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    City officials take a hard line on library plans

    The mayor urges commissioners to insist on changes to the design to improve accessibility.

    By BRIAN MOORE

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published July 13, 2001


    CLEARWATER -- One day after engaging in a back-and-forth exchange with a New York architect over the design of a new library, Mayor Brian Aungst told his commission colleagues the city now should insist on design changes.

    Specifically, the mayor wants the architects to add an elevator and an accessible staircase near the main entrance. Current plans have an emergency exit stairway near the entrance, and the only full-service elevator and stairwell at the opposite end of the building.

    Patrons, especially seniors, should not have to walk the length of the building to go upstairs, Aungst points out.

    "It's not like Disney World, where you get off a ride and have to walk through stores to get out," Aungst said. "We're not merchandising anything. It's a library."

    Commissioner Hoyt Hamilton said Thursday he feels the same way.

    "It would take very little creativity to be able to do that (add the stairway and elevator)," Hamilton said. "The last time I checked, we're the customer, we're the one writing a check."

    Recalling Wednesday night's exchange, when several city commissioners pointedly questioned the architect on design elements, Hamilton said he now expects the firm to heed the commission's concerns.

    "I don't think we were being unrealistic," said Hamilton, "and I think that may have been a part of the mayor's frustration. They didn't tell us it can't be done, they were saying they didn't want to."

    In reference to the elevator, he added: "If they're coming back and don't have anything to present, they better not be expecting a check. If they came back and said, "We can't do it' or "It can't be done' without concrete proof and reasoning why . . . maybe there's somebody out there that can do it."

    The city paid Robert A.M. Stern Architects of New York to design the library. Stern, who has an international reputation, did not attend Wednesday, but was represented by colleague Alex Lamis. He said Stern has visited Clearwater many times for this project and had substantial input in the design. "This is a Robert Stern signature building," said Lamis proudly.

    At one point, he told commissioners if they didn't like the current design, he could go back and design a "bland" building.

    Aungst, who also questioned the proposed, sweeping west-side canopy, said he was frustrated by the architect's lament that doing without the canopy would mean totally redesigning the building. A completely new design would have to go back before the public for review and feedback.

    "This is what we're elected to do; we're public officials," Aungst said. "Yes, we'd take it back to the public, but I don't think it would slow the process down that much."

    To move or add an elevator also would mean a total redesign, Lamis said Wednesday. It was unclear Thursday what modifications he plans to make before reporting back to the commission in 60 days.

    By Thursday, Lamis would only say, "We're going to look at all of the issues."

    He would not say whether an elevator would be placed near the main entrance.

    When asked if Stern was insulted that the building's overall concept drew criticism, he said after a long hesitation, "I don't have any comment to that." Stern could not be reached.

    About that canopy . . .

    At one point during Wednesday's meeting, Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst asked why the canopy was included in the design.

    Alex Lamis of Robert A.M. Stern Architects said: "It's an aesthetic reason rather than functional. We liked it better than a flat roof. . . . I think the sweep goes back to the Romans and it's historically associated with Spanish architecture. It's an artistic judgment that this is an appropriate style for this site."

    Moments later, Aungst asked how the design relates to Clearwater's "traditional downtown," saying: "I've got a concern about that. Here you've got Harbour View Center on one side, and then . . . this cutting edge architecture next to it. We're talking about Clearwater, Fla., here, not New York City."

    Lamis replied: "We should be looking forward, as well as backward. We did think a lot about the context of Clearwater. . . . There is no overriding architectural theme to downtown."

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