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Normal library asbestos removal project to cost millions

Darren Schretter, a principal in the firm Studio GC, briefed Normal Public Library board members, town staff, and several town council members Wednesday about the extent of asbestos contamination in the library building
Charlie Schlenker
Darren Schretter, a principal with the architecture firm StudioGC, briefed Normal Public Library board members, town staff, and several council members Wednesday about the extent of asbestos contamination in the library building.

It will be expensive to remove asbestos from the Normal Public Library.

Estimates range from $3.5 million to more than $5 million if other improvements are done at the same time. Those numbers came out of a library board work session also attended by town staff and several town council members on Wednesday.

It is not a hard estimate, said consultants, because some of the figures do not consider the last year of inflation and continuing increases in prices for construction materials in particular.

Several tests have shown no cancer-causing asbestos fibers in the air of the library, but doing nothing is not an option. Darren Schretter, a principal of the Chicago-based architecture firm StudioGC, said there is still significant liability involved.

"Our company thinks it's important enough to do something and to do it quickly," said Schretter.

Asbestos-laden fireproofing flakes off structural beams in the boiler room of the Normal Public Library.
Charlie Schlenker
Asbestos-laden fireproofing flakes off structural beams in the boiler room of the Normal Public Library.

Library staff first learned of the asbestos in the 1974 section of the building during bathroom renovations in 2020 when the library was closed during peak COVID. There is no asbestos in the other part of the building constructed in 1992. Schretter said asbestos is in fireproofing that is flaking off structural beams. It's also in particulates tested inside ducts.

"Some of this duct work goes in behind brick walls as it travels from floor to floor, or it's embedded in floors through registers," he said.

That complicates removing or sealing off ducts. He said duct work cannot be cleaned sufficiently. The cancer-causing fibers also are in drywall joining compound.

"A full abatement means essentially tearing everything in the 1974 building down to its studs, removing everything out of there and rebuilding that area of the building from scratch," said Schretter.

There are parts of the building the firm could not access to determine whether they contain asbestos that would have to be torn out for a full abatement as well, such as areas behind stairwell brick walls and a vaulted ceiling on the south side of the building.

The presence of asbestos has prevented the library from changing lighting, prevented changes to the computer network and Wi-Fi signals within the building, and complicated roof repairs.

Schretter's firm did not recommend a partial abatement that would cost less than $3.5 million, suggesting spending money on a building that still has asbestos prevents improvements being made, continues potential liability, and potentially leaves the building unsellable.

"My gut feeling is to go for full removal. You just need to get rid of the asbestos. That's reality," said town council member Kathleen Lorenz.

If the library board chooses a full abatement and wants to add more modern amenities, such as a maker space and freshening the newer portion of the building at the same time, it could cost more than $5 million, said Schretter.

"It is a significant expenditure to keep a building that did not meet the needs of the community as of five years ago," said library board chair Beth Robb.

Library officials said a rough estimate of the value of the building is in the low $3 million range. Schretter said a new building of the same 44,000 square feet in size would cost significantly more than $5 million-plus for abatement and refreshing the building. Library designs also have changed since the 1970s, and even the 1990s when the Normal Library added to the structure.

"The traditional way of displaying books in long rows is not as effective today," said Schretter. "A merchandising approach requires more space."

Schretter also noted the Normal library does not have a lot of natural light, a feature that is prized in current libraries, along with light and airy environments.

"It lacks vibrancy," he said, adding meeting space also is configured very differently than NPL uses it now.

Discussion about new library building

"There has been dialogue about a potential new library building (south of the train tracks in Uptown) but over time that hope has faded," said Robb.

Library director John Fischer said a 2017 study showed communities with populations comparable to Normal should have library facilities with about 100,000 square feet of space.

"A 100,000-square-foot building is not possible at present," said Normal City Manager Pam Reece.

Reece said that in deciding which level of project to pursue, the library board should consider future plans and gauge how much time the dollars spent will buy.

Fischer said staff could make some adjustments in layout to create more open and flexible space, that would not be major renovations. Fischer said he preferred a 10-15 year solution.

"A refresh, but not go crazy. We don't have the dollars to go crazy," he said.

It's possible the library foundation could help with the potential increment of the project above the $3.5 million mark that would include improvements.

"There has been discussion on the foundation board to support some of the elements of the proposal that would be tangible for a donor. We would discuss that," said Lynn Potts, foundation board president.

So far, Potts said the most attractive option she has heard for such donations is a maker space.

Schretter said at the end of the time the abatement project buys the library, the building may have value, but it is more likely a new owner would tear it down and put up a new 5-7 story structure. He said the location is attractive and well situated near both the Illinois State University campus and Uptown.

From time to time, ISU has expressed interest in the location, for instance. Schretter said it could even be possible for a public-private partnership to form and keep the library where it is, perhaps on the first two floors of a new structure. Expanding the current facility upward is not an option, he said, because the foundations and structural supports were not built to those standards.

A survey of public opinion about potential library locations has shown the preferred site is in Uptown South, but the current location ranks ahead of all other options other than south of the tracks.

"We need to be as transparent as we can, to explain to the public why we will spend a lot of money to remain the same size," said Robb.

The library board has not signaled a timetable to make a choice on the level of abatement and improvement, but Schretter said if it is soon, the project could go to bid by the end of this year. Demolition and construction could force closure of the library facility for 6-9 months.

Fischer said staff could still work in the newer portion of the building, but since there is only one exit on the western side of the library, fire codes would prevent more than 50 people from being inside at any one time.

WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.