Mayor Marty Walsh, in a meeting held at the South End library on December 8, responded positively to efforts by the library's Friends' group to renovate and redesign the branch library and its adjacent Library Park, which is used extensively for children's programming and the popular summer Jazz & Blues concerts by Pat Loomis and his Friends. The meeting, the third annual "conversation with the Mayor" on a number of topics sponsored by the South End Forum, brought Mayor Walsh in direct visual contact with the cramped condition of the branch, where as little as 4,000 square feet is divided between children and adults, many of them homeless, a number of them suffering from mental health and addiction problems. "I saw it," the Mayor said when the Friends of the South End Library (FOSEL) pointed out the difficulty for the staff to manage the adult population seated in close proximity to the children's room. The South End's teenage patrons, moreover, have no space available to them at all at this branch.
As mayor, Walsh has been very supportive of the long-neglected Boston Public Library system, and was one of the state's Boston legislators who in 2010 halted the attempted closing of up to a third of BPL branches proposed by his predecessor, Mayor Thomas Menino. After his election, Walsh funded the massive, more than $80-million renovation of the Copley Library's Johnson building, then in its planning stage. The building, redesigned by William Rawn Associates (who also renovated the outstanding Cambridge Public Library) reopened to rave reviews last summer. The Walsh administration also put in place a more than $90- million five-year capital plan to bring BPL's branch libraries into the 21st Century. As a result, for example, the Jamaica Plain branch library will reopen this spring with a $10-million overhaul, including a new wing; other branches, including those at Adams Street, Dudley, Parker Hill and Roslindale have substantial capital projects and/or renovation plans underway, as well. Recently added to the list by BPL President David Leonard were long-overdue projects related to library services in Chinatown and Uphams Corner.
But, as FOSEL pointed out at the South End Forum meeting, the South End library is not yet on the current list for capital improvements. "You will be," Mayor Walsh said, adding he would bring it up with BPL's David Leonard, with whom FOSEL has been in discussion about the South End library's urgent needs since earlier this year. In addition, Mayor Walsh promised he would bring up Library Park's planned redesign with Parks Department Commissioner, Christopher Cook, especially important in the effort to resolve the sticky question as to who actually "owns" Library Park, the BPL or the Parks Department. In the past, the lack of clarity about ownership has been one of the factors that led to the lack of capital investment or repair of the small but prominently located park.
Under the current plan proposed by FOSEL, an immediate reconfiguration of the ground floor would open up the adult area by moving bookcases to the side; situate computers at the back wall with a library-wide electrical grid upgrade to replace the warren of electrical extension cords; turn the area underneath the stairs into a space for teenagers; and create more diversified seating arrangements for all library patrons. Subsequent renovation phases would build on the immediate reconfiguration, as part of a capital plan that would be subject to public hearings and suggestions. Library Park's redesign would also require a public process, with the aim of uniting the library's functions with park usage.