Rendering of the new Lawrence Library

Everyone sees the value of books. It would seem that a new library would be an innocuous and non-controversial undertaking. The advocates for the project say there is nothing to disagree with when it comes to building a state-of-the-art library in an upscale and education-oriented area like the Five Towns.

By Larry Gordon

But not so fast. While most will agree that a library is a great hub of learning in any community, the plans call for an expenditure of more than $25 million, an increase in the tax base to pay for the new center, and probably at least three years of noisy and disruptive construction that will disturb a quiet, mostly residential area of Lawrence.

At an unusual Village of Lawrence meeting on Sunday night, divergent views on the matter were thoroughly aired. The present plan calls for the Lawrence School District to purchase most of what is currently the Long Island Rail Road Lawrence station parking lot, and build a state-of-the-art library facility and community center at the location. After a two-hour meeting in a stuffy but stately Village Hall meeting room, it seems that the best way to state what occurred is to say that instead of the plan being advanced, it has taken a few steps backward.

It is unclear at this point whether all the negotiations and jockeying for position took place in the shadows, but on Sunday evening, the bright lights of the democratic process were shining brilliantly. As a result, it can be stated that it is unlikely a new library will be built at the corner of Central Avenue and Lawrence Avenue anytime in the near or, for that matter, distant future.

Yes, Lawrence and the surrounding areas need and deserve a new library, but that is simply not the place nor is this the time. Now that the cat is out of the bag on the project, there seems to be near unanimous objection to the LIRR parking lot site for the new library. The well-meaning members of the library board of directors give an impression of being in a quandary they did not anticipate. It seems that there was some kind of agreement signed between the Village of Lawrence and the library that effectuates the sale of the property by the village to the library for $3.3 million. Former Lawrence mayor Martin Oliner, one of the strong supporters of a new library but at another location in the area, said that from a legal standpoint, the contract that was signed almost a year ago will expire in December, and any extension of the agreement will require a village board vote.

If Mr. Oliner is right, we are back to square one, with everyone in agreement about the fact that we do need a new library, but divided on its new location. In the aftermath of Sunday night’s meeting, it is increasingly clear that an alternate site will be required if a new library is ever going to be built in this school district.

While there are a variety of reasons why the planned location is not suitable, the focus of the discussion on Sunday was about inadequate parking to accommodate a facility that might be as much as twice the size of the current library. When library board chairman Sam Francis said that the parking shortage could be dealt with by utilizing LIRR parking spots, Deputy Mayor Michael Fragin countered that these are permit spots, and residents who purchase permits are entitled to a space day or night.

Now that this is out in the open, and if you are a Lawrence district resident, you will probably be hearing a great deal more about these differences over the coming weeks. The library board architect presented his vision and plan for the site, which, in addition to a full-service library, would also include a theater, a coffee shop, and a community room able to host about 200 people.

That might be a good and even welcome thing in another, more workable part of the community, but it seemed that all the village trustees shared the same sentiment. And that was basically, “We don’t need any catering facility on the site.” So much for that big idea.

Alternative sites for the new library were discussed during the two-hour meeting. Two seemingly good ideas emerged from the conversation between the library board, the village trustees, and the few local residents who attended the meeting. One idea, which seems most sensible, is to use the old sewage plant location where Rock Hall Road meets Route 878. That is a five-acre site where a large facility could be built with as many as 150 parking spaces if so determined by the planners.

It is true that the location is a bit outside the center of town, but it was also mentioned that the majority of people access the library by car, so the location is less of an issue. The other location mentioned that seemed to have some popular support was somewhere in or on the grounds of the sprawling Lawrence Middle School on Broadway, just one long block from the current proposed site.

Mr. Francis seemed to be in favor of the idea, as were some of the village trustees. The next morning, I spoke with two school board members, Asher Mansdorf and Heshy Blachorsky. Mansdorf seemed to think that the space for a state-of-the-art library was not available, as different levels of the public school that were housed in other buildings in the district in the past were now all in the middle school.

While Dr. Mansdorf thought that the plan for the Middle School would not be workable, he did say that the Number 4 School on 878 and Wanser Avenue was only housing the district’s pre-K program, and that there might be ample room to redesign the building and bring the library to that location.

This is just an introduction to what will be unfolding in the weeks ahead. Right now, it appears that of all those involved in the process, none are happy with where we are. Of course, another option that needs to be explored is leaving the library where it currently is and just building up a couple of floors. After all, that would mean limiting any dramatic change and maintaining most of the status quo.

The one conclusion arising out of the meeting was that almost everyone had a different idea or opinion about the best options for a new library. Well, at least that’s a start.

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