Vote set on library expansion

A three-story glass atrium and new main entrance would link the existing Southold Free Library building to a proposed addition. Voters will be asked to approve project financing in an Oct. 16 referendum.

Rumors of the demise of public libraries have been greatly exaggerated.

The advent of the Internet did not, as some predicted, put libraries out of business — at least not locally. In fact, the opposite seems to be true.

“More people are walking through the door than ever before,” said Southold Free Library director Caroline MacArthur. “I think that’s a testament to the North Fork libraries’ adapting to what people want. It’s not just about books, it’s about offering new and innovative services.”

With increased use comes the need for additional space. Following a trend toward library expansions on the North Fork, Southold Free Library has set Oct. 16 as the date for a vote on a $6 million bond to finance a building project that would nearly double the facility’s size.

If voters say yes, construction would commence next spring, with the new space opening in the fall of 2012.

The work, including renovating some existing space, will cost an estimated $7.25 million. To offset the need to borrow, the library has launched a three-year campaign in hopes of raising at least $1.25 million. At a reception last week, the library announced that the late Bill Albertson, a lifelong Southold resident, former town trustee and active library supporter, had bequeathed a”generous” gift that will go toward the construction.

Library officials estimate that the project would increase the average property tax bill by no more than about $115 a year.

The 12-member library board in 2005 launched a long-range planning study that identified the need for additional space. The board was close to setting a referendum date when the economy plummeted in the fall of 2008, said Ms. MacArthur. That led the board to shelve the project in early 2009.

But earlier this year, with construction costs down and bond rates at historic lows, the board determined that the time was right to start again, according to board president David Fujita.

“We’re very sensitive to the fact that the economy is not in recovery mode,” he said. “But we felt this is an opportune time to move forward.”

The library has been on Main Street since 1928. Its 8,900 square feet are divided between a former Southold Savings Bank building circa 1891 and a 1991 addition. The plans call for a 7,700-square-foot expansion on the east side of the property, where the Southold post office once stood. A three-level glass atrium and new front entrance would connect the existing space with the new.

Plans include a new community room that could be used when the library is closed, a young adults room, an expanded circulation desk, multiple “study pods” for tutoring or studying, additional public computers with wireless Internet access and a reference area. The design also calls for a “green” roof and the use of environmentally friendly materials.

“There’s always going to be a need for books,” Mr. Fujita added. “Kindles are great, but there’s no substitute for actual books or space to bring people together.”

What is now the children’s room in the old bank building would be converted into an adult reading room. If possible, library staff would like to have at least one of the two fireplaces working again, said Ms. MacArthur.

The new space carries a price tag of about $3.8 million, Mr. Fujita said. The rest of the estimated cost will cover work on the existing structure, site development and landscaping and a 10 percent contingency fund.

The board considered but rejected a scaled down plan. “This project has to have a 20-year lifespan,” said Mr. Fujita. “It’s most effective to do it now rather than come back in another 10 years. Based on public feedback, we feel that we’re moving in the right direction.”

In the past several years Cutchogue-New Suffolk Library completed a major expansion. Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport has acquired an adjoining property to provide space should that facility seek to expand.

Southold Free Library will host multiple public forums on its expansion project and the associated costs in upcoming weeks, and board members are willing to meet with anyone who has a question or concern, said Mr. Fujita.

“We’re trying to be as open and transparent as we possibly can,” he said. “We’re not trying to cram anything down anybody’s throat.”

The library will need a variance from the town for the three-level atrium. The Zoning Board of Appeals’ public hearing on the application was to take place at 9:50 this morning, Thursday, July 29.

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Public meetings on the library expansion will take place in the community room as follows:

Saturday, Aug. 14, 10 a.m.

Wednesday, Sept. 15, 7 p.m.

Thursday, Sept. 30, 10 a.m.

Wednesday, Oct. 6, 7 p.m.