Acknowledging not everyone will be happy, trustees voted 7-2 to replace the existing building to meet the library’s future needs and address serious deficiencies in the current space. Though the board plans to start a fundraising campaign, ultimately the project will likely have to bond a significant portion, and that will require a public vote of approval.
“I just think we have to bite the bullet and make a decision,” board President Dorothea Marcus said before trustees voted at a crowded meeting on January 18.
Marcus had leaned toward a renovation with addition in December after reviewing the results of a survey showed 70 percent of more than 900 respondents favored something other than a teardown and complete replacement. That was before she and other board members heard from people for a new building and started to tackle the fiscal realities and unknowns of a renovation.
“In December I had come around to favoring renovation. Then I heard people who were favoring new who hadn’t been vocal,” Marcus said. “Several board members felt it was our responsibility to do what was fiscally best.”
While former Facilities Task Force member Eliza Kunkel had urged the board to wait until all trustees could be present to vote, Marcus said that wouldn’t be possible until April.
“I helped administer the survey. I knocked door to door, got behind it, looked at the results,” said Trustee Caroline Jerome. Information from ADG Cohn, the firm hired to provide the Master Facilities Plan, told another story, Jerome said.
“Focus groups also gave me information that I am absorbing as I make my decision. Somebody said the most practical thing is to build new and I really feel that way,” she said.
“I’m thinking of the children and the youngsters coming down the road for the next 20, 30 years. Since I have family that was born here and raised here and hope that will come back here, I think new,” Trustee Tammy Katzowitz said.
“We’ve talked to several architects. Every single one says building new is the way to go, that renovation is going to ultimately be more expensive and probably not last as long,” Trustee David Lewis said. “I can’t think of a worse avenue to go than to bond for 30 years for a renovation that only gives us maybe 10 or 15 years worth of use and then we have to go out and try to bond again,” he said in favor of new construction.
Vice President Barry Miller used the car analogy in favoring new construction. “How long do you have a car before you have to replace it? The chassis, if it starts rotting out, has to be replaced. In most cases, that’s completely rebuilding a car from the ground up,” he said.
Building Committee Chair Jill Fisher said the board needs to act based on what is most prudent for the library, not on emotions. “I know the feelings, I know the emotions that this library has for so many people. But I don’t think the trustees should decide based on emotion,” Fisher said. “We need to get the most for our public dollars that we can get, and I think the only way to do that is with new (construction).”
Trustee Bobby Bui acknowledged it is hard to make a decision without all the information, but still favored new construction while preserving a sense of history.
Trustees Elaine Hammond and Liz Rosen were absent, though Hammond had communicated that she would have voted for renovation and expansion had she been present.
In dissenting opinions, trustees Selma Kaplan and Jesse Jones said a new building goes against what the people are willing to support.
“This has been agonizing. This has really been agonizing. What I am going to say is tough. I’ve said all along that the library I want is the library that the town will support,” Kaplan said. “Based on what I’ve seen, the results of the survey, the feedback we’ve gathered from a year’s worth of public meetings and conversations with people in town who I’ve spoken with, my personal sense is that the voters will be more likely to support a renovation and an addition than a new building.”
Jones said based on his understanding, a renovation with addition would save about $1 million over new construction, but it’s the public support that ultimately matters. “To vote for an option that takes the wrecking ball to this place, really would be a blatant insult to the community, 70 percent of which have said they want to preserve this place,” Jones said. “I don’t see how we could do that and reasonably expect to be able to succeed.”
Both Jones and Kaplan said they will work with the board regardless of what is decided.
The library has attempted for the last 10 years to plan an expansion, though previous attempts were unsuccessful. A large-scale project failed to gain support in 2007 when the board, seeing a lack of support for a bond, sought to finance it through a series of yearly budget increases. More recently, the board scrapped a plan to construct an 1,800-square-foot annex on land formerly occupied by the Library Laundromat across the street at 6 Library Lane.
Not the usual suspects
Fourteen people spoke and letters were read from two others. Of that, 12 were in favor of new construction, a departure from past meetings — though many who spoke are active members of Friends of the Library, a group that provides funding and support for library operations.
Sam Magarelli and Gay Leonhart, who created the survey and worked with the board to get it distributed, feel going with new construction is a mistake given the results.
“A few months ago it looked like the library was poised to pull all the energies about improving the library, all those interests together,” Magarelli said. “Unfortunately it seems that we’ve gotten back into this tribalism about who’s right and who’s wrong and which way to go.”
Magarelli said passing a bond to finance the project is going to be difficult enough and choosing new construction will go against the people’s wishes. “I understand a lot of you think it’s the right thing to do to tear this place down. But it may not be the wisest thing if you’re going to be losing large number of the people in the community who would actually be supporting you if you made the right choice,” Magarelli said. “I’m sad to think that we had come so close to pulling the community together. Now it seems like you’re on the precipice of provoking a division again.”
Leonhardt couldn’t attend the meeting, so Marcus read her written comments.
“I can’t understand why the board might pursue the most expensive and least desired plan. The whole idea of the survey was for the board to have a basis of action that would have public support in a bond referendum,” Leonhardt wrote. “Do we really need to spend money again on architectural plans in order to have another bond voted down again?”
Barbara Schacker, who has followed the progress of library plans since the failed annex proposal, agreed with that sentiment.
“Keep in mind that if you go against the 70 percent of people who do not want to have a teardown and total rebuild, that you may lose the public trust,” she said. “And that public trust is like gold. That is the most important thing we need to have in order to embark on this journey.”
Marcus defends board decision
“We don’t feel we disregarded the survey,” Marcus said. “When I got home that night I knew we were doing the right thing.”
The survey was considered along with recommendations of expert consultants, many of whom have said new construction is favorable.
“When we thought of it practically, [it] probably would have been pretty much a gut renovation anyway,” Marcus said when asked about the vote. “They (the experts) were very dubious of how we could do it.” Marcus said the board understands people are very nostalgically attached to the building and the decision wasn’t taken lightly.
“In Woodstock, we know it’s never easy. We are acting in good faith,” Marcus said, and encouraged people to “just hang in there and wait until we have some real designs.”
Many of those who spoke for new construction stressed the belief that much of the building is not historically significant and what the library needs is a modern facility.
“A library is an institution. It’s not a building,” Leslie Gerber said. “This great institution is a 21st century library in a 19th century building. It doesn’t even have space for this meeting. Things have to be cleared away to enable people to have a place to sit.”
Gerber raised doubts the hodgepodge of different wings assembled over the years could survive a renovation and cautioned against spending money on such an unknown.
“And if that happens it would be a huge waste of money spent on a failed renovation and the library would then have to be replaced anyway,” he said.
Eliza Kunkel cautioned against the complexities involved in renovating an old building while planning for a new addition and raised doubts about historical significance.
“Other than possibly one small corner room, this building is simply not historic,” she said. “If you choose to renovate, you’ll be competing for available grants with our town board, who aim to renovate the town offices on the Comeau, which is an actual historic building.” Kunkel said renovation costs almost always rise and it is much easier to raise money for new construction.
Friends volunteer Sheila Isenberg believes 29 percent of survey respondents who favor new construction is a “solid base” from which to build and noted 80 percent wanted a larger library. New construction, Isenberg said, eliminates the problems with renovation.
“I live in an old house, as many of you here do,” she said. “It’s really hard to renovate perfectly. And as you all know, once you start renovating, new problems develop.”
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
“I don’t believe there’s any right decision. You are going to get hammered no matter what you agree on,” said Chris Collins, who noted he knows what its like to make difficult decisions as a former town councilman. “There’s no right decision. Anybody who thinks they have the right decision I think is wrong.”
Still, Collins prefers new construction. “You can build new and it can look lovely. It doesn’t have to look like the public high school that was built 50 or 60 years ago.”
Not serving all of the community
Director Jessica Kerr said the library should be able to serve everyone who walks through its doors, but it can’t do that right now. “People with strollers, people with mobility issues can’t get in our door. Our front door is never going to be ADA compliant, nor is our ramp,” she said.
Marcus said it’s a wonder nobody has been seriously injured yet, given all the building’s deficiencies. Seniors have difficulty getting up and down the stairs for meetings.
Kerr noted staff uses valuable time getting rooms prepared.
“A half hour setup and breakdown for every single meeting and program is a heck of a lot of staff time that’s not happening between a person or presenting a program. It’s moving chairs around,” she said. “It’s pretty sad that that’s what staff are doing so much of and I’m doing so much of. Because when all you leave tonight, I’m going to move these chairs back around.”
So, what’s next?
“In the next few months, we’ll be creating an architectural program,” Kerr said.
Through focus groups with the staff and others, the library will figure out how to incorporate programming needs and the three-year Plan of Service into designs.
In the more immediate future, Kerr will work on a frequently asked questions section of the library website to answer people’s questions about timelines and the board’s decision.
Though the timeline isn’t certain, the board will begin to come up with a more solid plan at its February 15 meeting.
“We’re really focusing on local architects” for the next phase, Marcus said. One idea is to have a design competition where entries will be put on display and the public can vote on their favorite choices. Alternatively, the board can publish a request for proposals and chose an architect for the schematic design phase.
“By February 15, we should have a tentative timetable,” Marcus said. “The main thing is getting input on design and fundraising.”
More focus groups may start in March.
Both Marcus and Kerr stressed nothing is happening quickly.
“We’re a long way from doing anything to the building,” Marcus said.
While Woodstock Times was unable to attend the January 18 trustee meeting, this article was developed through video footage and interviews in the days since the board voted.