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Developmentally Challenged

City Councilman Wants to Know What Happened to the Proposal to Build a New Library in Highlandtown

Frank Klein
ANCHORS A-WHERE? The planned Southeast Baltimore branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library was supposed to break ground in 2003, and 2004, and 2005. . . . frank klein

By Stephen Janis | Posted 4/27/2005

When Councilman Jim Kraft (D-1st District) rose to speak at the end of the Baltimore City Council meeting on April 18, there was enough anger in his voice to wake the observers in the somnolent gallery. He didn’t want to discuss the general announcements or political miscellanea that usually fill the meeting’s final half-hour. Rather, he launched into a 10-minute rant about a missing library.

In 2000, the city put a ballot referendum before voters asking them to approve the construction of a new $8.5 million Southeast Baltimore anchor branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, to be built in Highlandtown. The library was supposed to be built in 2003, Kraft says, but for some reason it still has not materialized. He says he’s tried to get answers from the city about the project, but he’s not getting much response.

“They’ve already demolished the block and told us in 2003, 2004, and now 2005 that they were going to break ground,” Kraft said at the meeting. “We want answers as to when this is going happen. Somebody has to tell us what’s going on.”

The 35,000-50,000-square-foot library would be the first major addition to the Enoch Pratt library system in 30 years. The plans call for a computer lab, an expansive collection of Spanish-language texts to serve the area’s growing Hispanic population, a café, and a gift shop. A September 2004 Enoch Pratt press release characterized it as “the first of its kind in Baltimore and a model for library services in an urban community.”

Buildings at the corner of Conkling Street and Eastern Avenue were demolished to make way for the library in January 2004, but the site has remained vacant ever since. Kraft says he is miffed that a project he feels is “vital” to the redevelopment of the Highlandtown business district has been in limbo for so long. “We’re getting jerked around on this,” he says. “Somebody has to have the courage to tell us the truth.”

Enoch Pratt spokeswoman Mona Rock says that the construction schedule is out of the library system’s hands. “It’s not us, it’s the city,” she says. “We don’t have any control over the construction.”

Kraft tells CP that he has tried to ask the city what is causing the delay, but he gets mixed signals from different City Hall offices. He says that George Winfield, director of the city’s Department of Public Works, told him the library would be on the Board of Estimates meeting agenda by April 6, but Kraft says that “didn’t happen.” Further, the preliminary 2006 city budget includes a line that recommends delaying all activities “related to the opening of the Southeast Regional Library until 2007.”

Winfield says that the delays to the project thus far have not been the fault of DPW.

“Design issues are responsible for delays,” he says. “We want to be sensitive about the project’s impact on the community.” Winfield also cites “past funding problems” but would not elaborate, stating that “the funds for the library are locked in, otherwise we wouldn’t be advertising the project.”

To community leaders in Southeast Baltimore, the barren lot graced with a coming soon sign is a frustrating reminder of how important the project could be to the area’s economic vitality. “This project is crucial to the redevelopment of main street in Highlandtown,” says Marco Cocito, president of the Southeast Community Development Corp., a nonprofit organization that acts as a nexus for the area’s redevelopment efforts. “Studies show that libraries have broader economic impact than other types of projects. It’s a catalyst for growth.”

Like Kraft, Cocito says he is in the dark about the library’s construction schedule.

“I heard distributing rumors that the funding has gone elsewhere,” Cocito says. “But the disconcerting part is that all we have are rumors, not concrete information.”

Jackie Watts, chairwoman of the Community Advisory Committee for the Southeast Anchor Library, has been working on the project since 1994.

“People started investing in main street when the library was announced—it’s vitally important,” Watts says, putting the blame for the project’s delay on the city, which she says has not been active moving it forward. “It’s all this dancing with the city. Getting a contract out of Public Works is worse than pulling teeth. . . . They don’t have the political will to get it going. Let’s at least get a shovel in the ground so everyone can be happy.”

Local business owners are anxious to see the library built, but some are beginning to feel discouraged by the delays. Christine Glava Gluszcz, owner of Sun Your Buns tanning salon, says that local business owners have stopped planning on the library’s promised boost because they are “sick of waiting for it.”

But Kraft’s persistence with the city may pay off for Highlandtown yet: Just hours after City Paper made phone calls to DPW, the city Planning Department, and the Enoch Pratt Free Library for information, Kraft and Cocito say they received an e-mail from John Sondheim, the Pratt’s planning manager for the project. The e-mail contained a new construction schedule for the project in which Sondheim promised to, at the very least, have the bidding process for the library completed by May 25. If that happens, Winfield says, the groundbreaking could happen in September 2006, and the library could open some time in 2007.

Cocito says he found the news “encouraging.”

Kraft is still not overly optimistic. His response to that time line: “We’ve heard this before. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

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