HILLSIDE, NJ – The shelves are stocked full of books, and the new furniture is in place at Hillside Public Library. The new water resistant floor is finished, and the roof has been sealed. But for the time being, the library remains closed to the public.
That is, except for a small gathering that took place last weekend courtesy of Mayor Angela Garretson.
On Saturday, Feb. 28, the mayor hosted a “soft opening” of the renovated library that has been closed since a severe flood struck in August of 2013. It was important, the mayor said, to show the public and the library community that much progress has been made, and she stressed that although there is no current timeframe, the official opening is not too far off.
“I was ecstatic,” Garretson said of the turnout for the open house. “It was wonderful to see so many people that had an interest in the library and to see the progress that we have made so far. But also they provided us with a lot of feedback.”
Around 50 residents turned out to see the revitalized library at the “soft opening” and many were pleased with the results. However, a healthy dose of skepticism permeated as several residents expressed to LocalSource that they just can’t simply believe how long it has taken, many of them with an “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude. Although all admitted the progress is appealing.
James Ballentine, the mayor’s aid in Hillside, said he has worked in government most of his life, seeing projects from inception to completion, and he was shocked by the amount of difficulties involved.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Ballentine said. “It has been 18 months and the public is not aware of everything that goes into opening a public building.”
Ballentine stressed that every corner turned by the municipality to open the library revealed a new problem to solve. The floor, for instance, was originally laid down incorrectly and had to be redone. Asbestos was discovered underneath the shelving. Old books had to be removed. Despite the roof being resealed, there are still small leaks that are popping up every time it rains.
But despite it all, there has been progress, and the mayor felt it was important to share that progress with both the public and with the surrounding library community.
MURAL, or Middlesex Union Reciprocal Agreement Libraries, has suspended Hillside, effective March 1, from the inter-local borrowing agreement. Hillside residents can no longer check out books from neighboring libraries, like Elizabeth or Union.
In a letter dated Jan. 30 from the head of MURAL to the Hillside Library Board of Trustees, Hillside was notified of the suspension.
“As you are no doubt aware, neighboring libraries have continued to loan material to Hillside residents with the expectation that your library would resume operation soon,” said the one-page missive. “However, at this time, it has been agreed that the Hillside Library does not meet the requirements of the MURAL open borrowing agreement. As a result, we have voted to suspend the Hillside Public Library from the MURAL agreement. Effective March 1, 2015, Hillside residents will no longer be able to borrow materials from other MURAL libraries until library services have been restored.”
There was a rumor circulating through Hillside that the MURAL agreement had been extended until the end of April, but according to Michel Maziekien, director of Kenilworth Public Library and president of the Libraries of Union County Consortium, that is not the case. Hillside has in fact been suspended, effective March 1.
While Hillside Public Library still has much work to do, the mayor is hopeful that the library will be open to the public and offering a full slate of services in the next few weeks. All signs point to this being possible, but just as in the past, no one knows if another problem will arise in the future.
Currently, the main issue keeping the library closed, according to Garretson, has to do with the computer system. The computer software must be installed and updated on all of the available devices, and this could take a little time. Problems with the library’s computer server are another hurdle that must be climbed, and the library’s website has been down for months. But the mayor says the library staff is hard at work.
“There are a lot of books that are still checked out from 2013,” Garretson said, noting that there will not be late fees when those books are returned. “The staff took out 50 percent of the collection that was made up of books that people were not checking out. They have been working very hard.”
The total cost is still unclear, but multiple sources have said the floor repair has cost more than $200,000, but that does not factor in the cost of design professionals, painters, furniture, roof repairs, and more. The actual total cost, which the mayor has said is still forthcoming, is likely to be much higher.
Looking toward the future, there are other issues and problems to contend with, but not ones that will necessarily delay the opening of the library.
The library is located on the corner of Liberty and Hillside avenues. According to Hillside officials, Hillside Avenue dips down into a gully next to the library. Underneath the road, an aging sewer pipe is not large enough to handle the overflow when a large storm produces flash flooding. A sudden strong storm that hit in August of 2013 is the catalyst for the library initially closing and mitigating factors like the roof, problems with the flooring and replacing furniture, among other things, have kept the library closed.
According to Joseph Graziano, the director of Public Works and Facilities Management for Union County, there have been no discussions with Hillside regarding the aging sewer line in years.
“The last paperwork I have in my office is from 2012,” he said. “It started back in like 2011. Things were drawn up and there was supposed to be an inter-local agreement. Harvard Consultants drew up plans, but nothing was ever finalized from Hillside. I don’t believe there have been too many talks since 2011 and 2012 at the latest. The whole project is close to a half a million dollars.”
And according to the mayor’s aid, the library is completely susceptible to another flood akin to the one that closed it in 2013, and when asked what will happen if another flash flood was to hit Hillside, he did not mince his words. “We’re screwed,” Ballentine said.
“Water comes in under those doors,” he pointed out, noting that multiple sets of doors facing Hillside Avenue are not weather sealed and when the water backs up on the street, it can, under the right conditions, reach into the library. And due to the high traffic on the county road, cars, trucks and buses actually push the water, he said, toward the library.
A long hallway runs the entire length of the library behind its back wall. At one end, a pair of doors face Hillside Avenue, and it is easy to see with the naked eye that they are not weather sealed.
“The water came through those doors and made it all the way to the other end,” he said, pointing to the opposite end of the hallway, approximately 200 feet from the doors.
Should flooding occur again, however, at least one major aspect of the library is protected. The new floor in place is weatherproof, and can sustain severe flooding and dry out, and many residents even remarked on the appearance of the new floor as compared to the old one.
“Should I take my shoes off at the door?” one resident joked upon seeing the new floor.
In fact, most of the residents in attendance at the open house were very pleased to see the shelves filled with books, and computers in place and ready to go, and the new furniture. Ballentine even took an informal written survey from the residents to learn if they liked the new floor plan, asking if residents found the configuration of the library to be user friendly.
Most appeared pleased with the progress. Others shared a healthy dose of skepticism.
“These kids definitely need a library,” one resident said to the mayor. “The library is the heart of the community.”
The mayor agreed wholeheartedly, and reiterated how excited she was to see so many people turn up for the open house.
“Everyone walked away with a sense that we are closer to the finish line,” the mayor said.
And while the renovations are significant, and many residents delighted at the improvements, at least one person in attendance just wanted to see the library open as fast as possible.
“It looks the same to me, to be completely honest,” said a 60-year resident of Hillside who preferred to remain nameless.
When asked for a best case estimate for the library officially reopening to the public, the mayor stressed that the pressure is now on the board of trustees.
“I asked the same question, and I have not gotten a response back either.”