Federal Government Could Alleviate Downtown Library's Woes and Save Local Dollars

Over July 4th weekend, the News Sentinel ran a series of articles on the strained state of Lawson McGhee Library, the main branch of the Knox County system. One detailed the 39-year-old building's ever-diminishing space for books, computers, and patrons, and the public's ever-increasing demand for services; another described libraries around the region as potential models for a new central branch here; and still another sketched out three possible sites for such a new main branch: the L&N Station and Depot, Marble Alley, and Baptist Hospital. Yet one location not mentioned could save time and money—that is, if the federal government could be convinced to give up some parking spaces.

The conversation about the need for a new library has changed in the past year, says Ginna Mashburn, president of Knox County Library Foundation, a non-profit started in 2007 to raise funds for a new library. She's been giving speeches around Knoxville for years about building a new facility, but says this past winter "the questions were not, ‘Why do we need one?' but ‘Where is it going to be, when is it going to be built, and how are we going to pay for it?'"

They're good questions. Parking, naturally, will be an issue (though less so with Baptist Hospital). So will cost—these projects range from $43.4 to $46.4 million, at a time when county government is wrestling with issues like how many teachers to lay off, and when private donations to non-profits have dried up. While any project is still five to 10 years away from completion, some feel the current environment dictates that the library consider more practical options, such as adopting the under-used Convention Center as its home.

Yet few realize these sites are just the latest to be given a hard look. Since Knox County Library Director Larry Frank arrived at his position seven years ago, he says he's examined just about every piece of property downtown, including the Convention Center (the city says no), the Post Office building (taken), and the Daylight Building (also taken); he's also checked out properties on the University of Tennessee's campus, the Strip, and farther out in the county. "There's hardly a square foot of downtown, of the center city, that we have not looked at," Mashburn says.

But one location continues to resurface in both Frank and Mashburn's minds: "Of course, the easiest would be to expand the building," Frank says.

Renovating the current facility while adding a new wing on the small parking lot to the library's west would roughly double the current usable space (about 50,000 square feet), granting the main branch the room it requires while also providing access to a loading dock, a vital feature the library lost as a result of security concerns after 9/11. Depending on amenities and when the project were completed, the addition and renovations would range from $11 to $25 million—which, at the high end, is still one-half the cost of the other sites being considered. Lastly, it would ensure the protection and continued use of Lawson McGhee, a structure some architects consider one of Bruce McCarty's finest works. So why isn't this the obvious choice?

Because that small parking lot, with 18 spaces, a dozen trees, and some very nice shrubbery, sits enclosed in an invisible box called the federal government. In the mid-1980s, the U.S. government purchased the land in order to build the John J. Duncan Federal Building, which houses various federal agencies and will soon take on another: The Department of Defense Military Enlistment Processing Station recently signed an agreement with the General Services Administration, the government's landlord, to lease 39,000 square feet of office space and 39 parking spaces.

All this came to light earlier this year when Mashburn and Jeff Johnson, an architect with McCarty-Holsaple-McCarty who is helping with site selection for the new library, enlisted Rep. Jimmy Duncan—whose father the federal building is named for—to ask the GSA if it would consider returning the property to the county. Frank says he had had informal conversations with the GSA about the building in the past, but was told two tenants, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, required the space for ready access to their vehicles. With the FBI's impending departure from the Duncan building to a new office on Middlebrook Pike, Mashburn and Johnson decided it was a good time to formally ask the federal government to part with the lot.

To no one's surprise, the government said no.

"The GSA plans to retain current ownership of the lot to accommodate current and future needs of the federal government," a letter addressed to Duncan reads. It says the parking spaces the FBI is vacating have already been leased to the Defense Department's MEPS, and "the parking lot will also serve as a key pick-up and drop-off point for the bus loads of military enlistees that MEPS anticipates processing once the site is fully operational.

"In addition, the parking lot will be used to satisfy the needs of the other tenant agency employees with the Duncan Federal Building," the letter concludes. (The GSA was asked to comment for this story but did not provide a response in time for publication.)

This obviously wasn't what Mashburn, Frank, and Johnson were hoping to hear. While remaining convinced the purchase of the lot is the best solution to the current woes, they seem fairly pessimistic anything will change. "Congressman Duncan wasn't at all encouraging," Mashburn says. "I would be supportive of that were it to happen, but I just don't think it is."

"It's a non-starter," Frank says, even while continuing to make the case for it.

Whether the county ever owned the property, and if so, why it gave it up, are something of a mystery. Johnson says when McCarty designed the building in the late '60s, "they thought they would expand to the west, and at the time Knox County owned that property." Yet in the mid-1980s, after a protracted process selecting a site for a new five-story federal building—a process Mayor Kyle Testerman said the city was shut out of—the feds purchased the lot not from the county but from Charles Smeltzer, a man going through bankruptcy who had owned it since the 1960s, according to the Knox County Register of Deeds.

If the GSA remains unwilling to sell the parking lot, as all parties believe it will, Frank half-jokingly suggests another option: Perhaps the federal government can find some stimulus funding to move itself out of the federal building altogether, leaving the structure to the library. Standing outside the Duncan, his auburn locks bound in a loose ponytail, Frank says he hasn't been able to get inside with his tape measure but notes with a knowing grin that it looks promising.

"That'll be the day," Mashburn laughs. "The proverbial cold day in hell."