The Oakland Public Library's Main Library on 14th Street. Credit: Pete Rosos

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Big changes may be coming to the Main Library, the 70-year-old flagship officials say is undersized and in desperate need of a facelift—or relocation. 

Designed in the 1930s, the main branch on 14th Street between Madison and Oak streets did not open until 1951, after wartime construction delays. Mary Forte, a lifelong Oakland resident and member of the Library Advisory Commission, studied there in the 1960s and 70s while in high school and college. 

“It needed to be replaced then,” Forte said. “Now we are sitting here 60 years later and it still hasn’t been replaced.” 

Forte spoke before the City Council’s Public Works Committee on Tuesday, where councilmembers voted to spend $1 million on two feasibility studies, one for the Main Library and another for a new branch in the Hoover-Durant neighborhood. The West Oakland neighborhood has been without a library for more than 40 years. 

The side-by-side studies over the next year will look at costs associated with each project. For the Main Library the options could include expanding the two-story facility, demolishing it and building a new one on site, or finding land downtown to construct a new facility. 

The Main Library is the administrative headquarters for the city’s 16-branch system and is home to the Oakland History Room on the second floor. But as Oakland grew in population, the downtown library has kept the same footprint and, according to Director of Library Services Jamie Turbak, is insufficient to serve the roughly 500 people who use it daily. 

Over the years, wear and tear has caused a number of issues. Earlier this year, the only public elevator was broken and out of service for months. The concrete building experiences extreme heat and cooling that affects the history room’s archives, Turbak said. It also lacks community meeting spaces.

“A lot of people don’t feel safe or comfortable coming here,” Turbak told councilmembers.

According to the 2006 Oakland Public Library Master Facilities Plan, the main branch is half the size it should be. The plan recommended the 82,500-square-foot building be expanded to up to 160,000 square feet. One option called for building two additional floors as well as an annex to house a 350-seat auditorium, conference rooms, and relocated administrative offices. 

Some of the alternative sites identified in the 2006 study are no longer options.

The Hoover-Durant neighborhood has been without a library since 1981, when a branch at 3134 San Pablo Ave. permanently closed. The nearest libraries are more than a mile away. 

A feasibility study will look at constructing a new 12,000-square-foot library within the neighborhood, which is bordered by 35th Street, Martin Luther King Jr. Way, West Grand Avenue, and San Pablo Avenue. City officials expect the consultants’ work to be completed within 12 to 16 months.  

Measure KK funds will cover the costs of the studies, with $600,000 going to Esherick Homsey Dodge and Davis Architecture for the Main Library and $400,000 to Blink!Lab Architecture for the Hoover-Durant branch. 

Oakland voters on June 7 will decide whether to extend a parcel tax that’s funded city libraries but is set to expire in 2024. If Measure C is rejected, the library budget will be reduced by roughly $18 million per year and some branches could close, proponents have said

Under the current tax, single-family homes pay $114 per year, apartments and condos are taxed at $78, and non-residential properties are charged $58. 

David DeBolt reports on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.