DELMAR – Voters may be deciding next spring whether the Bethlehem Public Library receives a major facelift. The library is proposing an approximately $28 million overhaul looking to address outdated aspects of the library building, such as its second floor, expand in-demand spaces, improve accessibility, and complete remediation of asbestos.
The current Bethlehem Public Library building was first constructed in 1971. In 2000, a major renovation was proposed, costing about $12 million at the time. The renovation was voted down by the public, and instead a $1.5 million facelift was done, including the current carpets, new shelves, and new paint. However, this renovation didn’t alter any mechanical or structural aspects of the building.
While the proposed project is still being designed and planned, the total project construction cost is currently estimated at $28.3 million. According to director Geoffrey Kirkpatrick, if the process goes as planned, the project will be put to a public vote in May. If the public approves, the design will be finalized and construction would take about a year, he said. The library would remain open during the process. If the public votes the proposal down, the project will return to the drawing board and reworked according to public input.
One of the major structural changes proposed would be expanding the library’s main entrance and shifting it to where the garage currently is. The location change would be done to make the entrance of the library more obvious and accessible, especially for people who are new to the area, such as those participating in the Upper Hudson library system’s expedition program over the summer.
“People get genuinely confused when they come here; it happens daily,” Kirkpatrick said, explaining that patrons tend to gravitate towards the garage due to its orientation in the parking lot rather than the actual entrance. The new entrance would have parking on all three sides, and accessible parking close by. The meeting rooms, such as the community room and board room, would be moved to this new entrance space, making the areas where programs and meetings are held more front and center.
In addition, the mezzanine level of the library would be demolished. When the library was first constructed, what is currently the nonfiction area had built-in shelves installed, with the poles on either side of the shelves built into the floor. These same poles serve as columns holding up the roof of the mezzanine floor, and so these shelves can’t be moved. The space, which is currently used for staff, has been deemed unsuitable for public or staff needs due to these poles obstructing the space.
When entering the building but before arriving in the library area itself, visitors walk through a gallery space where local artists’ work is displayed. The “popcorn ceiling” in this area contains asbestos. The ceiling was encapsulated to prevent it from crumbling in 2003, but that has not allowed updates to the mechanical pipes and wires. The asbestos would be removed with the renovation.
On the outside.
The new design would include a dedicated curbside pick-up and drop-off area near the main entrance, where staff would handle the exchange through a window. The current curbside pick-up system, where staff come out of the garage to meet the patron, was an experiment that began during the COVID-19 pandemic. Kirkpatrick estimated ir makes up about 5% of the library’s current business. The renovated area would be similar to the pick-up area of the East Greenbush Community Library, and aims to make the exchange easier for both patrons and staff.
One goal of the project, Kirkpatrick said, is to balance the size of the building, the amount of parking needed, and the amount of green space that is left.
“We know [the green] is a very important part of the summertime experience here, doing programs out here, being able to do Evening on the Green … all that stuff happens out here,” Kirkpatrick said, maintaining that such green space is a crucial part of the proposed renovation. In addition, the plan includes an improved outdoors performance area with a proper stage and permanent sound equipment to better accommodate the bands that perform there.
The parking lot would undergo a major reconfiguration as well. Kirkpatrick said that apart from getting it “milled and redone,” the parking lot would be redesigned to prevent confusion, speeding, and traffic accidents.
“It’s a poor design that just happened organically,” Kirkpatrick said, referring to incidents where people have incorrectly used one-way parts of the parking lot.
In addition to improving the flow of traffic, with the demolition of the library-owned house on 59 Borthwick Ave., more parking spots would be added to accommodate current foot traffic.
“This building’s footprint hasn’t changed for 50 years,” Public Information Specialist Kristen Roberts said. “It takes up the same amount of space, but the number of people coming in has greatly increased.”
On the inside.
The new design would also greatly expand quiet spaces for work or study. Kirkpatrick said that while most modern libraries are designed with loud, intermediate, and quiet zones in mind, the Bethlehem Public Library was not, and staff have since tried to shoehorn in the different zones with the space available. Currently, the dedicated quiet spaces of the library consist mostly of a few cubicles and the four private study rooms, all of which are in high demand. The renovation would add eight more such rooms, and create more defined quiet areas of the library.
The library plans to move the children’s area closer to the entrance to improve accessibility for parents with strollers and young children, while putting the quieter areas further away for those who need it.
The project also aims to expand crafting spaces and space for children to play in, both of which have seen lots of demand, while still keeping room for the book collections.
“We’re trying to balance all of the uses that people want to have in the library,” Kirkpatrick said.
The teen’s area would also see some changes, with Kirkpatrick looking to design a space that’s “segregated, but not invisible.” The current teen area was first made distinct around 2003, with comfortable seating and laptops added. However, it’s cut through by a major walkway to get to the often-busy study rooms, and Kirkpatrick said that the library would like to make it more welcoming for teens coming to the library to read, study, or hang out.
Roberts has also expressed a desire to expand the makerspace. The library currently has a small space containing things such as a 3D printer, a VHS to DVD converter, a podcast station, and a studio space for recording videos, “but this is just a fraction of what we want to have in the makerspace,” Roberts said.