At long last Renton will have back its beloved downtown library over the Cedar River as opening day is Saturday, Aug. 22.
With the new building’s long journey nearing completion, officials at both the King County Library System and the City of Renton reflected on the process that ultimately saved the iconic facility.
KCLS expects the project to come in at or under budget, but some financial information is still forthcoming as final details of the construction are still being reconciled in the budget. The overall budget was $11.8 million, with the City of Renton paying $10.4 million and KCLS paying $1.4 million.
When asked if anything suffered in the city’s budget as a result of doing this renovation, Mayor Denis Law said that once the renovated Highlands and downtown libraries are paid off, the money will revert back to the general fund for other city projects.
“In terms of the budget, the city agreed that we would dedicate the amount of money we were spending annually for limited library services to build two new facilities, if voters decided to contract services with KCLS,” which voters did in 2010, Law said.
It’s also been three years since 76 percent of Renton residents voted to keep the downtown library over the Cedar River in a renovated building. It was originally expected to complete in late 2012 or early 2013 at a site near the Renton Piazza. But that decision by the City Council sparked much controversy in the community and eventually led to the Aug. 7, 2012, special election, which decided the location of the library.
In hindsight, KCLS Director Gary Wasdin said the project “is the perfect example of slowing down a project for good reason.”
Although Wasdin took over as the library system’s director in 2015, he still has insight on the project. He replaced former Director Bill Ptacek, who weathered all of the downtown Renton Library issue since the city annexed into the KCLS system in 2010.
“The concerns of residents were clear leading up to a public vote that overwhelmingly wanted the library to remain in its current location,” Wasdin said. “This added significant time to restart the planning and design process and to locate a temporary site to use while the library was closed for renovation.”
Although Wasdin notes that the timeline is later than originally planned, he said, “it was certainly worth the delay to ensure that this beautiful library will continue to serve Renton for many many years to come.”
Law is also pleased with the results, although looking back he said there are things the city would have done differently.
“When a case was made for a downtown location and we were wrestling with predictions that building a new library over the river could cost much more based on shoreline regulations, the council opted to move the facility,” he said. “Today, I would encourage a much wider public process to determine the wishes of the residents while also seeking some definitive costs for the public to consider.”
“Even though the process was controversial, the city council ultimately made the decision to maintain the library at its current location to meet the desires of our residents,” he said.
The mayor went on to remind that there was similar controversy when the library over the Cedar River was proposed with the teardown of the popular Carnegie Library downtown.
“Residents understandably get very attached to their libraries and deserve to play a big role in the decision-making prior to making significant changes,” Law said.
He likes what he’s seen of the newly renovated downtown Renton Library, remarking on the views it now offers of the river and surrounding area.
“This will be a wonderful public amenity for generations to come,” Law said.
So what did Renton get for the $18 million worth of bonds issued to construct the Highlands – also expected to open soon – and the downtown libraries?
First and foremost the views of the Cedar River and Liberty Park have been enhanced. There is now floor-to-ceiling glass windows on the majority of the building, capturing the view, which was deemed important to area residents. Shelving and furniture has also been configured in a way as not to block the views.
“There’s lots of furniture along the windows for people to just find a really nice space and sit down and read or use a computer,” said John Sheller, library cluster manager.
Speaking of computers, there are expected to be between 46 and 48 total new computers for public use. That’s more than double the previous amount. There are also more power outlets and USB ports for patrons to bring their own devices.
Getting power and data throughout a building that spans a river was one of the biggest challenges of the project, according to Sheller.
“In a different setting, we’d run the power just right up through the floor,” he said. “With this set-up, we actually ran more of it through the ceiling.”
Library designers and staff are hoping patrons will “ignore” the conduit tubes for the power cords that hang from the ceiling, allowing it to fade into the background.
But the electrical was not the only challenge presented due to the project’s unique location over the river.
“I wasn’t involved in the project early on, but just the whole working with so many entities to make the project come together; being over a salmon-spawning river added layers of oversight and agencies that had to approve the project,” Sheller said.
Also among the new features inside, teens now have dedicated space and there is a fish bowl-like public meeting room, which offers even more views of Liberty Park. There is also a new section that will feature Renton history materials, including microfilm of historical copies of newspapers, where visitors can read and print materials.
One percent of the construction budget is also dedicated to public art, including the colorful glass pieces over the children’s section by artist Benjamin Moore.
There are more opportunities for kids to get excited about picture books as shelving has been designed to face more of those books outwards for young patrons to see, according to Sheller.
“It will be pretty spectacular right when you walk in,” he said.
Area residents will get their chance to decide what they think of the new space Saturday at the ribbon-cutting ceremony and celebration. The event begins at 9:30 a.m., with a barbecue scheduled for 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., in Liberty Park, hosted by the City of Renton.