East Flatbush

Neverending story: Brooklyn library revamp drags 14 years

August 19, 2019 Reuven Blau and Gabriel Sandoval, THE CITY
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This story was originally published on Aug. 19 by THE CITY.

The writing is on the wall at Brooklyn’s Rugby library branch: A spray-painted sign that says “Library,” with an arrow pointing toward a trailer.

Patrons at the East Flatbush library have been relegated to the trailer to get their books and internet fix for nearly two and a half years.

But that’s only part of a neverending story: The delay-filled renovation project at the Utica Avenue library has dragged on for more than 14 years, with full completion at least a year away.

During that time, the overhaul price tag has risen — from $1 million to $9.4 million, in part over an expanded scope of work — along with neighborhood frustrations.

“When is it actually going to be open? Last year, they had signs it was about to be open and they’re still here,” said Nicole George, 41, who visited the trailer on Thursday.

The ordeal at the Rugby branch — 169 months and counting — makes it the longest ongoing library project among dozens of jobs overseen by the city Department of Design and Construction, agency records show.

‘This is unacceptable’

The records also showed four other projects that date back to 2009: an air conditioner overhaul at the Francis Martin library in University Heights; fire alarm upgrades at the Ottendorfer library in the East Village and the Yorkville library on the Upper East Side; and a lobby renovation at the Jefferson Market library in Greenwich Village.

Department of Design and Construction officials called the delayed projects “outliers” that wouldn’t happen under new systems implemented over the last year.

The city opened a trailer as a temporary East Flatbush library while the Rugby branch is renovated. Photo by Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY

Meanwhile, library officials contend a lack of funds frequently forces them to make repairs piecemeal and readjust plans midstream. All told, the city’s three library systems, as THE CITY previously reported, need an estimated total of $896 million in unfunded fixes.

“This is unacceptable,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for an Urban Future, a policy group that has highlighted library branches’ challenges. “It’s not just that the libraries need more dollars. They need a better process for capital construction that doesn’t waste money and cause projects to take a decade.”

The tale of the Rugby renovation is a Dickensian epic all its own — playing out in chapters punctuated by a sudden lack of money, additions to the work and a low-bid contractor deemed incapable of completing the project.

The plan to upgrade the now-62-year-old library’s interior dates to July 2005, shortly before Michael Bloomberg was re-elected to his second term as mayor.

Over time, the project expanded to include a new roof and façade, as well as modern lighting and electrical units and an upgraded cooling and heating system.

Multiple overdue notices

The library renovation hit snags from the start.

In May 2006, the Rugby branch overhaul was placed on hold due to lack of funds. When the money was procured by then-City Council member Jumaane Williams, the project then grew to include an additional air conditioning system. That delayed the construction and design by two years, according to DDC, which bid out the project in May 2010.

Six months later, the lowest bidder — a firm that was not identified by the agency — was declared “non-responsive.” Other bids were rejected for undisclosed reasons.

Then a roof repair was added to the plan. The design of the roof took close to a year and a half.

Work in progress on the temporarily shuttered Rugby Library building. Photo by Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY

The onslaught of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 sparked additional delays.

Library officials initially intended to use a trailer, complete with books and computers, outside the Rugby branch during the estimated two-year construction. But the system’s trailers were moved to branches damaged by the storm.

So in August 2012, Williams, who is now the city’s public advocate, asked that construction be put on hold until another trailer became available.

The battle over the so-called “swing space” dragged on for a year, and added costs to the project. Elements of the overhaul were amended multiple times before a redesign meeting was held to incorporate all the work “into one bid package” in February 2015, according to DDC.

The façade work required the approval of the Public Design Commission, causing further delays. The library remained open until the delivery of the trailer and start of construction in March 2017.

Department of Design and Construction officials say multiple changes in the plan made by library executives also played a major role in the logjam.

Library executives say small yearly capital budget allocations forced them to frequently adjust their approach to repairs and upgrades.

In response, DDC has reviewed the needs at five Brooklyn library branches to get a better grip on the work. The pilot program may be expanded to other branches.

Ian Michaels, a DDC spokesperson, said the Rugby library renovation and others with yearslong delays are “outliers from a time when the agency took on projects that were underfunded, needed significant scope changes or did not have all the elements in place to be completed successfully.”

Changes at city agency

In January, the agency issued a Strategic Blueprint to speed up “almost every phase of project planning and delivery.” The plan — which calls for a series of reforms such as standardized change work orders — is the brainchild of commissioner Lorraine Grillo, who took over in July 2018.

The agency, created in 1996 during the Giuliani administration, was designed to bring most city construction under one umbrella to cut costs and time.

But DDC has taken heat for taking more than a decade to finish some of its more than 1,000 capital improvement projects for 27 agencies. In one glaring example, a project to upgrade a sewer near a flood-prone Staten Island strip started in 1997.

A new comprehensive version of that project is currently being put together by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection.

A Brooklyn Public Library spokesperson said the Rugby branch is expected to reopen “in the coming months” while the façade work is scheduled to go on until next summer.

“We look forward to welcoming patrons to a bright up-to-date modernized Rugby Library,” said library spokesperson Fritzi Bodenheimer.

Patron Justin Thomas couldn’t believe the project has taken so long.

“I’ve seen buildings that are half a block come up in a year or two,” he said. “So, for something that seems an average size building, there’s no need to take 15 years.”

This story was originally published by THE CITY, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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