Moshe Safdie’s Free Library Addition on Indefinite Hold

The Free Library's expansion project, as originally envisioned, is unlikely to happen. But renovations to the Central Branch continue.

rendering of free library addition

A rendering of the Central Branch with the Safdie addition. Credit:

Back in 2004, the Free Library of Philadelphia was planning a massive $130 million expansion of the central branch — a project almost as grand and costly as Seattle’s famed Rem Koolhaas-designed public library, which opened that same year. Moshe Safdie was selected as the architect for the Philadelphia project, which would fill the surface lot behind the existing Beaux Arts building, feature a grand new entrance, and complement the Barnes Foundation planned next door.

Ten years later —- and two years after the library proposed a revised and scaled back post-recession expansion —- the lot is still empty and the Safdie addition as originally envisioned is on indefinite hold. Sandy Horrocks, the library’s vice president of external affairs, says the library is instead focused on the Central Branch’s renovation, for which Safdie is doing the design work.

So what happened to the larger project?

According to an archived Philadelphia Weekly story, Parkway Central’s projected cost was $175 million in 2007, and $105 million had already been raised —- including $30 million from the city and $10 million from the state. The project was tabled during the recession, during The Great Library Crisis of 2008 — but it wasn’t as though the expansion funds could be directed elsewhere. From the Weekly:

The $175 million Parkway Central project is largely privately supported, so it wasn’t put on hold exclusively due to funding woes. It was more about appearances, Horrocks says… [C]ontractual obligations from those donations preclude the Free Library from redirecting any of that money toward operating costs.

The Parkway Central project was to be the capstone of the library system’s vast renovation effort that attended to every branch in the city except the Central one. As of the early 2000s, the central branch had gone nearly untouched since it was built almost 80 years earlier.

In 2011 the library announced scaled-back plans for the new Safdie building: 80,000 square feet instead of 180,000 and no grand new entrance, with more money directed toward renovating and improving the existing building. “The crux of the new plan derives from the realization that two-thirds of the 300,000-square-foot building’s floor space is currently devoted to nonpublic functions like storage and administration,” the Inquirer’s Peter Dobrin reported that year.

The smaller expansion was to cost $60 million, while renovations would cost $40 million, and $75 million would go toward endowment and other costs.

Then, in 2012, as the Free Library finished an initial $34 million round of renovations, Dobrin reported that the expansion would be scaled back further. With a need to invest more in annual branch library maintenance and the growth of the library’s website and other technological offerings, it became necessary for the library to rethink the role and importance of the expansion, he wrote.

Free Library president and director Siobhan Reardon, who arrived in 2008, also had concerns about the role of the expansion, said Sandy Horrocks. “She took a look at the plans and realized that not a lot of work was being done in the existing building,” Horrocks told me, “and she wanted to make sure we took care of this historic, beautiful building.”

Horrocks said the library does eventually plan to build some kind of addition. She knows it’ll include an auditorium and family and children’s center, but doesn’t have a specific timeline for the project. The money originally raised for Parkway Central is being spent on the Central Branch renovations — most recently a revamped fourth floor with a larger skyline room, redone terrace, and a new culinary classroom that will likely open in June.

The next renovation project will replace six levels of book stacks with a new space for the commerce department and a new interactive learning space with rooms for creative writing and music production and the like. First, hundreds of thousands of volumes have to be moved to the library’s new operations center in South Philadelphia. (The volumes will still be accessible to the public: patrons can request them and they’ll arrive at a branch within 48 hours.) That process is underway.

In addition, PennDOT plans to cover one of the access points to the Vine Street Expressway in front of the branch. This will allow for an amphitheater-like expansion of Shakespeare Park, Horrocks said. Construction will likely begin in 2015.