Guilderland library to reopen in the midst of construction

Enterprise file photo — Melissa Hale-Spencer

The Guilderland Library building has been closed to the public since March 13. The library trustees will review a reopening plan on Sept. 17.

GUILDERLAND — Bids are due back on the Guilderland Public Library’s $8 million expansion project on Sept. 22.

The documents and specs were sent out on Sept. 1, a day later than originally planned as the library trustees met the evening of Aug. 31 to consider keeping the building closed to the public while the construction is underway.

The project to upgrade and expand the library passed with 58 percent of the vote in May 2019.

All 10 trustees who attended the virtual meeting on Aug. 31 voted to stay the course and proceed with the bid documents as drafted. During the two-hour-and-40-minute meeting, several trustees expressed frustration with the lack of information on what the savings — both in time and money — would have been had the building remained closed.

Several trustees also said they were eager for the building to be reopened to the public. Guilderland’s library, like all of those across the state, was closed by executive order in March to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The library has continued its services with remote programs and, for the last few months, has provided curbside pick-up of materials.

The library’s director, Timothy Wiles, told The Enterprise this week that he will present a reopening plan to the trustees as their next regularly scheduled meeting, on Sept. 17. Another special meeting will then be set for the board to review the bids. The goal, Wiles said, is to have chosen a general contractor by the end of September.

The addition on the library’s east end, for youth programs, needs to be built and closed in “before the ground freezes and the snow flies,” said Wiles, so that work indoors can continue throughout the winter.

“Each step flows from the last one,” said Wiles. If all goes well, both with the weather and the health of workers in the midst of the pandemic, construction is expected to take 11 months. So, said Wiles, if construction begins on Oct. 15, the project should be completed by Sept. 15, 2021.

Wiles said of the trustees’ unanimous Aug. 31 vote, “The board made a wise decision not to choose that plan because we could not quantify savings although I suspect it would have been significant.”

 

August 31 meeting

“This is a brainchild of our director,” said Kaitlin Downey, the board’s president, running her third meeting.

Wiles told the board he faced two main challenges: reopening safely and getting the new building built. It occurred to him it might save time and money if the library continued with its curbside pickup and perhaps opened a meeting room for patrons to use as a library while construction work went on elsewhere in the building.

“I’m fine either way,” Wiles told the board. “I’m not involved in this in an ego sense.”

The board’s secretary, Cathy Barber, raised the idea that voters decide on a library budget every spring and may not be supportive if the building has been closed through then.

This past June, the library’s $4 million budget passed with 64 percent of the vote.

The construction manager was on vacation so couldn’t answer questions at the Aug. 31 meeting. When asked about the savings, Architect Paul Mays said closing the building would probably save a month of construction time. “We don’t have a quantifiable number,” he said.

“There’s no guarantee we’d save money and we might not save time,” said Trustee Peter Hubbard, adding, “We pledged to the residents of Guilderland we’d be open.”

“We did it in print. We did it in meetings,” agreed Wiles, of promising that the library would stay open during construction.

Wiles said he had heard from just six patrons, through email, who were frustrated about the library building being closed because of the pandemic and five of them “seemed satisfied” with his response. “I have not heard an extreme clamor,” he said.

“I feel like I have failed you … in telling how difficult it is to reopen …,” Wiles told the board. “Any guidance that does exist is not written for buildings under construction.”

Trustee Barbara Fraterrigo said she has heard from constituents who say, if the library doesn’t provide more services, they won’t support the next year’s budget.

“How do we monitor what people are doing remotely?” Trustee Jason Wright asked about library staff.

Wiles responded that department heads manage the schedules as always and daily or weekly reports are filed.

Trustee Richard Rubin said he came to the meeting “ready to vote to close the library and get the construction done.” But then, upon learning that the library would be closed until next July and that there would be a budget vote in the spring, he said it was important to hear from residents. Rubin proposed surveying residents within 14 days and postponing seeking bids until then.

“It gives us breathing room and currency with the public,” said Rubin.

Fraterrigo responded that forces in the community could “just bombard” a survey. “I would depend on what I heard from my fellow citizens more than a survey that can be padded,” said Fraterrgo.

She also said that the delay would threaten the construction schedule of having the addition enclosed by winter.

In the end, although a number of the trustees said they liked the idea of surveying residents, they felt the timing was off.

“If we don’t vote tonight, I don’t think what we’re going to do right now is going to matter a month from now,” said Vice President Nareen Rivas.

Rubin read a section of Kristen Robert’s Bethlehem library column, from The Altamont Enterprise, on “how to be your best library” in the midst of a pandemic and urged, “Try to align public perception with the reality of what we are doing.”

“Kids start school next week,” said Hubbard, stating the building should open sooner rather than later.

Before the vote to proceed with construction as originally planned, with the library open, each trustee before saying “yes,” gave a reason why.

Fraterrigo said she wanted to keep the promise made to the community.

Bryan Best said, while he was still waiting for an email from the Guilderland library on a book he’d requested, he walked into the Colonie library and got it. “When you’re open, you can grab what you need,” he said.

Barber said, “We don’t have enough information to justify closing the building for the year.”

Wright urged, “We should create a plan on how to reopen.”

“I’m a lawyer by profession and I don’t like loose ends,” said Marcia Alazraki, saying that she hadn’t been given information she’d asked for.

The public wasn’t anticipating having the library closed for 18 months, said Mark Keeling.

Hubbard quoted from an Altamont Enterprise story in which Wiles said construction would not interfere with library activities.

“In the absence of knowing what the community feels … our responsibility is to do the thing that serves the community best,” said Rubin.

Going ahead with the bids as planned gives the library the most options, said Downey.

Rivas told Wiles it is “not easy to be in your shoes,” navigating, a staff, the public, and COVID.

“Don’t forget, I have to navigate the board too,” responded Wiles.

After the unanimous vote, the board heard from a caller, Mark Grimm, a Replican representing part of Guilderland in the Albany County Legislature.

Grimm said Wiles lacked resolve and that the library should have opened already. He urged the board to push the administration.

Grimm also complained that the notice for the Aug. 31 meeting did not mention keeping the library building closed as part of the discussion. In June 2012, Grimm had fought a $13 million project that would have updated the library and nearly doubled its size, which was ​defeated​, 3 to 1, by about a quarter of Guilderland’s roughly 22,000 registered voters.

Wiles said this week, “Mark’s criticism is reasonable and appreciated.” He added, “To me the proposal was about saving money and construction time.”

To make the public aware of the meeting, Wiles said, “We took the unprecedented step of using our Constant Contact.” He was referencing software that sent a meeting notice to over 10,000 email addresses the library has amassed of patrons over the years.

 

Reopening plan

The reopening plan that Wiles will present to the board on Sept. 17 will be to offer services at a sort of library within the library.

One of the library’s two large meeting rooms, the Normanskill Room, is accessible to people with handicaps and could be set up to offer library services while construction disrupts activities elsewhere in the building, Wiles said.

He is grateful to staff for coming up with the idea about three weeks ago, he said.

It was foresighted, in 1992, when the Guilderland library was built, to have two large meeting rooms, said Wiles, anticipating the huge growth in library programming.

The curbside services currently being offered will continue as well, he said.

The Guilderland library had about 10,620 checkouts and 17,000 check-ins during July and August., which Wiles called “a very significant number.”

He estimated that is about half of the regular flow of materials, which he called “very surprising and pleasing.”

The biggest hurdle in coming up with a reopening plan, Wiles said, has been determining how many people are to be allowed in the library.

“I’ve been unable to get anyone from New York State to tell me the proper occupancy number,” he said. “I’ve talked to literally every agency in the town, county, and state.”

While the Guilderland Fire Department sets an occupancy number for meeting rooms, there is none for open space.

“We may just have to pick a number,” he said.

Determining this number is problematic because it has to include staff; patrons; and construction workers, which could range from 4 to 40 on any given day, said Wiles.

The library will be hiring a general contractor as well as five subcontractors, he said, calling it “an exquisite math problem.”

Another logistical problem, Wiles said, is the state has developed no specific guidelines for each of the four types of libraries in New York State.

Guilderland has a library that follows school-district boundaries, and elects its own board which sets its budget and levies taxes.

“We chose to use Phase 2 of retail guidelines,” said Wiles as the closest guidance for a library. But, he notes, a retail store does not need to plan on items being returned, sanitized, and recirculated, as a library does.

Asked about the Guilderland library’s plans to help students returning to school this month, many of them learning remotely, Wiles said, “Until the board accepts or directs something other, we’ll continue our online services and curbside pick-ups.”

“The community has a great hunger for information, entertainment, and reading,” Wile said.

The goal, he said, is to provide those materials in a manner that is “both safe and legal.” Wiles went on,  “I would hope the citizens of Guilderland continue to be as kind and patient as they have been while we deal with this unprecedented pandemic and legal bureaucracy.”

Wiles surmises that some Guilderland residents are “not quite read to routinely enter public places” while there is also a “passionate minority that has been ready for a long, long time.”

He noted of COVID-19, “If you accidentally expose somebody, we could be kicked back quite a bit.”

Wiles concluded, “We’re sailing through a narrow strait.”

Wiles said of himself and the library staff, “We are chomping at the bit. We would like to be of more use to our community.”

Since March 13, when libraries across the state were closed, Guilderland staff has worked from home. Most library work is done on computers, Wiles said, so can be done remotely.

“In late June, the governor allowed us to return to the building with 50 percent of staff,” he said. “We divided the staff into two teams of 30 each.”

Each team — labeled yellow and blue after the library’s logo — is in the library building for 14 days straight, the length of incubation for COVID-19, and then works from home.

Wiles said he has as much interplay with staffers at home as he does with staffers at the library.

“There’s no shortage,” he said of work being done. He gave the example of the summer reading program. In addition to the regular model, a virtual model, and a hybrid model were developed.

“That’s three times the work,” said Wiles. “My whole staff is working hard.”

He concluded, “The 30 people in this building every day are working like Tasmanian devils. To me, we aren’t closed … It was never my intent to sneak that past the board or public.”

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