Plans to renovate the Port Jefferson Free Library range from monumental to merely functional, with the outcome ultimately hinging on a confluence of factors, from economics to the opinions of village residents.
In the end something will have to be done.
The current structure and layout are not conducive to the needs of a modern library, according to the administration and planning reports —and might even be cause for security concerns.
From the moment the first cornerstone of the current structure was laid in 1924, the library has grown to accommodate the needs of the village, now sprawling across East Main Street to encompass leased space housing the Teen Center and Friends of the Library.
But a facilities study commissioned by the library shows some problematic areas, including a cramped and potentially unsafe conference space in the main building’s lower levels, insufficient parking, a dated computer room and the potential liabilities of renting and operating a separate building.
The report cited the lower conference room as especially concerning in that it has no interior windows, the corridor outside is unwelcoming, and is a security hazard given its somewhat hidden location.
The value residents place in historical preservation is evidenced by the fact that although the original 1924 library structure fronting East Main Street was found to be underutilized — going unnoticed by many patrons — those surveyed said they found the room to be the “nicest part of the library” and would not want to see it changed.
It’s no easy task accounting for the requirements of today’s libraries to service their residents, both old and young, and the updates that have to be done for economic and safety reasons.
Years of planning and public input on the project have already taken place, according to Library Director Tom Donlon, and the board and administration ultimately say they want to create a library that will work for current and future patrons alike.
“It’s all about programs and events,” Donlon said about the direction a modern library must take.
A presentation available on the library website and unveiled to the public in 2016 shows the full scope of the project.
(Two pages from the report appear below.)
The library owns two properties adjacent to the main building: 114 Thompson Street, a condemned residence, and 205 Main Street, also known as the Thomas Bayles House or the 1812 House, which was formerly the home of The Scented Cottage Garden gift shop.
In past meetings, the village requested the library merge all three properties together
Plans call for a renovation of the 1812 House at 205 Main Street and the construction of a barn-like structure between it and the back of the current library.
The new structure would be used as a one-story meeting room and connect the library to the 1812 House, which would be used for administrative offices and staff.
The current circulation area and library director’s office behind it would be opened up for the area to flow into the new structure. The interior of the current library would be reorganized to better use available space.
Ultimately, the Teen Center and Friends of the Library bookstore would be brought back onto the main campus. Donlon noted that the teens using the center enjoyed being separate from the rest of the library.
“The teens don’t want to be with adults at all,” he joked.
The current downstairs meeting room would be renovated and updated to house a new teen center.
The plans were developed by Patchogue-based BBS Architects, which has done work for other Long Island libraries including an expansion for the Smithtown Library and a new Manhasset Public Library.
It is expected that the addition will provide 3,000 square feet of new space. The 1812 house provides the potential for approximately 2,900 square feet to use, according to architectural drawings included in the presentation.
In public meetings, library board members and administrators stressed the financial advantage of bringing those areas back into the fold.
They estimated the cost to run the facility across East Main Street at anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000 per month in rent, utilities and additional staffing resources.
“That’s money going out the door that we’re not investing in the library itself,” Donlon said. He called it a “great space,” but said that “fiscally, it’s been a nightmare.”
The property the library owns at 114 Thompson Street is described as a burned-out, condemned house that will need to be razed. For years, the library has contemplated using the property for additional parking, adding ten spots, essentially doubling the currently available parking capacity. The parking lot would be at a higher elevation than the current one.
Some residents have opposed that idea, saying it would change the character of the residential street, encourage loitering and attract congregators for the wrong reasons.
Donlon attempted to allay their fears, saying security would be addressed including a police presence.
“The 6th precinct will patrol the area,” he said.
The plans were submitted to the village and Donlon said that the library has had a couple of working sessions with the Planning Board.
“Once that’s done, assuming the village gives us the go-ahead, we will have another public meeting to roll out the plan,” he said.
The library is still shopping around with banks for financing options and coming up with hard numbers to present.
Of a major concern to both residents and the library is the reduction of tax revenue from the LIPA power plant. (See our recent coverage of the LIPA tax grievance here.)
Donlon said the library is well-aware of the problems this might cause in getting a major renovation approved, and they don’t want to appear tone deaf to the financial concerns of residents.
“It’s definitely a concern,” he said. “If everybody’s taxes are going up 50 percent, it might not be the best timing to float a bond.”
He said the tax revenue issue is not just a problem for the planned expansion but might need to be addressed for the current operating budget of the library — a problem faced by other entities like the school district and village government.
In the meantime, he expects they will still have to work on alternatives to get any glaring problems with the library fixed.
Donlon said the library is beholden to the will of the residents and their wishes.
He said that the idea is to put the best library forward that it can — even if that means scaling back the scope of the project or shelving it for another few years.
But library leaders will just “roll with the punches,” he said.
“We want to be part of solution,” Donlon said. “Not part of the problem.”