- Elizabeth Findell American-Statesman Staff
The opening date for Austin’s new Central Library has been pushed back again, to this fall at the earliest, dismaying City Council members who said they don’t know how to defend the project to constituents.
“It’s Groundhog Day,” said Council Member Ora Houston in a workshop last week, referring to the repeatedly vague guesses for completion. “That’s the response I get every time: That it’s ‘soon.’”
The new building has been under construction for about four years at 710 W. Cesar Chavez St., and previous estimates put the target opening day in May. At 200,000 square feet, it’s double the size of the library it’s replacing at Eighth and Guadalupe streets and includes features such as cooking demonstration space, a technology “petting zoo,” solar panels, a rainwater collection system, an event center and a restaurant.
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan expressed concern at last Wednesday’s workshop about the cost increases of the project, from the $90 million initially approved by voters to the final $125 million tab. He accused staff members of not taking his questions seriously and asked them to prepare a post-mortem analysis of the project.
“We cannot repeat this,” he said. “We have lost trust from the community to build the next project.”
Though the city asked for only $90 million in bond funding, a previous council approved the project at an estimated $120 million in 2013. Staff members noted that was due to a change in scope, not cost overruns. The council approved $5 million in cost increases in December.
“There was revisioning, is how I would describe it, of the library, so we could become a library of the future,” interim City Manager Elaine Hart told the council last week.
That “library of the future” is also the reason cited for the many delays the building has encountered. The library was first set to open last November, then this May. Now, the anticipated opening is six months from whenever the building is substantially completed, and staff members aren’t anticipating substantial completion beyond saying “soon.”
The six months is the amount of time it will take to move in furniture and books and to train staff members in how to operate the building systems. So the earliest the library could open, if construction is completed within the next couple of weeks, is October.
“We want to open this calendar year very badly, of course,” said John Gillum, facilities process manager for Austin libraries.
He attributed the delays to issues with the building’s automated fire safety systems, which he called complex due to its six floors and large atrium. Gillum said everything has been expected, but he called construction timelines in general “inherently reactive, and therefore fluid.”
The project may be delayed, but people are already making plans to rent out the library’s rooftop patio garden and various meeting spaces for events ranging from weddings to corporate galas. Amanda Gastler, who came onboard as the library’s event coordinator in October, said she’s had 42 inquiries about rentals, but isn’t formally contracting bookings until the building is complete.
“No one remembers the other library projects that came in later than expected or more expensive than expected,” Gillum said. “It may have been a bit of a concern at the time but, once it opens, people forget and start using their library.”