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The Houston Public Library will reopen the recently shuttered Freed-Montrose library in Montrose, weeks after announcing that safety issues in the aging building warranted closing the library permanently.

“Freed-Montrose Library temporarily closed last month because of facility safety concerns,” the library said in a statement Thursday, contradicting its messaging in late March, when former Executive Director Rhea Lawson announced “the permanent closure of the existing Montrose library location.”

In its most recent announcement, the library said it changed course at the request of the mayor.

“Following the closure, Mayor John Whitmire asked members of the library administration to meet with stakeholders and create a plan to safely reopen the building and welcome back the public to a beloved space for learning, discovery and cultural enrichment,” the statement reads.

The reopening is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday, April 15.

The 78-year-old building, which has housed the Montrose neighborhood’s public library since 1988, closed due to “safety concerns” in March, one day after the Abdelraoufsinno published a story detailing its declining condition. Among the problems was a broken elevator that didn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and made the second floor “inaccessible to the public,” library officials said.

The closure came as a surprise to many, including the mayor.

“The former library director closed the branch without discussing it with the mayor in advance,” Whitmire's spokesperson, Mary Benton, shared in a statement Thursday evening. “As soon as Mayor Whitmire was made aware of that decision, he knew it was wrong because he understood the library’s importance to the community.”

City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, whose District C includes Montrose, was also caught off guard by the original announcement. The day of the closure, Kamin wrote on X that her office “had no prior notification (the) library would close” until news outlets reported the closure.

Since then, Kamin said that Wilson, the interim director, has been “extremely responsive.”

“I am extremely relieved,” Kamin said. “I appreciate the diligence and efforts undertaken by the library department and (General Service Department) to get this library reopened as quickly as possible, so that our residents can continue to enjoy all that this library and our libraries throughout the city have to offer.”

The library closure was the first of two big pieces of news to come out of the city’s embattled library department in a week.

One day after the library announced the Montrose closure, Whitmire replaced Lawson with Cynthia Wilson, a former Houston Independent School District administrator. In a statement, Whitmire said he had asked Wilson “to immediately go to work on improving communications, management, employee morale, and operations throughout HPL.”

Reports of a “toxic” work environment have plagued the library for some time. Over the course of a nine-month investigation into issues at the library, the Landing learned the system’s turnover rate is more than double the city average, and that 13 percent of departing employees in 2022 checked a box on their exit interview indicating a “hostile work environment” was a major influence in their decision to leave.

In a recent citywide survey of employee morale, Houston Public Library employees had the second-lowest rate of job satisfaction. And employees have reported to the Landing that they have been retaliated against for speaking out against the previous library administration, headed by Lawson.

A woman walks past the Freed-Montrose Neighborhood Library, Thursday, March 7, 2024, in Houston.
A woman walks past the Freed-Montrose Neighborhood Library, Thursday, March 7, 2024, in Houston. (Antranik Tavitian / Abdelraoufsinno)

A $1.25 million offer to buy the Montrose library

Closing the Montrose branch put the city in a tough spot. When the building first was donated to the city in 1986, its gift deed came with an asterisk: If ever the property goes 30 days without being used as a library before 2051, the donor can take the property back. While the original donor has passed away, the rights of the reverter have transferred to the University of St. Thomas, a Catholic college adjacent to the library.

The 30-day clock began ticking on Friday, March 29 — the first day the library was closed. That clock would run out on April 27. The city’s legal department has not returned requests for comment about what may happen when those 30 days are up.

Last November, the university offered $1.25 million to purchase the library from the city, according to a letter obtained by the Landing via a public records request. The library’s Thursday statement notes the decision to reverse the closure followed “careful consideration and invaluable customer feedback.”

Since the building’s safety issues have not been entirely addressed, , “specific areas will be restricted to the public for safety reasons,” the statement reads.

The building already was on track for a replacement when it closed last month, though the new location — in the glitzy Montrose Collective a few blocks north — is behind schedule.

After the Landing published its original story about facility issues at the current branch, the library updated its website to show that construction would begin in the first quarter of 2024. Previously, the timeline had indicated that construction began last September, though the developer of Montrose Collective, Steve Radom, informed the Landing construction had not yet begun as of early March.

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Maggie Gordon is the Landing's senior storyteller who has worked at newspapers across the country, including the Stamford Advocate and the Houston Chronicle. She has covered everything from the hedge fund...