Government

New Marion library still chapters away

Busy facility expected to outgrow its new space, too

Children’s Library Assistant Lara Moeller rolls a cart last Monday of new books she was processing out of her work area at the Marion Public Library. It may be three to five years before the busy Marion library moves to a new and larger home, though such a move has been talked about for more than a decade. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Children’s Library Assistant Lara Moeller rolls a cart last Monday of new books she was processing out of her work area at the Marion Public Library. It may be three to five years before the busy Marion library moves to a new and larger home, though such a move has been talked about for more than a decade. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
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MARION — Tomaso’s pizza restaurant has been open for 15 years in Marion Square Plaza, a strip mall that once was home to more than a dozen businesses — including restaurants, shops and a gym — in the city’s Uptown District.

Located within a key piece of an ambitious urban revitalization plan, Tomaso’s now is one of only five storefronts open in the plaza on busy Seventh Avenue.

While city plans for redevelopment have inched forward — the centerpiece of which is a larger space for the crowded and aging Marion Public Library — many businesses have abandoned the plaza, though a concrete timeline for the project still has not been set.

“Bottom line, everybody just wants this to either just get done or not get done,” Tomaso’s owner, Mike Pedersen, said last week during a quiet lunch hour. “Everybody’s been waiting too long. … If this one falls through, there just is no trust in what they’re doing.”

One of Pedersen’s few remaining neighbors, Village Needlework’s co-owner Julia Ackerman, said the development’s lengthy preamble has left her “in limbo.” Her business’ lease ends in October, but she doesn’t know when or where she’ll need to relocate.

“We may have to leave Uptown Marion, which is a shame because we enjoy being part of the district,” she said.

After 15 years of conversations about a new library in Marion — and three years since the plaza was identified as a key site for it — the City Council in late November approved a parking structure with commercial space south of Marion Square Plaza.

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The move indicated tangible development could begin soon, Marion City Manager Lon Pluckhahn said, though previous versions of the development plan have been paused over the years.

“We’re moving into — what does it look like in the real world,” Pluckhahn said, “instead of on a page of paper.”

An agent for Genesis Equities, the owner of Marion Square Plaza, agreed the project’s approval was a critical step, adding that Genesis is continuing to honor existing leases for remaining businesses in the shopping center.

“We are continuing to work out the terms of (a memorandum of understanding) with the city for our proposed project,” Hannah Kustes said. “Which once approved will give us a more clear timeline for the project.”

City and library staff admit anticipation fatigue set in years ago for many in the community as they have waited for a new facility to address exploding use and increasing technological needs at the library, which is a block southwest of the Marion Square Plaza.

“Everyone is anxious for a new building,” said Hollie Trenery, who started last summer as the library’s director. “This building is old, and much of the infrastructure is obsolete, so we have a hard time replacing pieces and parts. … We are watching and listening and waiting to see what the steps are going to be for us.”

Trenery said she does not expect the library to move into the new facility, which has an estimated cost of $16 million, for three to five years.

In the interim, she is focused on tweaking what she can in the library’s current facility.

“We understand that we’re going to be in this building,” she said. “And we want to make sure we can make it the best we can for the community while we have it.”

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If work begins on the parking structure this spring, Pluckhahn said, development at the plaza site could begin in winter 2020 and be finished in winter 2021.

The most recent proposal, developed by OPN Architects and put before the City Council on Nov. 2, would include 74 residential units, at least 10,200 square feet of retail space and 40,000 square feet dedicated to commercial use.

A new library would occupy the building’s 46,000-square-foot ground floor. With some usage metrics up 150 percent in recent years, Trenery said the library still would likely outgrow the new space.

“It’s not a secret, we have talked about this openly. The space that is currently planned for us in the mixed-use building is likely not the end-all, be-all space we’ll need going forward,” she said.

The library’s needs are set to be reassessed in January, which should help identify ways it can provide adequate service. Those could include satellite locations or self-service stations, she said.

Still, she and her predecessor, Elsworth Carman, remain supportive and eager for the project to break ground. Carman moved to a different role with the city government last summer, and now is set to start as director of the Iowa City Public Library in January.

The time spent on the project should indicate the thoughtfulness of the library board and city, Carman said, as all the players work to craft “the right library for Marion.”

“Even the more bothersome parts of this are a sign of what good stewardship of public resources looks like,” he said. “ … It’s kind of bold and brave of them to continue to think about multiple options, and not be tied down to a plan that was floated 12 years ago.”

Business owners waiting for answers about Marion Square Plaza have less patience.

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“The city has to actually make this thing happen and get it done,” Pedersen said. “Because they’ve just put too many people though too much agony for too long.”

• Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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