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Where, O Where, Should the Chester Library Be?

Published Apr 18, 2017 • Last Updated 01:46 pm, April 18, 2017

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Mention the phrase library construction in Chester and you are likely to get not only an opinion, but also an earful about other people’s opinions as well.

Some people favor the new construction plan that calls not only for a new library in North Quarter Park, but major renovations to the park itself. Others have not abandoned the idea that additions can be made to the existing library structure on West Main Street. Most recently, Jan Cummings and Peter Good have floated a third idea.

The husband and wife graphic design team, whose building has long been an anchor in Chester downtown, are preparing to sell their longtime office building. They have suggested it as a useable and centrally located structure that the town could buy and convert into a library.

The committee charged with looking into the possibility of constructing a new library in North Quarter Park is planning a May meeting to explain the design it advocates. The committee’s plan includes not only a new library building and site re-landscaping, but also significant redevelopment of the park area.

According to First Selectman Lauren Gister, the library is part of a larger issue of the allocation of the town’s finances and the impact that the state’s budget crisis will have on them. She said she was aware and most appreciative of the enormous time and effort the Library Building Committee has put into creating its proposal, but she added that it still had to be considered in light of the town’s total financial picture, its tax base, and the demands on the town budget.

“We need an overall strategy for Chester. There are a lot of projects planned and being built and we need to coordinate them. We have only so much money so we have to know what our priorities are,” she said. “I see the state in crisis mode and that crisis pointing directly at small towns. We are fiscally healthy because we have planned well, but the future is uncertain because of the state.”

The Chester Library Association, the precursor of the present library, started in l875, first located in the building Good and Cummings now own. The current Chester Library was completed in 1907, on a site deeded by the Congregational Church, with the proviso that should the library remain closed for a year, the property would revert to the church.

Initially, the present library was designed to serve the town’s population of 1,400 people. More than 100 years later, the town has three times as many people. The state’s recommends 1.6 square feet per capita in terms of library space. The current Chester library has only 0.46 square feet per capita and is one of only 19 libraries in the state with no meeting room space. At present, the Chester Library is not handicapped accessible.

The current library has some 2,000 square feet of space; the Cummings and Good building could provide a library with 5,200 square feet. The North Quarter Park proposal would have 8,000 square feet of library space.

In 2009 and 2010, the library conducted a series of surveys and focus groups to determine how to expand and bring the building into compliance with the Americans with Disability Act. At that time, more survey respondents wanted to keep the existing structure than to build a new library in another location, though a significant minority was in favor of a new location. Ultimately, however, the Board of Selectmen decided that expansion of the existing site would not create enough usable space to make such a plan financially viable.

Still, that hasn’t discouraged those who feel the old building could be made suitable. Karin Badger, a member of the library’s Board of Trustees, wrote to an online news service last year, “The present library building still could be adapted to accommodate the needs of the small but unique town…We already have the Meeting House, Town Hall, and elementary school for meetings and events.”

The present Library Building Committee began meeting in early 2014 when Ed Meehan was first selectman. The committee, with architects Lerner Ladds and Bartels, has developed a plan for a new library building sited within the renovated and re-landscaped North Quarter Park. According to Terry Schreiber, chair of the library’s Board of Trustees and a member of the Library Building Committee, the plans include walking trails to connect the library to downtown, a light and airy children’s room, a meeting room, and outdoor gardens in which patrons can read in good weather. The building will have a computer room, study carrels, and more than 40 parking places for patrons.

In addition, Schreiber said, “It is a building that will last the town into the 22nd century.”

Dennis Tovey, chair of the present Library Building Committee, is eager for the public to learn more about the proposal at meetings he hopes will soon be scheduled. There is no date yet for a referendum on the proposal.

“I’d like to tell people about the project, including the redevelopment of North Quarter Park. I think the project at North Quarter Park deserves a referendum,” he said.

The cost of constructing the library and renovating the park with landscaping and necessary site work, while not final, would likely run to $7.4 million. With special architectural plans and bid documents, according to Chester Board of Finance Chair Virginia Carmany, the final cost of the construction and the renovation of the park could come closer to $8 million.

The town has received a $1 million Library Construction Grant approved by the State Library Board in late 2014 to help offset construction costs. Under the grant’s specifications, the town has three years to develop construction plans and obtain additional funding for the project. Schreiber said that the grant, which runs out in November, could be renewed if the building committee shows progress. Both Schreiber and Tovey emphasized that the town would lose the grant, specifically earmarked for the North Quarter Park project, if another site were chosen.

Cummings, however, said that a new grant application could be submitted for a library at another site. Moreover, she pointed out that her building could qualify for its own state financing through a point system established under a program of the Connecticut State Library. She noted that using a historic building alone earns 5 points out of the 12 needed for such state financing. She added that other features of the structure would bring it up to the required 12 points.

Cummings also cited a portion of the state’s library space planning guide that noted the most important variable influencing whether or not somebody will use a library is not the staffing or the collection, but the location “in a convenient and busy area.” Cummings and Good have said they would sell their building for $1.5 million.

Though there are no formal architectural plans for the Cummings and Good building, they have spoken with Haddam architect and planner Patrick Pinnell about how the structure could be converted. Pinnell is studying the situation on a pro bono basis because of relationships he had developed with Cummings and Good through their work for Connecticut Landmarks, a group devoted to the preservation of historic properties in Connecticut.

Pinnell said he found that the Goods’ building could sustain the load made by the accumulated weight of books. In addition, creating the required handicap access and making the second floor accessible by elevator would be, in his words, “straightforward enough.” He added that he saw great benefit for the civic life of the town in locating a library at its center.

Pinnell, who was once vice-chairman of the Hartford Parking Authority, noted that parking would be a challenge, though he maintained a solvable one. Cummings had pointed out that with the spaces from the liquor store, which would no longer occupy one side of the building, the parking requirements set out in library guidelines would be satisfied. Pinnell added that there are other parking options, including using the parking lot of the Norma Terris Theater, which is busy at night but not during the day.

Tovey of the Library Building Committee took another view when asked about the Cummings and Good property. By profession a project manager for construction services with the State of Connecticut, he pointed out renovating can be costly.

“I have a gut feeling that we’d be spending as much renovating; it could be more expensive,” he said; moreover, he felt the space had problems. “It is segmented and fragmented, not suited for a library.”

Tovey added that parking presented too many challenges, with patrons having to drive over sidewalk to reach parking spaces and, given the building’s proximity to the street, the possibility of small children running out into the road.

Carmany of the Board of Finance emphasized that both the Board of Selectmen and the Board of Finance must approve any library proposal before it could go to the town for a referendum.

According to Carmany, having residents aware of the options is critical as the town moves forward.

“I think the public has to be aware there are some choices in this. It is a very important issue,” she said. “Now I do not think the public is aware of the choices and this is a tough issue for our town.”

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