On Sunday, a backhoe sat on the slab where the library had stood until it was demolished a day earlier. Below, an architect’s rendering of a proposed combination library and bathing pavilion. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
In 2011, when concept plans for a remodeled Sea Bright municipal parking lot were drawn up, town officials assured residents that the library building had been left off by accident. It’s not going to be torn down, they said.
Last June, when the council approved spending $70,000 to repair damage to the structure caused by Hurricane Sandy seven months earlier, the action was touted on the borough government’s Resource Center website under the headline, “Sea Bright Library to be Rebuilt.”
But last month, the borough council abruptly reversed course, deciding the library had to go. And on Saturday, the building was hastily demolished, blindsiding supporters who were racing to save it and triggering a debate on social media about the significance of the simple frame structure.
The $11,500 tear-down, done under an “emergency” request for a demolition permit, followed a December 17 borough council meeting at which library supporters say they were shocked to learn that an estimate for the repairs approved last June had come in at $209,000.
That made no sense, they argued. For starters, the borough had paid $35,000 to a damage remediation company to clean the interior, which had taken on just two inches of water during Sandy.
“It looked like it had just been built,” said Liz Von Ziegesar, who chairs the library board of trustees, and who donated $100,000 to add a wing to the building five years ago. Supporters estimated the library – whose inventory of books is in storage at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft – could be restored for less than the $95,000 insurance reimbursement the town had collected.
Moreover, the town’s repair estimate included a replacement of the central air conditioning compressor, which was located in the attic and undamaged by the storm – and could not have been tested for effectiveness because the building’s electricity was off, said Von Ziegesar. It also included a $3,500 toilet, she said, and replacing windows that were “fine” after the storm.
The estimate had been submitted by Settembrino Architects, and delivered in conjunction with that firm’s concept drawings for a combination library and beach management station proposed for the eastern edge of the municipal parking lot at the heart of town. That structure, estimated to cost $1.7 million, is to be built by mid-2015, town officials said, and will feature a library on the first floor and a lifeguard office on the second.
The council’s vote on the library was also influenced, if not driven, by the pending start of work to repave the municipal lot that surrounds the library. Faced with the choice of including the library site in that $1.3 million project now, or having to pave the spot later on, officials decided that the library should come down.
The council voted 4 to 2 against repairing the library, with council members Marc Leckstein, Read Murphy, James LoBiondo and Brian Kelly in the majority and Peggy Bills and Jack Keeler in the minority. Mayor Dina Long does not vote except in the case of a tie.
Council members said the insurance funds that had been received on the library would be combined with FEMA reimbursements and $500,000 from a beach access lawsuit to fund the new beach pavilion, according to the Asbury Park Press. The balance would be financed with a bond.
But the library board, according to Von Ziegesar, had no inkling that the library was in the council’s crosshairs until the night of the council vote. Its members had been relying on the decision last June to repair the building.
“They just decided not to repair it, even though we were saying this is a ridiculous estimate,” she said.
Charlie Rooney, whose late father had spearheaded the building of the library as mayor to fill a void left by the closing of Sea Bright’s only school in 1976, stepped in to help with the effort to spare the library from the wrecking ball, if only until the new beach pavilion could be completed.
Last week, he toured the building, named for lead donor J. W. Ross, with a Long Branch electrician, who said he would make all necessary changes, such as raising outlets higher from the floor, for free.
“He said, ‘there’s not much wrong here,'” Rooney said, referring to electrician Ken Burke, of Broadway NRG & Technology. The Settembrino estimate called for nearly $23,000 in electrical work.
Rooney told redbankgreen he then arranged to meet with a plumber and two building contractors, as well as Councilman Brian Kelly, at the library on Saturday afternoon.
But with Councilman Read Murphy looking on from a parked car, a backhoe ripped the building down that morning.
“They didn’t want me in there with those contractors,” Rooney said.
Murphy, however, defends the Settembrino estimate and the council decision that was based on it. He said the estimate had to include changes to make the building compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act regarding doorway and bathroom access, and other adjustments that drove up the cost from what was anticipated in June.
“They’ve got their numbers and I’ve got mine,” he said of the library advocates.
“I’m 100-percent secure in my decision,” Murphy told redbankgreen, noting that “the council voted on it.”
Having made the decision to demolish, he said, “we wanted to make sure the library was down” before the lot repaving was concluded. Prep work is now underway at the site.
In the library’s place, Murphy said, will be a temporary one, in the form of doublewide trailers. He said he hopes to have it in place, near the Chapel Beach Club, within a month.
Does the library board know this, redbankgreen asked him. No, Murphy said, adding that he hadn’t reached out to its members after he’d been “crucified” on Facebook for overseeing the demolition.
Rooney, who says he does not get involved in borough politics, called the handling of the library issue a harbinger of what might happen as the council manages millions of dollars in the town’s rebuilding.
“It’s scary that these guys are going to control the future of Sea Bright,” he said.
Von Ziegesar said the loss of the library was “personal, not just because of my investment, but because it’s scary that somebody can just unilaterally take something from the town, and leave us with a parking lot.”
But the town’s leaders have support on the matter, too. The demolition has sparked a lively debate on the All About Sea Bright Facebook page, where some residents decry it and others say it was a necessary step, and consistent with the goals of the Sea Bright 20/20 process, in which residents were asked to help craft an ideal new version of the downtown in the aftermath of Sandy.
Kelly and Long could not be reached for immediate comment.
Here’s the Settembrino estimate: ESTIMATE – SEABRIGHT LIBRARY – 12.5.2013
And here are some borough documents related to the demolition: Sea Bright Library documents