Whose Library Is It Anyway?
Why the bond failed
by Eve Silberman
Despite a tenacious campaign, Ann Arborites voted not to build a new downtown library. The decline of print media, an increasingly suspicious electorate, and a woman haunted by a dream all played a role.
On election night, Ann Arbor District Library director Josie Parker didn't join the supporters gathered at the Real Seafood Company to watch the outcome of the vote on a new downtown library. Instead, she groomed her two horses while her husband came by with updates. When the bad news was announced, Parker, not one to wear her emotions on her sleeve, says only, "I was disappointed."
And so ended one of the most heated--and interesting--battles over a beloved local institution the city has seen. The "no" voters included people who had never voted for a tax increase, people who had until now always voted for bond issues, people who complained the facts didn't justify a new building, and a librarian who had a dream of falling debris.
The defeat shocked the library's elected board. "I thought we were making a case--and it was exciting" to voters, says Barbara Murphy. Like other board members, Murphy had eagerly anticipated creating a spacious "library for the twenty-first century," fitted for both enhanced computer technology and storage of print materials. Expanding the library's role as a meeting place, the new building would have had a cafeteria, a 400-seat auditorium, facilities to make films, and lots more space for the AADL's popular children's and family programs. Supporters also believed that a spectacular new building would enliven downtown--at a board meeting, trustee Jan Barney Newman envisioned an "architectural delight."
The board and Parker, who celebrated her tenth anniversary as director last spring, were confident they could deliver. They'd already completed three new, eco-friendly branches--Malletts Creek, Pittsfield, and Traverwood--on time and on budget. They'd also exhaustively documented the shortcomings of the downtown library back in 2007--before the recession hit and they put the project on hold.
ago, the library board decided the economy had improved enough to restart the project. It paid for a survey that found 61 percent of residents supported or leaned toward supporting a new library. After holding information sessions in June, the board voted unanimously to put a thirty-year, $65 million bond issue on the November ballot.
Ellie Serras, the outgoing, energetic former director of the Main Street Area Association, agreed to lead the campaign. Supporters--including former mayor Ingrid Sheldon, retired water commissioner Janis Bobrin, Zingerman's owner Paul Saginaw, retired educator Joetta Mial, and McKinley CEO Albert Berriz--spoke to civic groups, met one-to-one with friends and neighbors, and raised $71,000. They used part of the money to craft a superb website, ournewlibrary.com
, that showed the new branches, documented the problems with the existing building, and promised that replacing it would cost a typical homeowner "just a buck a week."
"A millage with organized opposition almost never passes," Washtenaw County Clerk Larry Kestenbaum remarked last summer. "The default vote for any tax increase is always no."
As late as mid-September, though, nobody would have called the opposition organized. While some individuals questioned the plan, they had no funding, no website, and no leader. But doubts were bubbling up--often in unexpected places.
When retired chemist Doug Jewett heard that "they were planning to tear the library down, I just had a rush of adrenaline," he says. An admirer of architect Alden Dow, who designed the first phase of the current building, Jewett sat outside the library for a couple of weeks, handing out cards inviting people to come to his house to discuss the issue.
Sheila Rice also got involved. After attending an informational meeting in June, the retired Washtenaw Community College librarian had a dream in which she saw piles of rubble coming down. The next day, she says, she walked into the building, looked at the walls, and thought, "This is just so solid." Rice
thought up a name--"LOL=Love Our Library"--and, like Jewett, registered a "ballot question committee." Soon she was hearing from Kathy Griswold.
A social worker and MBA, Griswold describes herself as an "advocate." A former schools trustee who helped defeat a schools millage three years ago, she is emerging as the person in Ann Arbor you'd least like to oppose whatever you're supporting. Griswold had several objections to the plan, but the main one was equity: she felt the bond would force people on the outskirts to pay for a downtown building few would use. Griswold soon found herself, by default, treasurer of a third group, "Protect Our Libraries." "I can order signs in my sleep," she says--and, soon 500 of them were dotting the city. She also mailed out 12,000 postcards to likely voters.
Rice spent about $200 of her own money, and Jewett $3,000 of his. Griswold spent almost $24,000. "Kathy Griswold got the real power," says Rice. "The No vote wouldn't have happened without her spending all the money."
Griswold says she put $7,000 on her credit card--part of it since repaid by other donors--and threw up a website, protectourlibraries.org
. It didn't mince words: "Protect our libraries from the $65 million bond. Demolition is wrong! The limited benefits are not worth the almost $130,000,000 costs over 30 years."
In a "frequently asked questions" section of their website, new library backers pointed out that the $130 million figure assumed an absurdly high interest rate. They also protested other "misinformation," including an anonymous "talking points" memo that claimed the planned auditorium was a conference center in disguise.
But the "yes" campaign faced more fundamental problems. To sell the new library, supporters had to convince people the existing one was essentially obsolete. While the website had a powerful testimonial to that effect from builder Bill Kinley, most of the problems were in systems like plumbing, air conditioning, and wiring that are invisible to users. They also had to sell voters on a new kind of library--one focused less on the printed word and more on computer terminals and meeting space.
"They used the bond vote as a referendum," says Rice, "on 'Shall we be a community center?'"
Voters rejected the bond issue by 45-55 percent. The margin was so decisive that Griswold thinks it might have gone down even without opposition.
In the aftermath, theories to explain the defeat included people's attachment to the existing building; hesitation about the cost; and "construction fatigue" after years of work on the Library Lane parking structure. But in hindsight, some think the project's biggest problem was its timing. "People still have one foot in the recession," says Realtor Kevin Duke, a millage supporter who now thinks the board should have waited longer to bring the project back.
Ex-mayor Sheldon thinks the absence of a daily newspaper also played a role. With less sustained coverage, supporters had fewer chances to answer objections--and heated anonymous online posts replaced the comparatively sober debate of signed letters to the editor.
It's not at all clear what a Plan B will be, since the trustees so counted on Plan A. The need for major repairs is undeniable--and Murphy, the board's treasurer, says they would almost certainly have to turn to voters to pay for them.
Says Murphy, sounding bewildered, "We'll lick our wounds and talk about what we want to do next."
---The following Calls & letters item appeared in the January 2013 Ann Arbor Observer:
Berriz and the library
“I was not involved in any way, shape or form,” Albert Berriz emailed. Our December feature on the defeat of the bond to build a new downtown library listed the McKinley CEO as one of the proposal’s supporters—and suggested that he had actively campaigned on its behalf.
“I offered [campaign leader] Ellie [Serras] a very specific letter of support which stated that historically AADL had been a good fiduciary of our funds,” Berriz explained. “My only goal was to support a close personal friend.
“My letter of support was as to AADL and not the project … For the record, I voted against the library.”
[Originally published in December, 2012.]