City-led renovations at the Free Library’s Cecil B. Moore branch face a budget deficit that threatens the inclusion of some basic new features.
Neighborhood stakeholders are aiming to partner with officials from Rebuild — the Kenney administration’s bond-backed program to renovate Philadelphia’s rec centers, parks, and libraries — to navigate the crunch for cash, and plan to take over aspects of the community engagement process.
“What we’re really fighting for is enough money to make the library great,” library worker Kate Goodman told Billy Penn. “Not just make it fairly functional.”
How much money is enough? Advocates say an additional $500k is the least that should be added to the project budget, which currently has just north of $4 million to spend, and they believe a lot more is due.
Challenges like this are complicated by how Rebuild has been represented, in the press and by staff, as a once-in-a-generation opportunity for renovations, said executive director Kira Strong.
“I think when Rebuild was conceptualized, it was really with the thinking of [making public places] ‘safe, clean and ready to use,’” Strong said. “I think Philadelphians’ expectation of Rebuild has grown to be much more than that. Not just these repairs or replacements but also a renovated, refreshed, beautiful welcoming site … and those budgets aren’t always the same as ‘safe, clean, ready to use.’”
Stakeholders in and around Cecil B. Moore Library say the site is too meaningful to not set aim for such high standards.
“This is an opportunity to change some of the things that we’ve known to be true about streets named after our legends who have done the hard work for our communities,” Cierra Freeman, organizing director of the Brewerytown-Sharswood Neighborhood Coalition (BSNC), told Billy Penn.
“Can we really make it relative to the work that Cecil B. Moore has done in this neighborhood and in the city?”
Amid real change, familiar budget problems surface for Rebuild
Initial site assessments in 2016 were used to generate a budget for the base scope of the Cecil B. More Library project.
Based on the idea of making the library a safe, accessible, healthy site, Rebuild’s portion was projected to be $1.9 million. Inflation in labor and construction costs made that unrealistic. Council President Darrell Clarke, in one of his last allocations as a public official, put another $2 million towards the project (it’s in his district), and a private donor pitched in $100k.
The current budget is $4.09 million with planned costs of $4.16 million. Rebuild’s planning estimates use a 20% cost differential for expenses and products that fluctuate with the market. Based on June estimates, the project has a deficit hovering between $313k-915k.
Funding in hand guarantees stabilizing fixes such as new electrical wiring, an ADA-compliant entry and bathroom, and a much-needed new HVAC system. Transformational, everyone involved acknowledges — but stakeholders are seeking more.
“Everybody should do everything in their power to see that this library is up to par with any other library in this darn city,” Karen Asper-Jordan, president of the Cecil B. Moore Philadelphia Freedom Fighters, told Billy Penn.
Asper-Jordan, who said she organized with Moore himself when she was a teen, believes the fixes don’t stack up to changes seen elsewhere in the Free Library system, from the 21st Century Libraries Initiative to other Rebuild sites.
Some proposed repairs hovering precariously on the bubble of the budget aren’t exactly extravagant, like repainting the foyer or getting a new circulation desk.
The budgeted scope doesn’t make the building fully ADA-compliant. And many of the amenities that would depend upon increased fundraising to implement — like glass partitions to carve out a dedicated teen space in one of the downstairs rooms, or new flooring — are things community members suggested when surveyed. New art and history displays seem entirely out of reach.
What’s in and what’s out for the Cecil B. Moore Library
What the current confirmed funding can afford
- New electrical wiring
- New lighting fixtures
- A restored ceiling
- An ADA-compliant bathroom and entry
- A new HVAC system
- Refreshed windows, facade, and signage
What may be attainable, if market conditions allow
- A refurnished kitchen with new equipment
- A fresh paint job for the foyer
- A new circulation desk
What will only be possible with successful fundraising
- An ADA-compliant elevator for downstairs access
- Glass partitions to carve out a dedicated Teen Space in one of the downstairs rooms
- New flooring
- Furniture for the library’s adult wing
- A sprinkler
An initial budget that doesn’t cover all costs is fairly standard at Rebuild locations, per executive director Strong. Site by site, project users decide what products and materials, of a higher or lower grade, are affordable as different funding sources are pursued and attained.
“I think the disparity from some sites to others can be quite different, and Cecil B. Moore is probably one of the more stable,” Strong said.
The search for more funds has largely revolved around the commonwealth’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, a grant program upon which Rebuild has increasingly relied. But it’s unclear when the next round of RACP applications will open, per Rebuild staff. Harrisburg budget negotiations, which played out for a month past the deadline, may have played a part in the ambiguity, but the program isn’t on a regular timeline.
“Sometimes there’s one round a year, sometimes there’s two rounds,” said Strong. “It’s really not a very structured opportunity.”
Given the timeline for the library’s renovations, with construction slated to begin this winter, that could mean grant-dependent aspects of the renovation are split into a second phase, outside of Rebuild’s budgeted agenda.
Cecil B. Moore library, for young and old
Walking through the library, library worker Kate Goodman pointed out areas of concern — rooms in the basement deal with leaky ceilings, a staff bathroom with flooding issues, lackluster lighting, and a smaller book collection than one might imagine.
Goodman, a AFSCME DC 47 Local 2187 member, began working at the library in February of this year, and has joined her coworkers in trying to spruce up the location.
Beyond some standard tables, furniture in the adult wing was made available through Drexel University donations of used chairs and tables, with art and document displays, sculptures, and artwork adorning the walls.
The children’s section is a highlight and has seen the most notable change in the last few years — a 10-ft. rock wall was installed in 2018. Programming for kids is constant, with multiple weekly activities.
For teens, there’s a nook framed by shelves in the adult wing, populated with young adult titles. The preferred place to congregate is downstairs in a separate room with a smartboard that doubles as a movie projector and gaming space.
Events for adults are more sparse, usually tied into holidays. In May, the Cecil B. Moore Philadelphia Freedom Fighters — who speak about their experiences in Philly civil rights struggles when invited — partnered with the library to hold Law Day, a story-sharing event convening those with personal stories and records of the community’s 1965 campaign to desegregate Girard College.
“It brought people that had not been to the library in years, and it brought people out that demonstrated at Girard College,” said Asper-Jordan, the group’s president.
“It was a day of reflection, it was a day of truth telling, and it was a day of remembrance.”
The kind of people that event drew out — longtime residents grounded in the community that currently don’t frequent the library — are part of the crowd stakeholders want to organize around the library’s Rebuild project, as well as the neighborhood’s youth.
A novel attempt to forge tighter community connections — and organize
Rebuild’s community engagement meetings typically discuss factors set in stone: Insights from surveys and stakeholder conversations, details on the project timeline and scope, planning for a temporary closure, per Amanda Colon-Smith, Rebuild community engagement director.
For Freeman, of the BSNC, that prompts a key question: “How much of the community engagement work can truly be authentic if there are things that have already been decided?”
As funds for some key community priorities for the site are still in the air, Cecil B. Moore library stakeholders want to avoid replicating the uneven flow of information that shaped initial conversations.
“Community members are adamant that we want to control the [engagement] process, we can take care of each other, and we will share data back with you that’s pertinent to this process,” Freeman said.
When members of the community stated their intent to take over aspects of the community engagement effort — partly informed by a wariness of providing neighborhood demographic data — they had a compensated role in mind.
It’s an idea Rebuild is open to, and working towards.
The BSNC is working with Rebuild and the firm brought on to run community engagement at other sites, Portfolio Associates, to hammer out a memorandum of understanding for paid community engagement work.
Organizers — officially, the BSNC, as it coordinates members of the Friends of the Cecil B. Moore Library and the Brewerytown Sharswood Community Civic Association — will be taught about the decision-making and engagement process for public redevelopment projects as part of the burgeoning agreement.
“We’re trying to find that middle ground where we can still collaborate with them without them having to have a city contract,” said Colon-Smith. “We’re exploring the edges of that intersection between working with [community members], but also helping them to grow their skill set to do this kind of work.”
For the stakeholders’ part, they’re preparing to get more involved as time goes on, ensuring that there isn’t a deficit for the initial project scope and seeking enough funds to go beyond “safe, clean, and healthy” — they say the wait has been too long to establish that floor and move on.
Asper-Jordan, for one, eagerly awaits the opportunity to inform and organize with the rest of the neighborhood that this change will bring.
“We believe we’re going to make a difference,” she said.
“We’re going to get the things that we want because we’re standing firm and standing tall in our convictions.”