Proponents for a new library in Galveston County’s largest city know their work is cut out for them, especially given the costs experts recently estimated it might take to build one, they said.
“I don’t know how you can build anything inexpensively anymore,” said Janel Salmen, treasurer of League City’s Friends of the Helen Hall Library board, a nonprofit supporting the library.
Salmen is a retired school librarian and a longtime proponent of expanding and diversifying League City’s library system, something for which a growing number of residents have asked.
“I think there’s a strong need for either a larger library or another branch,” she said. “I know it’s hard for some people seeing that amount of money and not to think about recent flooding. I understand that. But, I also think it’s short-sighted not to go forward with something.”
The numbers Salmen references are those included in a consultant’s presentation on the future of League City library services that estimated a new, 170,000-square-foot central library could cost the city $105 million, a smaller, 80,000-square-foot library could cost $52 million and a branch library might cost more than $27 million.
While residents like Salmen remain supportive of a new library despite the possible costs, other residents couldn’t believe the prices and thought city leaders should look for other options.
“They really have to analyze what they are building,” resident Marc Edelman said. “What I think they are really trying to build is a public gathering space, instead of a traditional library.”
Given the enormous costs involved in funding such a space, the city might consider asking a private industry whether there’s a market demand for building such a space, Edelman said.
“The whole concept of a library is changing, and I think they really ought to call it a community technology center,” Edelman said. “There’s more truth in purchasing.”
Customers already spend money at coffee shops, so they can meet, talk and study in the company’s buildings, Edelman said.
Representatives for the Houston-based architecture firm PGAL, the group that created the estimates, cautioned the council that the numbers were very preliminary, and that much would depend on when it is built and who does the work.
“At this point, the numbers are budget estimates,” said Paul Bonnette, a principal with PGAL. “They’re intended to give the city a good idea of what the budget for those size buildings should be.”
The numbers are also inclusive of associated costs not typically included in building estimates, such as acquiring additional books, land, material and furniture, Bonnette said.
Researchers in 2015 noted the median cost a square foot to build a library was approaching $500, up from costs below $200 a square foot about a decade earlier, according to a 2015 report by Indiana-based architecture firm RATIO Design. That was more than three years ago.
“It isn’t that libraries in particular are getting so expensive to build,” said Kevin Huse, a principal with the firm. “All construction seems to be at a premium right now. The pent-up demand after the great recession has not waned.”
The greatest factor in the cost of a library is the size of the building, Huse said.
At a cost of $500 a square foot, a 170,000-square-foot library would be about $85 million.
League City will need about 191,100-square-feet of library space at buildout, but much of that will be taken up with things like media labs, study rooms and other features, according to the presentation.
While the council has not made any decisions about the future of the library, the $95,900 study recommend several different options for addressing future growth. Mayor Pat Hallisey suggested most residents were in support of the city building one, larger central library, instead of multiple branches, and asked questions about a $52 million version.
But the branch plan might still have some supporters. Building a library on the west side of town in a complex might have multiple uses, Councilman Hank Dugie said.
The problem with branches, however, is that there would be many duplicate expenses, such as staff and books, and it would then only service about a third of the city, Salmen argued.
Though residents such as Edelman were put off by the high costs associated with a new library, there is some evidence that the numbers aren’t unique to League City.
Boise, Idaho, for instance, recently put the brakes on a new downtown library after the initial designs came back with a cost of more than $100 million, up from the $85 million the city originally budgeted for it, according to a September article in the Idaho Statesman.
And city officials in Austin in October 2017 completed a new $125 million central library.
Some members of the League City Council have proposed placing a new facility on the ballot in November 2020.
Proponents for the library have for years advocated for more resources in the public library system. The Helen Hall Library near city hall is the only library in the city of more than 106,000 residents.
Texas oyster season officially opens today, meaning licensed fishermen can legally harvest oysters on public reefs approved by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department through April 30.
At the beginning of the 2019-20 season, two sections of Galveston Bay — shellfish harvesting areas TX 4 and TX 5 — are closed to oyster harvesting. That means dredging for oysters in these areas is strictly forbidden and punishable by a penalty.
“Those closings are based on samples collected by parks and wildlife showing a low abundance of legal-sized oysters,” said Lisa Halili, a partner in the family business Prestige Oysters of San Leon, one of the state’s largest oyster operations.
Legal-sized oysters must measure at least 3 inches at the largest length of the shell. Harvesting oysters smaller than legal size is prohibited for good reason, Halili said.
“It’s a management closure, not a closure for health-related reasons,” she said. “The oysters are too small for sustainability. It’s part of parks and wildlife’s management program.”
Public beds are monitored by the state entity for health, population and size, and immature oysters are left to grow to legal size to spawn and repopulate the reef, according to department guidelines. Over-harvesting or harvesting of oysters smaller than legal-size is a leading cause of loss of oyster reefs, a serious problem in Galveston Bay over the decade after Hurricane Ike when nearly all oyster beds were suffocated by excessive silting and debris in the bay.
Restoring oyster beds has been expensive and painstaking, especially with excessive rain events of the past few years, including Hurricane Harvey, that flushed too much fresh water from Houston and other northern areas into the bay, disturbing the delicate salinity required for good oyster health, according to oyster scientists.
The oyster beds of Galveston Bay are critical to local and state economies, contributing the lion’s share of oyster production to an industry estimated to be worth $3 billion a year to the state of Texas, said Tom Harvey, parks and wildlife spokesman.
Their value beyond income to fishermen, distributors and processors and sales to food purveyors and diners is immeasurable, scientists and environmentalists attest.
Oysters are filter feeders, meaning they filter water for food, leaving it cleaner; their reefs provide habitat for fish, crabs and other marine wildlife; and their stacked shells or reefs stabilize shorelines, acting as breakwaters in open bodies of water like Galveston Bay, reducing coastal erosion.
Halili, along with her husband, Johnny, and son Raz, serves on the Oyster Advisory Workgroup, commercial oyster fishermen and dealers who, with guidance from parks and wildlife, have established criteria based on the abundance of legal-sized oysters and the percentage of small oysters for determining when an area should be closed.
“It’s a red light, green light program,” she said. “Yellow is cautionary. It means either parks and wildlife didn’t have time to get it sampled, or they’ll go back during the season to check it out.
“There are some areas they could close or open at any time during the season, depending on the percentage of legal-sized oysters found in a particular area.”
Fishermen are urged to check in with the department regularly to determine which areas remain open or closed.
In recent legislative sessions, harvesting offenses and penalties have become more clearly defined, especially when it comes to harvesting too small oysters or fishing in closed areas.
“If you go in there and they catch you, the first two tickets are a Class C misdemeanor. The second time it goes to a Class B, and the third time it goes to a Class A,” she said.
Penalties range from a $25 to $500 fine for a Class C offense to license suspension, $500 to $4,000 in fines and/or one year in jail for a Class A offense.
“With new control measures in place, I’m hoping it will help us,” Halili said. “If the state’s going to all this trouble and wants an area to sit for a while and grow, I support that.”
While the state is working to restore lost oyster reefs and carefully monitoring harvesting practices, commercial fishermen are limited to harvesting no more than two bags, 110 pounds each, per person per day, and to dredging for oysters only five days a week, Monday through Friday.
That makes it tough to make a living when the weather doesn’t cooperate, sometimes forcing fishermen to go out in dangerous conditions to meet their quota, Halili said.
“We tell them, hey guys, it’s not worth it,” she said.
These fishermen serve an important purpose in preserving the oyster bed ecosystem when they do their job legally and properly, she said.
“We’ve had extremely high tides this year creating a lot of silt on reefs,” Halili said. “When they dredge, they’re sweeping off the dirt and debris that has sat on top of these reefs for six months.
“If they never fished, silt would just keep piling up, like dust piling up in your house if you don’t sweep.”
Riders roared into Galveston on Thursday for the Lone Star Rally, which is the nation’s largest four-day motorcycle event.
Island leaders are hoping to complete a decades-old effort to create a mechanism for economic development by forming a new group early next year.
The Community Development Corporation, which would be a non-governmental entity, would aim to bring more commercial development and middle-income housing to the island, a goal that island officials have been working on for years.
Forming the corporation stems from a recommendation by Vision Galveston, the community-driven effort that city leaders have said will become the foundation for an island-wide comprehensive plan.
Part of what the corporation would do is buy land that it can sell back to developers, who will build commercial businesses or housing priced for middle-income buyers, said Keath Jacoby, project director of Vision Galveston.
“We’re looking at teachers, young families, young professionals,” Jacoby said.
Buying land and assembling parcels of property large enough to be useful, which could sometimes involve negotiating with multiple owners, takes some of the risk and trouble out of investment for developers, Jacoby said.
“You’re trying to insert some control over the private market,” Jacoby said. “It’s a way to maintain affordability long term.”
It’s a goal city officials have been chasing for years, Mayor Jim Yarbrough said.
Yarbrough wants to see more middle-income houses between $125,000 to $250,000, so people who work on the island will be able to afford to live here, he said.
This kind of housing is essential to increasing the island’s population, bringing in business and ensuring the city’s long-term health, he said.
He hopes a non-governmental organization will have more flexibility than the city would have, he said.
“It’s very difficult for a public entity to create that land bank itself,” Yarbrough said.
The time is right for the effort because the availability of middle-income housing has become a priority for several industries needing workers, he said.
The city is expected in December to close two of the three remaining tax increment reinvestment zones, special taxing zones meant to spur development.
But after that, it will be time to re-evaluate the roles of the board that oversees these zones, Yarbrough said.
The Galveston Island Redevelopment Authority, The Galveston Housing Finance Corp. and Galveston Property Finance Corp. all oversee different areas of development on the island.
It may be time to combine their efforts to provide one avenue for collaboration with Vision Galveston’s new group, Yarbrough said.
“They need some way to interface with the city,” Yarbrough said.
The city has been making efforts to establish middle-income housing already.
Last year, the Galveston Housing Finance Corp. built five houses on Winnie Street as part of that effort, corporation Chairwoman Patricia Bolton-Legg said.
“The Galveston Island Housing Finance Corp. has already been successful,” Bolton-Legg said. “It’s been something that we’re already doing.”
The corporation has sold four of those houses, she said.
The city hasn’t approached the housing finance corporation about any changes to the board structure yet, Bolton-Legg said.
Vision Galveston expects to bring the Community Development Corporation into existence sometime early next year, Jacoby said.
Jacoby anticipates target areas for the corporation will include the downtown, north of Broadway and the area between University of Texas Medical Branch and The Strand, she said.