wood. 

The City Council meets March 19 to decide whether to send the library relocation plan to voters. Approval by a super-majority of seven councilors is required to hold the special June 12 vote.

The ballot question seeks the people’s approval to use $4 million in bond money previously earmarked for renovations to the current building for this new project. It also asks voters to OK borrowing an additional $1 million to cover increased renovation costs.

If the measure passes, it’d then be up to the library and the City Council to come up with the remaining $8 million. 

Given the financial uncertainties involved, the plan’s future is anyone’s guess. It may not even come before voters this summer – at least three of the nine councilors are undecided or opposed to the proposal as currently structured. (Following a closed-door Council session on the subject March 5, action on the plan was postponed to next Monday night’s meeting; officials cited a need for additional information, some of which may still be forthcoming.) 

If the proposal is put before the public, there are some early indications its supporters will face an uphill climb. A poll conducted by TV station WGME-13 late last month asked, “Is it worth Portland taxpayers spending a million dollars to move the Public Library to the former Portland Public Market?” Seventy-eight percent of respondents said “no,” though it was not clear how many Portland residents took part. 

About 65 percent of Portland voters approved the initial $4 million library bond in 2004. That plan called for the library to raise an additional $4.5 million on its own, just as this plan does.

Five years into the capital campaign, library officials admit they’ve raised less than half that sum. But board members say potential donors are excited about the new library-market plan, and express optimism it will bolster fundraising efforts – potentially more than doubling the sum of donations their campaign has collected so far, in less than half the time. At a Feb. 28 public forum, library system executive director Stephen Podgajny said the renovation project could be done by the end of 2009.

If the downtown branch and offices fail to sell for at least $3.375 million, city officials say it’ll be up to the library to raise the remaining funds – no additional public money would be requested from voters. 

As currently proposed, only the 28-year-old building’s upper floors would be available for sale or lease. The library would continue to use the building’s basement for storage of lesser-used materials and some administrative functions, though that could change. At the forum last month, Podgajny recognized that the building’s value has more “potential… if we’re not there,” and said administrators could work in offices elsewhere in the city, if necessary.

“The details of the financing are important, obviously,” said Councilor Jim Cloutier, “but the basic decision to make is whether this constitutes an opportunity to make a dramatic improvement in a public institution of great importance to Portland and Greater Portland.”

Cloutier and others stressed that Amidon’s appraisal, though professionally done, is essentially an educated guess – “someone’s prediction of what something will be worth in two years,” Cloutier said.

“Any opinion on value at this point is simply an opinion,” said Councilor Jim Cohen, who supports sending the plan to voters this summer. 

Though neither the public nor councilors would have a clear idea of the library building’s worth, Cohen said, “if we go ahead, it would be with an understanding that we would be able to convey enough information for people to meaningfully vote on the proposal.”

“The existence or non-existence of an appraisal is only a factor among many the public will be considering,” Cohen added. “My personal view is there’s a big upside here and the risks are manageable…. I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to keep a significant building in public hands and really transform a public area downtown.”

Councilor Kevin Donoghue, whose district includes the downtown area at stake, supports asking the public to borrow money to buy the market building, but not necessarily so the library can move in. He said he’d rather have the city acquire the property and “continue to explore other redevelopment options” in addition to the library’s plan. 

“We’re asking voters to trust us on this redevelopment package for the entire block,” said Donoghue. But “we don’t have a vision for what happens to 5 Monument Square” after the library relocates. Separating the two projects is “a way to be honest and strategic about it,” he said.

District 2 City Councilor Dave Marshall said he’s still undecided on the library plan and uneasy about the secrecy surrounding the library’s appraisal. 

“It’s a difficult situation to be put into,” he said. “If I had the liberty to tell you and tell the public, I would…. It would be better for the voters to know, because they have a decision to make, as well.” 

“If you’re withholding information, it raises questions you don’t want voters to have,” said Ron Spinella, head of the Bayside Neighborhood Association, which co-hosted the public forum last month. “It could tip the scales the other way.”

That would be shame from Spinella’s point of view. “I’m inclined to want to see [the library relocation] work, because it will give further confidence to this community, to this neighborhood,” he said. “There’s a leap of faith with any of this.”


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