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Academy anatomy

Skeleton of Provo landmark has some folks thinking boondoggle while others envision glorious library

PROVO — Gene Nelson can't wait for Independence Day 2001. He's even already picked out a spot to watch Provo's patriotic parade.

Nelson eagerly anticipates crowds he hopes will gather on University Avenue in front of the newly rebuilt Academy Square, which is scheduled to open about two months before the next Freedom Festival celebration.

"There were a lot of skeptics who said this couldn't be done," Nelson said during a recent tour of the historic structure that will be the city's library when finished. "And you're here. You see it."

In the year since work first began on the $22 million project, Nelson, Provo's library director, says the 100,000-square-foot project, which includes an overhaul of the 108-year-old Education Building, a connecting new wing and an underground parking lot, is about 60 percent complete.

"We are right on schedule and right on budget," he said, scanning workers on the site at 500 North toiling in the sweltering 102-degree heat. "It's like a beehive in here every day, I'll tell you that."

And even with its haggard, skeletal appearance — a partially finished roof, bare steel girders and scaffolding that wraps around the south side of the three-story edifice — Nelson envisions a building that he says eventually will be one of the city's crown jewels.

"This will bring a real spark of life to this part of the city, this part of the neighborhood," he said.

However, there's been some grumbling among neighborhoods and business groups of the metropolitan county seat that the diamond in the rough is cubic zirconium. Some say they were bamboozled when the project was sold to residents — and wonder if they paid too much for what is essentially a new building with a costly historic brick facade.

In 1997, 58 percent of voters approved a $16.8 million bond issuance for a reconstruction of the vacant, crumbling building that was rumored to be the haunt of cults.

The vote saved the building, the last remnant of Brigham Young Academy, which has since grown into Brigham Young University. Officials from Provo, which owned the property, had planned a demolition date before the bond vote.

Other costs of the 18-month project not paid for by the bond are covered by $5.5 million in donations raised by the Brigham Young Academy Foundation, headed by former BYU communications chief Lee Bartlett.

But some folks say it would have been less expensive for taxpayers to raze the building and start all over. Those who pass the brick school, like Mark Steinagel, who lives near the soon-to-be spacious library, see a new, modern building — with only a facade of the historic brick.

"It just bugs me," said Steinagel, a Brigham Young University graduate student. "They paid all of that money just to hold up bricks. Why did they go to all the trouble?"

Provo School Board President Mossi White says she received phone calls from concerned parents who did not want the district to attempt a costly renovation of the 101-year-old elementary school.

What she hears most often, she said, is that people didn't want "another Academy Square" — meaning an attempt to keep a historic flavor of the building by tacking the original brick to the front of a modern, new building.

Criticism is nothing new for plans to refurbish the once-stately building. Critics have long insisted that the dilapidated buildings be bulldozed in favor of commercial properties.

In fact, at the time of the vote to approve a bond issuance, and to the horror of history buffs who had a sentimental tie to Academy Square, Provo was in talks with a development company that had plans to build on the block.

But Provo residents may receive exactly what they paid for: a state-of-the-art library in a building that reminds them of their pioneer roots.

For example, the new wing is double the size of the current library. Plus, the Academy Square of the new millennium will boast story-telling pits, an art gallery, office spaces, places for literacy and adult-education programs, 100 computers with Internet connections and a ballroom with replicas of the chandeliers that hung when it opened before the turn of the 20th century.

And, says Nelson with unfiltered enthusiasm over the rat-tat-tat of a nearby jackhammer of the construction crew, the planned interior designs mimic the home decor of the 1890s. Stairs leading from the second to the third floor also will be replicas of the original staircase and banister, he said.

"You wouldn't believe some of the stuff that has been found and given to us for the library," he said. One of the original bells used to herald the day's classes was donated to be showcased at the library when finished.

And Nelson, who has supervised the construction of three libraries in Las Vegas before coming to Utah, said the costs for Academy Square are similar to the Nevada libraries he supervised to completion.

"I completed a 120,000-square-foot library — 20 more than Academy Square — and our costs are very much in line with the costs for that library," he said. "In my mind, we're paying for a 100,000-square-foot building. The Brigham Young Academy Foundation is paying for the renovation work. I'm not an expert on building, but for a building this size, I don't think you could get it for under $18 million.

For his part, Nelson said the project, when complete, will be heralded as one of the best libraries and community centers in the Mountain West. He's also taken some heat for not keeping the exact floor plan of the original building and removing old trees from the block's perimeter.

He answers that the structure had to be redone to meet safety and seismic codes and the floor plan needed to be more like a library instead of a school. And, yes, the trees will be replaced with extensive landscaping, he says.

Regardless, he says with conviction, on March 8, the project's target completion day, critics of the reconstruction will find the money well spent.

"I'm sorry the perception is out there. Everything that I understand is that we've done exactly what we told people we were going to do," he said. "When all is said and done, once people get here and allow the library to part of their lives, then we will win them over."

E-mail: jeffh@desnews.com