Schenectady County

Library closure plan draws fire

The Friends of the Schenectady County Public Library are a little less friendly these days toward th

The Friends of the Schenectady County Public Library are a little less friendly these days toward the Democratic-controlled county Legislature.

The library support group has launched an effort to prevent the county from closing the central branch of the library for the next 10-12 months as part of a $7.7 million overhaul. Earlier estimates placed the shutdown at 18 months.

Several members of the volunteer group, which raises money for and provides free help to the library system, attended a presentation on the proposal at Monday night’s committee meeting of the Schenectady County Legislature. They were not allowed to speak; the privilege of the floor is reserved for the regular monthly meeting, to be held May 13.

However, Friends President Bernard Allanson said after the presentation he has serious concerns about the closure, scheduled to begin this summer. The Friends are concerned about the public’s loss of programming and access to free Internet, the closure’s effect on downtown businesses and the way the Legislature pushed the project through without any public discussion.

One volunteer at Monday night’s meeting said leadership in the county Legislature forced library trustees to accept the latest design, otherwise the county would not pay for the work.

Eugene A. Rowland, a 30-year member of the Friends, said he believes the Legislature ignored the needs of the library and the public. “About 1,400 people use it each day and it has some services not available at other branches. To me, this is very poor planning. They are saying the easy way is to shut it down and that is how they will do it.”

Friends’ member Fred Thompson said the group distributed 1,000 surveys to people attending its book sale Saturday at the central library. People returned 725, and 710 of the respondents said they did not want to see the library closed. Based on this response, “the public is against the closure,” Thompson said.

Friends’ member Eleanor Rowland said four years ago the Friends and library trustees came up with a proposal to build an addition between the library and the police station. The project was less expensive and would not have resulted in the closure, she said.

Eugene Rowland called the design a no-frills plan that did not change the present entrance of the branch and did not eliminate the McChesney Room, which serves as a public meeting room. “It was a simple design. It was functional and it would have done what we wanted to do for four to five million dollars,” he said.


He said library trustees took the plan about two years ago to the Democrat-controlled county Legislature, but the Legislature decided to start over. It hired a new architectural firm at a cost of $455,000 for what was then supposed to be a $4.9-million project. The project was to construct an addition.

The project grew to its present cost when a review determined that the building’s operating systems needed to be replaced, that handicapped-accessible bathrooms had to be installed and that the library grounds required extensive landscaping.

The project underwent extensive redesigns over the next two years, the most radical occurring in 2007. That was when a committee consisting of county Legislature Chairwoman Susan Savage, D-Niskayuna, Legislator Vincent DiCerbo, D-Schenectady, and County Manager Kathleen Rooney balked at the building’s exterior design and at plans to add a second entrance from the rear parking lot.

“They came up with a plan that replaces the present entrance, eliminates the McChesney Room and adds a coffee shop that no one thinks we need,” Rowland said.

Engberg Anderson Design Partnership of Milwaukee prepared the final design. It calls for the addition of 9,000 square feet to the first floor. While this is less than the originally proposed 15,000-square-foot expansion, the new design contains double the space for the children’s room, a small cafe, a performance center and a private reading room. It also retains the building’s architectural look through the use of brick and precast and poured concrete.

The design will remove the protruding semicircular McChesney Room from the library’s Clinton Street side and make the entire wall flush. Library officials will rename another area the McChesney Room.

Preservationist group Schenectady Heritage Foundation opposes the demolition of the McChesney Room. It says the library’s current configuration is historically significant architecture that should be preserved.

Eleanor Rowland said the design change pushed up the cost. “No one wanted the new entrance, not the Friends, not the trustees,” she said.


The closure could become an election issue if Republicans have anything to do about it. Minority Leader Robert Farley, R-Niskayuna, called the project a “case of poor planning.” He said the county “cannot close this library. I will tell you, ladies and gentlemen, your constituents will have your heads.”

The potential political fallout of closing the central library could force Democrats to postpone the project for a year or longer, said one Democrat legislator, who did not want to be identified.

Project manager Tony Ward said the county learned in March it would have to close the library to complete the project on time and within budget. “There isn’t an inch of this site not affected by the construction,” he said.

The interior will be gutted and new heating, lighting, plumbing and air conditioning systems installed. The county will also have to install sprinklers, which were not required 40 years ago, to bring the building up to code. He said public safety would be jeopardized by the level of work, making even limited access impossible.

“There would be no place to sit and the most it could accommodate was 100 people a day,” Ward said.

Library Director Andy Kulmatiski is developing contingency plans to increase programs and services at the system’s nine branches and other sites downtown should the library close this summer.

The current cost of the project is $3.5 million for the addition and $1.6 million for repairs to the library’s aged, mostly original electrical, plumbing, heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. The architects factored in $339,000 for site work, $843,413 for new furnishings, a 10 percent inflation cost of $561,504 and $849,406 for professional fees and testing. The final price tag is $404,221 less than the initial design proposed two years ago.

The county Legislature will provide $5.7 million toward the project, paid through bonds. The library board and Friends of the Library have raised about $2 million in private donations.

Categories: Schenectady County

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