CMU study that spurred library service cuts released today
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Pittsburgh's Achilles heel -- its declining population -- has undermined the Carnegie Library's ability to maintain its system of 19 branches. Coupled with declining public revenues, inflation and the recession, the nature of a shrinking city spurred the library's board of trustees last month to order the closing of four branches and the merger of two in 2010.
The action was based on factors contained in a study by Carnegie Mellon University's Center for Economic Development prepared for the library last year. That study will be made public today when the library board releases it to the Allegheny Regional Asset Board, as part of the library's defense for the closings. The Asset District is the library's major source of funds -- $17.6 million this year and the same amount next year.
The board's decision has stirred community protests, moved local politicians to propose financial solutions and prompted the RAD board to re-examine the library's financial predictions. The board has asked auditors to submit bids next month to conduct such an analysis.
The targeted branches are Lawrenceville, Hazelwood, West End and Beechview; selected to merge in a new location are Knoxville and Carrick. The CMU study also considered the South Side branch for closing, but it was spared. All are in neighborhoods with declining populations, a drop that has pushed operating costs per visit above $4.
In comparison, the Main Library's cost is $2.20 per visit, Squirrel Hill, $2.30, and the Downtown branch, $2.60.
West End, one of the two smallest branches, has the highest cost at $9.60 per visit. The other branches' costs are: Lawrenceville, $5.70; Beechview, $5.30; Knoxville, $4.80; Hazelwood, $4.80; and Carrick, $4.60.
The Mount Washington branch on Grandview Avenue, the twin building of the West End, is also among the most expensive at $5.30 per visit. The board plans to close the 1900 building and open a new facility near Virginia Avenue.
Another factor is the physical condition of the buildings. West End, Mount Washington and Beechview are not compliant with federal handicap access standards while Lawrenceville and Knoxville are in partial compliance. There's no air conditioning at Lawrenceville, West End and Mount Washington and all three buildings require heating system improvements.
The CMU study also compared Pittsburgh's library system with 81 systems nationwide and found that Pittsburgh has one branch for every 23,500 people. The national average one per 45,000.
"In and of themselves, comparisons on branch per capita cannot tell us what to do," the study concluded. "At best, rather than proof of redundancy, (the library's) low population per facility should instead be viewed as a 'blinking indicator light' warranting further investigation."
"Further investigation" of the library's situation became impossible following the country's sudden economic crisis, said Louis Testone, chairman of the board's finance committee. "The economy forced our hand and we had to act," he said last week.
In taking its steps to downsize, the board bypassed the CMU's suggested option of relocating its Lawrenceville operation to a new site on Butler Street and voted to cease operations there entirely after the renovated East Liberty branch reopens in the summer.
In leaving Lawrenceville, the board argued that its residents could use the upgraded East Liberty facility two miles away. However, in its market research, the CMU study found that 39 percent of Lawrenceville residents are without cars. The Port Authority Transit bus route requires those residents to climb the steep hill between Butler Street and Penn Avenue to catch a bus to East Liberty.
It also rejected the merger option for West End and Sheraden branches, opting to stay with the current Sheraden location and abandon the historic, yet costly building on Wabash Avenue. The study suggested that West End branch users, many from the Crafton Heights neighborhood, could use libraries in Green Tree or Crafton.
There were no library alternatives for Hazelwood residents, the study said. Not only were there no "convenient transit routes" through the neighborhood, but also, 34 percent of households were without a car. Justifications for eliminating the branch, open at two locations since 1899, included Hazelwood's expected continual population decline, little prospect of improved business conditions and lack of public schools.
The Carnegie Library board meets next month to finalize details of its cutbacks as proposals from city and state officials to increase funding continue to be suggested.
"We've exhausted all of our options," said chairwoman Jacqui Fiske Lazo, "but if anybody has any proposals, all I can say is, 'Show us the money.' "
First Published November 3, 2009 12:00 am