THE NEW MARK TWAIN NEIGHBORHOOD LIBRARY
FROM DREAM TO REALITY: 1958 – 2007
A 50 year old dream was realized at the grand opening of the new Mark Twain Neighborhood Library in 2007 with three “firsts” for Long Beach :
· 1st 21st century library
· 1st neighborhood library to be built in over 35 years
· 1st LEED (“green”) public building (LEED = Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)
Among the many dignitaries attending the opening was Mark Twain himself. He rarely leaves the Elysian Fields but made an exception for this very special occasion.
The story of how the library came to be built is full of twists and turns with many challenges along the way but seemingly always guided by a guardian angel.
A new library to replace the old branch had been a dream for over 50 years, since the library was carved out of a Parks and Recreation facility in 1958 as a “temporary” facility. The library was so “temporary” that it didn’t even have a public bathroom! Patrons had to use restrooms in the adjacent park with library staff providing escort services to youngsters!
The population had grown from a small, largely African-American community of 12,000 in 1970 to a year 2000 population of over 60,000. The ethnic breakdown in 2000 was 54% Hispanic, 22% Asian (Cambodian, Vietnamese), 22% Caucasian and 15% African-American. The population was also young, with more than 44% of residents 19 years of age or younger. It was also one of the poorest neighborhoods in Long Beach with the lowest educational level. A majority were learning English as a second language. Neighborhood problems include high crime, gang activity, a high poverty level, unemployment and low educational levels. The old 2,100 square foot library was woefully inadequate to meet the needs of the community for educational resources and services.
The City had committed to projects to revitalize the area, and the replacement of the neighborhood branch library was identified as a key component in the Central Redevelopment Project Area Plan. But the biggest challenge for over 40 years had been the lack of a funding source for a new library. The Redevelopment Agency could provide about $2 million towards a total project estimated at over $10 million!
But opportunity knocked at the door for California public libraries. The voters of California in their wisdom passed the “California Reading and Literacy Improvement and Public Library Construction and Renovation Bond Act of 2000” (Library Bond Act, Prop 14). A total of $ 350,000,000 was to be allocated statewide. The Library Bond Act required a 35 percent local match or $3,414,987 of the $10,062,105 total estimated project cost. Because of the available funding, many jurisdictions in California submitted applications.
The application process took about two years to complete. Many city departments made significant contributions to the lengthy and difficult application process: the Redevelopment Agency, which purchased the new site and provided supplementary funding; Neighborhood Services, which helped us to get broad community participation, Planning and Building, Public Works, Finance, City Attorney’s Office, Video Communications, Police and Fire, the City Manager’s Office and the LBUSD.
Our own library staff is to be highly commended for their efforts: the entire Mark Twain staff, especially Sue Taylor and Hope Troy, who were with us the whole nine yards providing ideas, community contacts, and the critical “reality check;” Chris Burcham for her input to the youth services program; Laurel Prysiazny for crafting an outstanding technology plan, and Rubi Sobieski, who assisted with formatting and packaging the entire application. Kudos above all go to Nancy Messineo, who provided outstanding leadership to the entire project, pulling it together piece by piece over a two year period. Nancy was so commited to this project that she and her husband, Frank, drove to Sacramento with this precious cargo to deliver it directly to the State Library. Nancy told me that the application was never out of their sight and indeed spent the nights in their motel room. My contribution to the welfare of our application was to sprinkle it with holy water from Lourdes, which a staff member (Claudine Burnett) had given to me some time ago. Our project was indeed blessed!
Nancy and I traveled to Sacramento on October 28, 2003, to participate in the
hearing held by the State to decide which of the 66 project proposals to fund. This represented a milestone in our quest for the funding we required. Every jurisdiction brought several community representatives to present their case. We had lined up two prominent community representatives and felt we were in good hands. But on the morning of October 28, I received a phone call from one of our contingent saying that she would not be able to make it because she needed to help her sister evacuate in the San Diego fire. But we still had one person on board. When we got to Sacramento we went out for breakfast and prepared for the afternoon meeting. As we were about to leave the restaurant, our remaining community representative pulled me aside and with an embarrassed look informed me that his pants zipper had broken! How could he speak to the Board in the presence of over 100 people with an open zipper! But we were not about to be foiled in our quest for funding by a broken zipper. I turned to the concierge at one of the prominent hotels, who provided the location of a tailor in the area. Thirty minutes later the problem had been resolved, and we were prepared for battle.
The California Public Library Construction and Renovation Board was meeting in Sacramento to consider 66 applications for state matching grants. Our application was one of only 13 projects to be given an “outstanding” rating. The Board deliberated for about five hours and ultimately awarded grants to 16 projects including ours. The state grant of $6.3 million represented 65 percent of our $10.1 million total project cost. The remaining 35 percent of the local match was covered by the Redevelopment Agency ($2.1 million) and the City’s general fund. As we boarded the plane to return to Long Beach with a sigh of relief after nearly missing our flight, I called Mayor O’Neill with the great news. It had been quite a day.
Back in Long Beach we set about implementing the plan that would culminate in a new library. Prior to construction seven school and community meetings were conducted about the proposed project. Spanish and Khmer translators helped to facilitate these meetings. Additionally, interviews were held with a wide range of community leaders, classrooms were visited and a multi-lingual written community survey was conducted. About 400 community members provided input to the project at various stages.
Weekly construction meetings were held in a trailer on site with representatives from the Department of Public Works, the Library, Swinerton Builders, CWA Architects, Parsons3D-I and Totum. As the Director of Library Services, I always looked forward to these meetings because they were highly productive, well run and a lot of fun. A “can-do” spirit prevailed, and there was always a lot of energy and passion in the room. At one point in our discussion about our “green” building,” I found myself inspired to advocate for a waterless urinal!
Everyone gave 150% all the time. This was truly a “dream team.” We had an ambitious timeline and solid funding. The planets were in alignment. But then came the bolt out of the blue. The price of steel began to skyrocket since the Chinese were on a building spree for the Olympic Games. The State had committed all of the Bond Act funding, and basically told us we had three options. We would have to find the additional money (about $2 million), or value-engineer the project or abandon the project. I was able to persuade the City Manager and the Director of Public Works that it would take a year or more to value engineer the project, by which time prices would have gone up again, and we would still need more funding. Very importantly, the public would have to wait an additional 20 months for the library to be completed. My colleagues agreed, and we were able to find the money to do the project as planned. Yet another challenge overcome in realizing the dream.
The time from the ground-breaking in May 2006 to the completion of construction and the grand opening in August 2007 was a record 16 months! The project came in on time and under budget! This was a herculean achievement given the many entities and partners involved and the magnitude of coordination required.
As the new library began to take shape, excitement in the community grew. The Long Beach Public Library Foundation initiated a fundraising campaign to establish a $1,000,000 endowment to support the Family Learning Center and literacy programs.
Building a new library is every library director’s dream. In this case I was fortunate to have worked with a dream team on a project that everyone agreed would serve as an inspiration to the community. The new Mark Twain Neighborhood Library is a state-of-the-art community center for information, education, recreation and technology. It would become more than a library. Over the past ten years it has become a landmark, a community and cultural anchor and a symbol of civic pride in an emerging community, which is the most diverse in Long Beach. From the day the doors opened, the new library began to create a synergy, which is transforming the neighborhood. It has truly become a beacon of hope for the residents of the Anaheim Corridor.