GN library modernization meets opposition from ex trustees

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The plan to modernize the Main Library reached another key hurdle, the Town of North Hempstead’s Board of Zoning Appeals, where the loudest voices heard were from the six people who came to defeat the project.

Among them, two former Library trustees Norman Rutta and Ralene Adler who have worked tirelessly for more than a decade to block any improvement to the building.

Besides personal attacks on board members, the opponents continue to wield the only weapon at their disposal – parking. After all, it worked so well five years ago when the town used the number of allocated parking spaces to declare that a variance for the expansion for the Main building could not be approved.

It is important to keep in mind that the town has no code regarding what is sufficient number of parking spaces for a library. An office building, but not a library. That is because the only library that it has jurisdiction over is the Great Neck Public Library, and that is because it is a free association, not part of the public schools.

But the parking issue has been used by Saddle Rock Mayor J. Leonard Samansky to extract all sorts of concessions from the library board on the project, having absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with Saddle Rock residents.

While stating that he did not support the project, he literally waved the written resolution in front of the BZA, wanting that board to somehow make the terms of the resolution conditions of granting the variance.

In effect, he wanted the terms binding in perpetuity. Forever. Long after he is no longer mayor. Long after the members of the library board have changed. People will be riding around in flying cars but Mayor Samansky wants to make sure that there will never be a sloped floor in the community room, and there will never be a cafe serving fresh coffee or muffins (vending machines are okay).

It is pathetic how the parking issue is being used. The new plan reduces the number of spots by six, in order to make the spots larger. The BZA has asked for a plan that restores the same striping so that there is no reduction in spots.

The BZA is more concerned about drainage issues, and here it is a curious thing, but the new library would be an improvement for the environment.

Right now, zero percent of the stormwater drains properly; it goes into Udall’s Pond. The new plan would capture or contain 95.5 percent of the water and the remaining 4.5 percent of the stormwater would be in the wetlands, where it belongs.

Nor does the present building, built before the American with Disabilities Act, provide adequately for people with disabilities, which means that there is a portion of our community that is not properly being served.

This appearance before the BZA, though, was just the warm-up for this small but extremely loud opposition group who will take their campaign to the community when it comes time for a bond referendum. By that time, a significant portion of the community would have had no clue about the underlying issues – I mean, this has been going on for years, now – and will no doubt only be persuaded that the economy is bad, we can’t afford a library.

That has been the claim for the past 15 years, even during the boom years of the 1990s: “The economy is bad. We can’t afford it.”

But if that becomes the claim, that we cannot afford a modernized library, the question would really be we can afford a Main Library at all.

And so it bears reminding what the real issues are.

During the past year, the library actually has had to close because of either the heating or the air-conditioning system failed. They have had to rebuild the front entrance because the door fell apart; to fix the facade after portions crashed down, fortunately not hitting anyone.

What is more, the building is terribly inefficient – we are basically flushing money away to keep it lighted, heated and cooled.

This was an opportunity to build a really green building, but that went by the wayside in order to placate those who said the cost of being green was too high.

When you consider what the library has been shelling out, just to keep it open – repairing the elevator, the roof, plumbing, electrical, just keeping the facade attached to the building – it is ridiculous. The building’s infrastructure has reached the end of its lifespan- to replace the electrical system, the HVAC, the plumbing, the roof, you are essentially spending as much as to modernize the building and make it more appropriate for the community today and tomorrow.

There are those who point to the growing popularity of e-books to suggest that because there will be fewer books in the future, the library does not need to be expanded at all.

But that misses the point entirely: Libraries today are more important than ever as gathering centers to share ideas and knowledge. We may download a book, but come to the library to hear the author discuss the creative process behind it.

You only had to see the Levels latest production of “12 Angry Men” to appreciate the value of what the library offers in our community that goes beyond being a warehouse for books. Serving 6th to 12th graders, who select their own projects, then direct, choreograph, do the costumes, sets and so forth, Levels is an utterly remarkable program that forges leadership and responsibility, builds self-discipline and self-esteem through the arts. “And they do it day after day,” says Library Director Jane Marino.

But if you argue that people will be reading fewer printed books, that is still an argument to modernize the building, not just patch it, because the building today cannot be changed. The columns that hold up the book shelves hold up the mezzanine. So if you suggest that there will be fewer books, that renders the space useless.

“I looked back at how the building was received in 1970,” Marino reflects. “The Great Neck Record had a quote, ‘Truly the new building is a library for people, not just a museum of musty old manuscripts. If libraries like it went up around the country, reading might just come back into vogue.’

“Forty years ago, people were making the argument that nobody was reading anymore, so why need libraries? Now the argument is that people are reading e-books, why need a library? I don’t believe the argument then, and not now.

“The Library is the most democratic institution in any community – we accept everyone and anyone. We don’t check IDs, ages, religious affiliations at the door; all you have to do is walk in and we will serve you. Libraries need to be valued for that service. We need to have a building that can be flexible enough and welcoming enough so that no matter what format and what face libraries take in the future, we will be able to serve our community.”

Rebuilding the library will allow for flexibility, to change the space in the future to meet needs that we might not be able to imagine today.

It makes no fiscal sense just to patch the building, or even just to rebuild it exactly as it is – which is what Adler, Rutta and Samansky want to do.

In order to reconstruct the identical structure and bring the building up to code and remove the asbestos will cost $16 million. But to add 8,500 sq. ft. and reconfigure it to be flexible, will cost $22.5 million.

“That’s an additional $6.5 million to get a 21st century library as opposed to replicating a 20th century library,” says Library Board President Andrew Greene. The difference is $25 a year for a house assessed at $1 million.

That 8,500 sq. ft. is not necessarily more people (or cars), but being able to provide the same services in a better way.

I find it particularly infuriating that in all this time that there has been this obstruction to modernizing the Main Library, each of the branches has been modernized, upgraded and expanded once and even twice.

Earlier this month, the new Station Branch was opened.

“This was a trial run for the main branch – to show we could do this on budget, and on time,” says Greene.

Much of the opposition to the Main Library has come from Parkville community. Now we hear from the Parkville community that they are demanding that building be expanded – that would be the third time in 15 years.

The BZA has 60 days from the time that the Library sends in the rest of the documents it requested to make its decision

Then the BZA, as lead agency, will take up the State Environmental Quality Review Act process. Since the state Department of Environmental Conservation has already issued its letter of nonjurisdiction, the only environmental issues that are likely to be considered pertain to parking and drainage – both aspects that the BZA is addressing in terms of the variances.

That would leave the community bond referendum, possibly in April, as the final hurdle.

And if the argument is that we can’t afford to rebuild the Main Library, I would suggest that we cannot afford the branches, and should put all of our resources into a Main Library, the only place that truly belongs to the community owns and that can support community gatherings.

It goes back to what we think of our community. What is community? We face a Dark Ages at the federal, state and county levels of government. We will be on our own. What kind of community do we want?

Too many of us take for granted what we have here – superior schools (you only had to hear South High’s winter concert to appreciate what makes our schools special), the parks, and our libraries – so fail to show up. But not turning out is casting lots with those who would tear down and break apart.

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