For 4 years, the Mayor and Township Council have been working on a plan to make much-needed improvements to significant parts of our town. Among the most important of these a new Public Library. Since 2015, the Township Council has had a plan to build a new Town Hall, Police Station, Library, and Community Center, at one central location next to the current Town Hall. There is no question in my mind that this plan, while not perfect, is necessary – and it will happen.
The process of getting us there, however, has seen more twists and turns than the riskiest roller coaster at Six Flags. So much of the process – explaining to residents what will take place, when, where, and above all, why – in the opinion of many, has been handled in such a way as to leave the most residents unaware of what exactly is going on, including important details of the plan that will affect them and their families. Perhaps the biggest “question mark” has been the fate of the Public Library - a safe space for children and families to gather, learn, and enjoy life. But finally, we do know what will happen – 3 weeks after the Township already began to execute its plan.
First, the Library will be forced to vacate by the end of this year. It will be relocated to the adjacent rectory of Church of the Little Flower on Roosevelt Avenue: a building half the size of the library, and without room for most of the books, DVDs/CDs, and other resources that make a library so valuable to a community. A skeletal staff, providing skeletal services (primarily electronic ones), will be housed there from January through July of 2018.
This will happen as part of a mutually beneficial agreement between the Township and Little Flower to exchange properties: Little Flower will use the Public Library for its educational and administrative programs while building a new church next door; the Township will sell the church’s Roosevelt Avenue site to a housing developer as a means of raising revenue to offset the cost of the new Municipal Complex. (Anyone who has done construction on their house or office knows “at least” always means it will take longer.)
So let’s do that math together: the agreement to move the Public Library only keeps the Library at the rectory for 7 months. At that point the Township is free to close the Library completely – and it will have to, in order to sell the entire church property to the housing developer. This is because our legal settlement to meet our affordable housing obligations includes using the Roosevelt Avenue site. Once these 7 months expire, it seems clear to me that the Township will need to sell the property as promised, or risk a lawsuit that could trigger a much bigger housing project to be built.
As Council President Faecher stated at the last meeting, it is extremely difficult to move a library to any new location. Efforts to rent a different location have apparently been unsuccessful. Without anywhere else to go, the Public Library will be completely closed for at least 1 year – and that’s assuming the construction project managers magically keep everything on schedule.
Residents who are just now learning these facts, now that it is too late to change them – the Mayor and Council have already informed the Library it must close, and will vote unanimously to approve the agreement at its August 15th Council meeting – are rightfully outraged at not having been informed or consulted on such an important issue in our community. We should be seeking every possible solution towards finding a new space for the Public Library before those 7 months are up. I speak for many in our town when I say that having no Library at for at least a year is not in the best interest of Berkeley Heights. And leaving most Township residents in the dark about this until this now is simply not acceptable. Telling residents they can always go to a library in another town in the meantime is not acceptable, either.
As our elected representatives, the Mayor and Township Council should always act on behalf of the entire community. Knowing them as I do, I recognize they are trying to help our town in every way they can. But why make such a drastic decision without sufficient input from the people it will affect the most? Why not solicit constructive feedback and ideas from the residents who live here? They need to hear from us, the residents, that their decision to first downsize and then close the Public Library is the wrong thing to do. Their decision will hurt our community’s quality of life when it is not necessary to do so.
This plan will be approved at the next Township Council meeting, on Tuesday, August 15th at 7 PM at Town Hall (29 Park Avenue). If you believe the Mayor and Council should develop a clear plan of action to keep the Public Library open for the entire construction, rather than allowing it to be closed, please attend this meeting. They have said again and again that residents should come to these meetings if they want to be heard – so let’s go and have our voices heard!