It’s not clear when — or if — Boise will get a new downtown library, since Mayor David Bieter announced last month that he would delay it.
High costs and problems with a special election mean the project is on hold for the foreseeable future. But Boise had already signed an $11 million contract with Moshe Safdie, a world-renowned architect, in December.
His original designs came with an $103 million price tag, well above the $85 million City Hall had decreed. The city’s staff has been working to bring down the cost by using what Mike Journee, spokesman for Mayor David Bieter, called “value engineering,” which involved using lower-cost materials and making more budget-savvy choices on the specifics of the design.
The city commissioned a new price estimate, largely because labor and materials costs had climbed since the first one 15 months earlier. Even with cheaper materials and no event center, the new price tag came in $1 million higher.
So Bieter called for a “pause” to the project. That calmed opponents, at least for now, though an ordinance to require a citywide election remains on the November ballot.
Safdie’s contract is also on pause. The contract is in phases, and Journee said the city has paid $2.97 million of it. When more work is done, more will be paid. Journee told the Idaho Statesman that if nothing else happens for the library project, “there will be no more action on the contract.”
But what might the library look like, if it is built?
Bieter’s office released artist’s renderings of the library’s exterior in August 2018. The mayor’s office hasn’t publicized interior views, though city officials have had them since May 2018. The Statesman has obtained them through a public records request.
The renderings show that the inside of Boise’s library probably would look a lot like some of the other libraries Safdie has designed, including the Salt Lake City Public Library and the Vancouver Public Library’s Central Branch.
The renderings are a part of the work already done under the contract, costing about $500,000 of the almost $3 million already paid, Journee said. The rest of the money went to other work, such as geotechnical engineering, which looks at the soil a project would be on and determines how to best build for it.
The renderings appear in a 70-slide presentation from Safdie Architects, dated May 2018, that offers an in-depth look at what the library plans would be both on the inside and outside. The central interior feature would be a large open “urban room atrium,” a space with seating and workspace on four floors.
The library in Salt Lake City has a similar space, designed to have a similar curved view. At that library, there are gift shops and small art stores on the bottom floor. The Vancouver Public Library also features a large urban room that, according to photos on Safdie’s website, looks almost the same.
Fred Schlipf, an expert in library architecture and an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois, said atriums like the one proposed for Boise’s library can often be a problem. They can be difficult to use because people have to navigate all the way around the open space, he said, and because many people are afraid of heights.
Schlipf, who was director of Illinois’ Urbana Free Library for 32 years, has consulted on the design of about 200 libraries. He declined comment on specifics of the plans for Boise’s library. He said the most crucial elements of a well-designed library are features that offer security, adaptability and comfort for patrons, staff and books alike.
Other similarities between Boise’s library and Salt Lake City’s include an art gallery — although the one in Boise was designed to be much larger than the one in Salt Lake City — and similar outdoor spaces.
The Safdie Architects presentation places a lot of focus on the outdoor space, which would include a large water feature and an amphitheater. Those same concepts can be found in other Safdie library projects, though the specifics differ in the Boise plans.
The library space itself, where patrons can go to choose and read books, does not appear often in the renderings. There are some drawings of the “automated storage and retrieval system,” which uses a robot programmed to retrieve books for patrons from specially designed space-saving storage. The system would “serve as a functional and visual centerpiece for the library’s collections,” according to the presentation.
Kevin Booe, director of the Boise Public Library system, said in an email to the Statesman that the system is designed to store items with low usage or only seasonal usage. Universities often use the technology, typically to store and retrieve materials that are important for students or researchers but not regularly in use.
“Right now, the project team plans to store multiple copies, seasonal items such as holiday materials, government documents, and back issues of periodicals,” Booe wrote. “Using the ASRS will allow the library to have more shelf space in open stacks for browsing, etc.”
In fact, even though the library space would be four stories, pictures of where other books would be aren’t shown. What is visible is an open space with relatively low shelves and curved staircases to take people from one floor to the next.
The open space would face the Boise River and the Greenbelt, making people “feel as if they are within the park landscape of the Greenbelt,” according to the slide presentation. People on Capitol Boulevard would be able to see into the library.
That too is similar to Salt Lake City’s library, which looks out onto the Wasatch Mountains. From the style of the staircase to the open planning to the solid concrete pillars, the libraries are similar in design.
At least some of the large windows, specifically those facing Capitol, proposed for Boise’s library will have “adjustable interior blackout shade to ensure fully controllability of the interior environment,” the presentation said. That can be one of the most important parts of a library, Schlipf said.
Schlimpf recalled attending the grand opening of one library where people had to hold their programs over their eyes to block out the sun because there was no way to control it in the room.
“You’ve got to be able to block 100% of the light through the windows” at certain points in the day, he said. “Otherwise, it’s trouble.”
Journee said he wasn’t sure what in particular city officials were looking for when selecting the architect, but he said Safdie has “a very distinct style.” It makes sense, he said, that the designs for the Boise library would be similar to that of Safdie’s other library projects.
“He has a style that’s iconic,” Journee said. “We think he delivered. It’s just a matter now of figuring out how that works here.”
The designs may change, especially as city officials decide which features are most important and which are optional.
A request for comment from Safdie Architects was not returned.