One Library in Need of a Bath

Thousands of patrons and visiting birds are taking their toll on the downtown library. But thanks to the recession, there's no relief in sight.

Budget cuts to the Seattle Public Library didn't result only in last week's weeklong systemwide closure. They have also led to a neglect of maintenance at the famous Rem Koolhaas–designed downtown facility. Five years after the building opened to acclaim, signs of wear and tear can be seen. There's a hole in the flooring in the Fourth Avenue lobby, leaving a gaping blot of white amid the tan surface. On an escalator, the neon-yellow side walls are marred by scratches and a bare patch of metal. And all that glass—the building's signature feature—is smeared with grime and bird droppings. Library spokeswoman Andra Addison says the windows are cleaned "like twice a year, but I'm not sure it's going to get done twice next year." That and other limitations on upkeep are the result of the city's cuts to the library system's two-year capital budget—which pays for maintenance at all the facilities—by two-thirds: from $3 million to $1 million. At the same time, Addison points out, the new central branch sees tremendous traffic. "We have five, six, seven, sometimes 15 thousand people in the building in one day." It's that traffic and the lack of maintenance, rather than the materials used, that cause the problem, Addison says. She says those materials—which include aluminum, concrete, and polyurethane—were carefully scrutinized for durability: "We scratched it. We poked it." Library staff asked former board member Betty Jane Narver, now deceased but known then for her high heels, to walk all over the floors. They passed the test. But the wear amplifies the central library's already-uncomfortable austerity. In plush surroundings, scratches and dings can disappear. But in a spare environment of concrete and aluminum, they stand out like graffiti on a prison wall.

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