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    A Times Editorial

    Plot twists bedevil cities, but libraries come through

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published October 24, 2001

    Who would have thought that a decision to build a new public library could bring such complications?

    The city of Clearwater learned just a few months ago how messy the process can get. Largo is just finding out.

    Clearwater officials thought they were doing something really special for the community when they decided they wanted world-famous New York architect Robert A.M. Stern to design the new main library on the downtown waterfront. What could be more wonderful than getting a bigger, better library and an architectural showplace in one package?

    But when many Clearwater residents and even some officials didn't like Stern's design -- in fact, residents made it the butt of jokes -- Clearwater commissioners were in a quandary. How could they tell Robert A.M. Stern, "We don't like your work. Change it, or we're going to hire someone else"?

    The dilemma made commissioners squirm for months.

    More recently, Largo commissioners got in a muddle over architectural services for that city's new library, which will be built in Largo Central Park.

    The commissioners had appointed a committee of city residents to review the architectural firms vying for the job of designing the new library. The committee did its job and recommended Collman & Karsky Associates of Dunedin.

    But when the City Commission interviewed the competing firms, commissioners were taken with Eugene Aubry, lead designer for Hoyt Architects of Sarasota and designer of Sarasota's signature library. They liked Aubry's exuberance and obvious love of libraries. He seemed to be their man. They decided in a straw poll to go with Aubry and Hoyt, despite the committee's recommendation.

    But then Largo Commissioner Harriet Crozier did her homework. She learned that newspaper stories had been written about Aubry's conflicts with Sarasota residents over his design of that city's library. In fact, one story quoted Aubry as saying that critics of his design were "crazy."

    When the Times wrote about what Crozier found, Aubry said he wouldn't take it lying down if commissioners showed him the door and chose someone else. He hinted that he had "legal friends."

    What a mess. Who would have expected library building projects to get so complicated even before the land was cleared?

    To their credit, both cities found a way to work it out.

    Clearwater commissioners gulped and gave a list of their concerns and the community's concerns about the design to a Stern associate. Stern himself then came to Clearwater to meet with the commissioners, and in a public session that was easier and friendlier than anyone had expected, he showed the commissioners how he had modified his design to address several of their concerns. He explained in a good-humored way why a few others couldn't be changed or didn't need to be. Commissioners were delighted with the modifications, approved the design, and everyone went away happy. End of crisis.

    Largo commissioners decided -- wisely -- that it was a bad idea to hire an architect who would not be open to suggestions or criticism about his design. They voted to go with the first choice of the resident committee, Collman & Karsky of Dunedin. This time, the city staff will do a detailed background check before the commission takes a final vote on the contract with the architect.

    Public libraries are beloved institutions. When one is being built, everyone wants it to be special and everyone wants to feel a part of the project. The problems that have arisen in Clearwater and Largo are indications of the importance placed on libraries and the desire to make planning for them an inclusive process. The problems were bumps in the road, but the two cities seem to have navigated them just fine.

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