2014-07-04 / Front Page

Residents to get say on Cape library

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — After more than a year of planning, concept drawings for a $4 million overhaul of Cape Elizabeth’s Thomas Memorial Library is ready for public review.

A site plan review for the project, which includes a new two-story, 13,000-square-foot building, will be the subject of a public hearing before the planning board at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, July 15, at town hall.

The planning board will then rule on the plan's conformance to design standards for the Town Center zoning district. However, even with planning board approval, the fate of the building projects rests with voters, who will get their say in a bond referendum to appear on the November ballot.

According to Town Clerk Debra Lane, the town council will need to act on scheduling the referendum by early September to make the bond issue a part of the November election, given the need to have absentee ballots ready 45 days before the vote.

The current plan, created by Reed & Co. Architects of Portland, calls on retaining the former Pond Cover School, built in 1912, which fronts Scott Dyer Road and serves as the primary portion of the existing library. The annex that connects it to the former Spurwink School will be torn down and replaced with the new addition. Although some residents have expressed hope of saving the former Spurwink School, no plans for that are currently on the table and the old one-room schoolhouse has been deemed to have no historically significant aspects.

Built in the 1849, Spurwink School was purchased by William Widgery Thomas Jr. in 1917, four years after it closed to students. Thomas then moved the school to its original location on Bowery Beach Road in 1919 and donated it to the town for use as a library. From 1877 to 1919 it had occupied a spot on Fowler Road. The building was moved to its present location in 1944, when it became the founding building block for the library as it now stands.

According to architect Peter Biegel, the space between the new building and the old Spurwink School, if it remains, could become a "reading garden" and playground.

A new parking lot on what is now a grassy area used for “overflow” parking will include space for 53 vehicles, 16 more than required by Cape ordinances. The current parking area will be rebuilt as a “drop-off zone” for cars and possibly buses.

The lower level of the new library is designed to house a children's area, along with space for various programs and events. The main level will include the adult and young adult collections.

A stairwell between the new section is slated to be built in a new window area at what is currently the Pond Cove entrance to the building. Although still functional, that entrance has not used for years. After the rebuild, there will be no access to the building on the Scott Dyer Road side, with the doors replaced by windows and the stairwell.

However, that section will retain the look of an entryway. According to Town Councilor Molly MacAuslan, who was chairman of the Library Planning Committee before her 2012 election and has since served on the committee, preserving the look of the Pond Cove building was a primary goal of the design.

However, planning board member Josef Chalat said at a June 17 meeting that the design could confuse patrons.

"Right now you still have the sense of entry and movement into this building off of the main drag, and you're going to lose it there. It's going to become sort of impenetrable," he said.

Reed & Co. principal Richard Reed replied that the front elevation design is intended to preserve the historic profile of the building while also creating window space that will feed light into the lower level of the redesigned interior, to make it a more inviting reading space.

Still, Chalet’s “impenetrable” critique is an improvement on public reaction to the last publically floated design, circulated in 2011 when the town hired Pennsylvania based Casaccio Architects. Its concept sketches for a new 23,000-square-foot library was widely panned as looking too much like “a strip mall.”

While the November bond proposal is expected to be $4 million, actual construction costs are currently pegged at $3.4 million. Of that, about $241,000 has already been spent on architectural and engineering fees, or else reserved for hazardous materials mitigation, legal costs, and work needed to make the Spurwink School stand in as a temporary library during renovations.

According to Town Manager Michael McGovern, these initial costs have been funded partly from an existing infrastructure improvement account now holding $191,176, and partly from the town’s $3.1 million undesignated surplus account. That money, he said, would be paid back to the two accounts once the bond is approved.

Rebuilding Thomas Memorial Library has been a goal of many town officials for at least seven years, given a list of 102 building deficiencies described in a 2007 “needs assessment” prepared by Himmel & Wilson Library Consultants, of Milton, Wisconsin.

However, voters rejected a $6 million bond request in 2012 by a sizable margin, 2,696 to 3,566. Two interest groups rose up at the time to beat down the bond, with one objecting to apparent efforts to make the library a priority over capital needs for the school department, and another saying that the design was too large for Cape’s needs, especially in an era of uncertainty over the future of printed books.

Council Chairman Jessica Sullivan, a long time proponent of a new library, said after the 2012 vote that, “people didn’t know what they were voting on.” Far from being a critique of voter intelligence, Sullivan was faulting the process, noting that while residents were asked to pony up funds for a new library, they were not given anything more than a few concept drawings on which to base their decisions. By sending a theoretical project all the way through the planning board’s site plan process ahead of time, town officials hope to solve that shortcoming this time around. Shaving $2 million off the asking price is also expected to sway some of the previous votes against the proposal.

Meanwhile, public criticism of the 2012 library bond, which circulated when the town council briefly considered bypassing voters and approving borrowing for the project on its own, prompted councilors to approve a second referendum question in 2012. It required public approval of any capital expenditure of more than $1 million. That question passed resoundingly, 4,157 to 1,372.

The town council has also worked closely with the school board since 2012 to chart out compatible, long-term borrowing schedules for capital projects.

According to Librarian Jay Scherma, Thomas Memorial Library serves about 1,600 patrons each week, ranking No. 10 among all Maine libraries for traffic in the state’s inter-library loan service.

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