Oslo’s new city government has decided to move forward with troubled plans to build a new public library at its leakage-plagued site on the eastern waterfront at Bjørvika. The project still faces huge budget overruns and expensive operation in the future, however, so the library will have to share the building with business tenants who can provide rental income.
“More than 60 percent of the project will be reserved for the library,” the city’s new government leader, Raymond Johansen of the Labour Party, said at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. The rest of the space, he said, will need to be leased to businesses “that fit into a building devoted to knowledge.”
Newspaper Aftenposten had reported last week that the entire project, known as the Main Deichman Library, might be scrapped because of the costs involved, some of them unforeseen but others that seem to have been overlooked. The biggest problem has simply been its site on the muddy shore of the city’s eastern harbour. Although Norway’s adjacent Opera House has been a success, and no problems with unstable ground or leakage have been detected at another nearby site where the new Munch Museum will be built, the Deichman site has created huge challenges. Water kept pouring into the hole dug for the library’s intended cinema in a cellar, for example, and that much-hyped aspect of the project had to be dropped.
The problems have led to a budget overrun already of around NOK 500 million and several years of delays. City officials, not least Johansen, are also worried about high costs not only to build but later operate and maintain the building. If they backed out, though, contract provisions meant they wouldn’t have been allowed to resell the site, and could only turn it back over to the harbour administration that sold it, in return for a refund of the initial purchase price of NOK 156 million. Several hundred million kroner invested in the library project would be lost, and that’s a loss Johansen and the new Labour-led coalition he heads weren’t willing to take.
It was Johansen’s own Labour Party that had pushed hard for the Bjørvika site, as part of the Norwegian capital’s ongoing redevelopment of its waterfront. The library itself has been needed for decades, since it long ago outgrew its current location near the government complex downtown. Alarms rang last week that Labour now was about to drop the project, to avoid building something that threatens to be a drain on city finances for years to come.
On Wednesday Johansen and his new city finance director, Robert Steen, came up with NOK 388 million to bail out the project and resume construction. After what he and his political colleagues called a “thorough evaluation” of the project, they concluded that alternative scenarios were not worthwhile.
Library fans, authors and other activists who had mobilized to halt any plans to scrap the project were relieved. “This is great news,” author Tom Egeland told state broadcaster NRK. “There has been massive pressure on the city government to build a main library.” It’s now hoped that it finally can open by 2020.