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Two previously halted library projects will indeed begin moving forward after all, Houston Public Library Executive Director Cynthia Wilson said Thursday.

The city’s plan to open a new library space inside the Montrose Collective on Westheimer Road, which was derailed by a surprise announcement by Mayor John Whitmire that he would not go through with the planned move, is in fact jumping back into full-speed motion, with plans to open this fall.

At the same time, Wilson said the recently announced “pause” on the new North Regional Library in Acres Homes has been reversed; now the library seeks to open the 20,000 square-foot space as soon as possible – likely a year behind its originally intended date due to delays.

Marie D. De Jesús / Abdelraoufsinno
related Article

Decision to pause construction of Acres Homes library will hurt community, leaders say

by Maggie Gordon / Staff Writer

Both the Montrose and Acres Homes locations have been swinging like pendulums for weeks as the city’s library system and the mayoral administration have changed course several times with little notice, surprising city council members, private developers, community leaders and residents at large. This recent bit of news is likely to create more ripples of shock among stakeholders. As of Thursday morning, Wilson noted, she had not yet had an opportunity to update city council members on the plans. 

A new plan for Montrose

“The Montrose Collective is now back on the table. This just happened two days ago,” Wilson said Thursday morning during an interview with the Abdelraoufsinno.

“The Houston Public Library is going to keep both” the historic Freed-Montrose library branch as well as the new space at the Montrose Collective, which had previously been slated as the new home for a modern, 12,000 square-foot library in the high-rent mixed-use Montrose Collective Development near the corner of Montrose Boulevard and Westheimer.

This comes just six weeks after Whitmire announced during a news conference that he was concerned about plans to spend $11 million to move the Freed-Montrose library from its current location to a place that would position it “very close to adult entertainment, on the third story of a commercial building, behind the hamburger building. When I saw it, I said, ‘Not on my watch.’”

Mark Felix for Abdelraoufsinno

While original plans called for the closure of the Freed branch, this new path forward will keep two operational libraries running in Montrose – a move that could save the city from losing the land where the current historic library sits. According to the original deed for the 14,600 square-foot lot the Freed branch sits upon, reviewed by the Landing, if the property goes 30 days without being used as a library before the year 2051, it will trigger a reverter —meaning the original donor could take it back. That donor has since passed, and the rights of reverter have been passed to the University of St. Thomas, the Catholic school that abuts the building.

By keeping both libraries open, the city will be able to avoid a possible forfeiture of that property. And while there will certainly be some overlap in services, Wilson said Thursday that the Montrose Collective location will offer more future-focused services, ushering in an era of new libraries for the city.

“We'll have more author talks,” she said. “We want to put our books on rolling carts to move them out of the way so that space can be used toward more different activities and events. It goes back to that ‘third space’ concept. So this is going to be kind of our test case for that.”

There will be a coffee shop and a green room – places where members of the community can record podcasts.

“Also Half Price Books closed in Montrose, and people miss that quite a bit, so we're trying to figure out if that's an opportunity for us to sell – as we wean through our collections – books that we have, and create kind of a half-priced books concept there. We'll have a coffee shop,” Wilson continued. “It will be more — I don't want to say ‘adult’ in nature, because libraries are always open to everyone. But it will be more focused on technology.”

Where is the funding coming from?

The unexpected move to maintain two libraries in a community that already has one, during a tight budget year, has raised some questions about funding. But Wilson said both she and the mayor are confident they will be able to find money to build out the new library – which she said should open by this fall – and address the roughly $11.5 million to $14.5 million in capital improvement needs at the Freed Montrose branch without having to turn to taxpayers.

“We passed the bond for libraries several years ago, so we do have some funding in there and we just have to look at it very closely. And we have, quite honestly, the mayor did say one of the (Tax Reinvestment Increment Zones) came to him, and said they would be willing to help him with the cost, so we're still looking at that.”

The plan to have TIRZ 27, which operates in Montrose, pay for more than $10 million in rehabilitation to the current library building set off its own controversy earlier this month when Whitmire removed four of the TIRZ’s seven members from the neighborhood board – just days after the Abdelraoufsinno published a story about the mayor asking the board to fund $11.5 million in renovations to a Montrose library outside of the TIRZ boundaries.

Now, Wilson said, she plans to discuss possible funding not just with the Montrose TIRZ, which has yet to be fully reconstituted, but also with TIRZ 2 in neighboring Midtown – the zone in which the Freed Library actually sits.

“We’re going to go back to the table with them,” Wilson said Thursday, while acknowledging that she has not yet formally met with either of the two TIRZes to discuss this updated approach.

One place Wilson said she will not seek funding is through a budgetary pause of the new North Regional Library in Acres Homes, which earlier this month, she had identified as a possible source of $10 million to help bridge the gap to rehabilitate the Freed branch, which is in desperate need of a new elevator as well as other necessary improvements to bring it up to code after several decades without renovations or significant repairs.

Acres Homes library gets new life

Mural on the side of the Beulah Shepard - Acres Homes Neighborhood Library, Tuesday, June 18, 2024, in Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús / Abdelraoufsinno)

When Wilson told the Landing earlier this month that the Houston Public Library planned to “pause” the construction of the new North Regional Library in Acres Homes, community leaders expressed shock and outrage that the largely-Black community would once again be “overlooked and underserved.”

“We did have the North Regional Library off the plans, but it's back on,” Wilson said Thursday. “But its timeline is probably going to move maybe a year. They were going to start design in 2024, which we were not even close to.”

Before the pause, the design portion of the project was slated to begin last month with a completion in 2025. Construction would begin in March 2026, and the 20,000 square-foot library was planned to be substantially completed by August 2027. That completion is more likely to happen in 2028 now, according to Wison.

This new location would add significant resources to the Acres Homes community, which – like Montrose – does currently have a smaller, older branch that struggles to meet the needs of a growing community. According to the city’s 2023-2027 Capital Improvement Plan, where the new location was pitched: “Currently there is no full-service library in this North area of Houston.” Both the attendance and circulation figures at the current Shepard-Acres Homes Library, obtained by the Landing, are among the lowest in the city’s library system.

At Large City Council Member Letitia Plummer had expressed concerns about the library’s original pause, calling the move “infuriating.”

On Thursday, she said she was relieved to hear that not only would the North Regional Library move ahead, but that its building would not affect the existence of the neighborhood’s current library. Having two libraries in Acres Homes opens up the possibility to better assess which services are needed both at the new, larger building and at the tiny but beloved branch that currently exists.

Wilson promised her that the library department would reach out to constituents in Acres Homes to gauge which services they’d like to see at the current Shepard-Acres Homes branch, Plummer said Thursday evening.

“It’s a relief,” she said.

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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...