Updated: May 2
On August 17th, the Etna Pop-Up Library, located at 341 Butler Street, officially opened its doors for the first meeting in the Library Series. Residents joined in-person and online to hear an update on the library project and learn more about the vision. ECO Board Secretary Veni Mittal opened the meeting by celebrating the return of community meetings and set the stage for the evening:
"We are thrilled to announce that the Rivertown Library System being formed between Millvale and Etna is finally turning into reality. The Etna Branch of the Rivertown Libraries will be the space where we can come together to learn, to grow, and to thrive."
"Rivertown Libraries - Etna Branch" will be on the ground floor of 341-343 Butler Street and serve as both a library and community center.
Etna Mayor Tom Rengers, State Representative Sara Innamorato, and State Senator Lindsey Williams took turns to congratulate the community on its progress. Both Rep. Innamorato and Sen. Williams have written letters of support for the project in successful grant applications and helped advocate at the state and county level for the project. Mayor Rengers spoke to his gratitude for the collaboration with Millvale, welcoming Millvale Mayor Brian Spoales who was in attendance. Senator Williams spoke of her love for libraries as essential public spaces for communities. Representative Innamorato highlighted that this project is emerging from within the community:
"Whether we've been in Etna for generations or whether we just moved here . . . that voice, those stories, that vision is vital for Etna's future. And it is centered in this project. It is so apt that this once-beautiful main street building is becoming a library because what other place do you have the kind of accessibility, access to free resources, and essential public space besides a library?"
The ground floor will feature various-sized multi-purpose spaces to accommodate a variety of community uses.
ECO's Executive Director and Etna Borough Councilwoman, Megan Tuñón, described the journey of the library from an idea to a reality, and the steps that have been taken to secure the site for the future library. Megan shared how she and her husband bought the property in 2017 and held it in conservatorship until the nonprofit could purchase it for the same price. The audience saw examples of property values on Butler Street rising from 180% - 240% in the past five years:
"We're really proud of the moves that we made in 2017 to secure this property so that it can be preserved as a community asset for generations to come."
To hear from attendees and solicit feedback on the project, Megan asked five questions throughout the evening. Attendees participated by speaking during the various questions or writing into the Zoom chat. Robust dialogue was generated around what resources should be available at the library. While many highlighted technology, resident Fred Ehrhart voiced that access to technology was only part of the issue. He shared from his experiences in the social service sector, and stressed the need for human interaction and connection at the library. Bridget Barret, a resident who works in local government, echoed Fred's comments that the Etna Branch needs to be more than a library of things:
"Working for a state representative, I know that there are so many resources out there for folks. Having an open space with computers and internet access is key. But there also needs to be staff members and volunteers who are knowledgeable and can help people access these resources."
The highlight of the evening came from Millvale Community Library (MCL) Executive Director Nora Peters who gave an overview of the types of programming that are available at MCL. By describing a typical week at MCL, Nora helped Etna residents imagine what could be available at the Rivertown Libraries - Etna Branch in the future. She shared how staff at the library engage youth and other patrons in programming that ranges from STEAM to carpentry utilizing tools from the MCL's Tool Lending Library. The presentation demonstrated how the operations at the MCL go way beyond the traditional "transactional" library that is primarily used for checking out books; MCL focuses on relationships and experiences:
"There is a lot of activity happening at the library throughout the day. We could have 'All Bodies Welcome' yoga in the backyard, neighbors visiting the Free Fridge to access fresh food when they need it, teenagers coming in after school to use the computers, and ESL classes in the evening for Afgan families who recently resettled in Millvale."
"Story Market" - the entry to the Rivertown Libraries will welcome visitors with places to sit, access resources, and connect with a librarian.
Kendra Clarke, ECO Board Member and Chair of the Building Committee, spoke to the project's fulfillment of the Etna EcoDistrict commitments. She highlighted the Vision Statements that were written by community members, and how they have guided the development of the library project:
"For Social Equity, we envisioned that 'Etna is an inclusive community that embraces diversity and activates everyone to shape their own future'. In order to do this, we need places that allows us to reach that vision. This building will be an inclusive public space that has free access to resources and opportunities."
"Greenhouse Hall" - the library's large community room will be activated by library programming and a variety of uses.
ECO Board Chair and architect Robert Tuñón presented the building's design from the visioning phase. Before preconstruction funding was received, Robert provided pro bono architectural design support so that the project could progress and build momentum. During the presentation, he described the layout of the ground floor and the importance of the spaces not as a traditional library but as a place for people to connect with one another:
"This is a place where you are welcome to sit down and can comfortably stay for an entire afternoon. For you to meet your neighbor and sip coffee. To bring your grandchild and go to Storytime. For your teenager to play games with their friends or partake in the maker program. You'll come here to see lectures, share meals, and to learn something new. Some nights will have family movies and other nights there will be live music. This place will be center of life in Etna."
"Community Courtyard" - the library's backyard will have space for patrons, trees, and stormwater management features.
Local architect Nickie Cheung collaborated with Robert to create the renderings and spoke to the importance of designing with inclusion and diversity in mind:
"Each person will use these spaces differently. It is critical to think about all ages and abilities, race and cultural background, preferences and interests - so that the the library and community center can truly be for everyone."
"Maker Market" - the smallest of the multipurpose spaces is perfect for classes, meetings, and reading
Robert described that in each of the spaces, there's a connection to the outdoors - the quiet backyard trees or vibrant main street activity. As a visitor enters the library, they'll see straight through to Locust Street and catch a glimpse of First Congregational Church and the Etna Senior Center. In the spaces fronting Butler Street, patrons can people-watch the happenings at Cop Out Pierogies or former Winschel Hardware.
"Library Lofts" - the upper two floors of the building will have four one-bedroom apartments with great natural light and high ceilings.
On the upper floors, the existing apartments will be renovated to have improved layouts and healthier environments. The third floor was originally a speakeasy with 18 foot ceilings that will create a stunning living space for future residents. In all, there will be four one-bedroom apartments where the income will support the operations and future maintenance of the building.
Throughout the design presentation, Robert stressed the importance that the renderings represent ideas and will continue to evolve throughout the project.
Beechview Branch of the CLP - photo from GBBN.com
To help Etna get to the next stage on the project, ECO has hired the architectural firm GBBN to lead the redevelopment. GBBN has designed many of the region's award winning libraries and are deeply knowledgeable about contemporary library services. During the interview and selection process, it was clear that their experience in creative reuse of existing buildings, leadership in sustainability, partnerships with nonprofit clients, and expertise in library design was exceptional. Principal-in-charge Amanda Markovic and Project Architect Chris Guignon have already helped ECO, Etna Borough, and Rivertown Libraries transition towards the next stage by bringing new ideas and insight to the project. Chris spoke at the meeting about GBBN's history in Beechview and Baldwin through the completion of beautiful renovations at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh branches. Speaking to his affection and connection to the Triboro communities, Chris mentioned that he previously worked at planning consultant, evolveEA, who facilitated the Etna EcoDistrict planning process as well as those in Millvale and Sharpsburg. Following the meeting, Chris stayed for over an hour to talk to residents like Mary Ellen and Lou Benedict who spoke with the team about the indoor and outdoor gardening areas.
Representative Innamorato presented ECO with a state grant at the Triboro Ecodistrict Workshop in March 2022.
To close out the meeting, Megan addressed the project timeline. GBBN and their consultant team will be working from August to December to complete the architectural and engineering drawings that will be submitted for permitting. The General Contractor, Volpatt, has estimated a nine month construction period, so the combined timelines of documentation, permitting, and construction will be around sixteen months. That said, the largest timeline hurdle is fundraising for the $3.11 million project which has no projected date for completion and will delay the project until completed. To date, the Capital Campaign team has been successful at raising 25% of that amount. Luckily, ECO has had tremendous fundraising support from residents, the Borough of Etna, Representative Innamorato, Senator Williams, the Triboro Ecodistrict, the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, Allegheny County, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the Fugh Foundation to name a few.
The Etna Community Organization is grateful to each of the speakers and the two volunteers who supported the event: Maura Bainbridge and Melanie Rankin Groves. ECO is thrilled to be engaging the community around this vitally important project. The next opportunity to engage on the project will be at the Etna Art Tour at a table dedicated to the Rivertown Libraries and Triboro Ecodistrict. The meeting 'Vision for Etna's Library' was just the first in the series that will focus on different social equity issues and how libraries can be place in the community that promotes diversity, equity and belonging. The next meeting will take place on October 12th and will be on the topic of Diverse Identities and Inclusion. You can sign up here!
The slides from 'Vision to Etna's Library' can be viewed here.