No one had an opportunity to fall asleep at the Library Board of Trustees meeting on Wednesday, April 15. Even though it was income-tax-deadline night, approximately 45 dedicated adults turned out for the open meeting, a sharp contrast to the ten people that usually show up. Although the business portion was fairly mundane, the meeting livened up considerably after the chairman invited comments from the audience. The first speaker was the only one to ask the library to install a protection system to shield the library from an alien weapon system. Subsequent speakers jockeyed for the opportunity to persuade the board to adopt their opposing positions regarding the Baker property next to the library. Eight urged the library to preserve the former Mackey-Baker house for its historical value and announced that they had the signatures of 599 residents to support their view. Eight others urged the board to replace the former Baker Funeral Home with much-needed parking spaces and referenced the recent election and a previous referendum as proof of community support. Impassioned members of the audience frequently disrupted the meeting by interrupting speakers and by occasionally shouting at the board; however, the meeting ended 2 1/2 hours later, but with no final resolution. Then the following Monday the library received a potential offer to rent the house, and the board held a special "executive session" to discuss possible litigation.
Business Session Details
The business portion of the meeting - at which only board members, staff and committee chairs spoke - took place. Board of Trustees chairman, Fred Kramer announced the previous week's election results that included a record voter turnout and passage of the budget. Before asking Friends of the Library President Amy Bass to give her report, he announced that the library had received several generous donations in memory of her father, Bernard H. Goldstein.
In matters related to the public comments that followed, Mr. Kramer announced that the engineers' mechanical and structural reports for the library space redesign and expansion were being studied by Turner Construction and that cost estimates would definitely be ready for the board's next working session, May 6. He emphasized that the public is invited. Mr. Kramer said that the necessary applications for renovating the existing library had been submitted to the State Education Department, which must grant approval before the library can hold a public referendum. He also said that contracts for developing the parking lot had been finalized. Library Director Nancy Curtin reported that a company had been hired to remove oil tanks from the property.
Baker House Debate Details
After Chairman Kramer invited public comments. The first of several jeers from Karl Maier came while Mr. Kramer was outlining the protocol for speaking; when he said people would have to limit their comments to three minutes, Maier yelled out several times, "Unreasonable. Unreasonable!"
The first to speak for preserving the house was long-time Port resident June Mackey, who explained that she was not descended from the house's builder. She said that she thought the library had purchased the Baker house for library use and that she hoped that the board would reconsider its former decision to tear down the house.
Joan Kent was the first to speak in favor of replacing the house with parking spaces. She cited her credentials as an historical preservationist to back up the thought-out wisdom of her choice. She is the current president of the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society, a member of the Town of North Hempstead's Historical Landmark Commission, the Town historian, and past president of the Sands Point Landmark Commission. She said the decision had presented an intellectual conflict of interest for her because she was also past president of Friends of the Library, a former library trustee, and current president of the Library Foundation. Ms. Kent said she had to correct misinformation: "The library did not purchase the house for use...It was bought for future expansion." She said that while she was on the board efforts had been made to re-use the house but that it would have "cost too much to bring it up to speed."
Beth Callaway, who placed a newspaper ad and organized a demonstration against the budget vote last week, followed. After being asked three times, she gave a Webster Avenue house number as her address, but several people, including those who support her cause, have said she lives out of town. Beth asked why the board had ignored a provision in McKinney's Laws of New York State which stipulates that if a municipality owns an historical building, it has to maintain it. Joan Kent interrupted to say the law was misquoted.
Karl Maier said that only 22 people attended the public forums. He asked why the board was now disregarding 599 signatures and accused the board of being poor stewards, for letting the house fall into a state of disrepair. Joan Kent interrupted to say the house was dilapidated when the library bought it.
Henry Salomon spoke on behalf of the parking plan. He was a trustee when the library purchased the house, as well as a member of the Cow Neck Peninsula Historical Society and the Long Island antiquities society, SPLIA. He said that at the time the seller made no mention of preserving the house, only requesting that the house not be demolished while Mr. Baker was alive. Salomon said that although he respected the opinion of the people who want to preserve the house, it can't satisfy the space needs of the library, and it's time to give the library and its space needs priority over the house. He said that despite an ad, petitions, and a demonstration urging people to vote against the budget to show they wanted to save the house, the budget passed by a larger majority than it has received in the last five years. Salomon was applauded when he closed with the words, "The residents have spoken. Let us proceed."
Norman Nemick then introduced himself as a member of the National Historic Trust and a licensed architect from Manhasset. He urged the board to consider an "adaptive use" for the house. He suggested moving the house closer to the street to make room for more parking space in back. When he said it could be done for $200,000, he received an ovation. From this point on every speaker was applauded by those who agreed with the viewpoint stated. Mr. Nemick also spoke several times after his formal presentation by interrupting other speakers. In one of his interruptions he offered to draw up a plan.
Robert Faje said it's not too late to readdress the Baker house issue. When Fred Kramer once again stated that the board already discussed the issue enough in public forums, Karl Maier yelled out, "You didn't . You didn't! ...You've misled the public for years" Kramer: "You're out of order, sir." Maier: "The board is out of order."
Stan Spielman, secretary/treasurer for Friends of the Library, broke the tension by speaking calmly about the library's space needs. He said, "What we're talking about here is servicing the needs of the library, not saving a house. If you save it (the house), you have the problem of trying to run the library." He explained that when he used to work for the CCNY library, their system of housing the library in five different buildings didn't work.
Bonnie Baker Soldano, the daughter of the man who owned the house, then calmly spoke in favor of preserving it. She said, "The board said, 'Get us some petitions, and we'll review it.' Now you have 599!" She was referring to the 307 petitions that had been submitted to the library earlier, plus the additional ones she delivered that day. Several trustees claim that some of these signatures are duplicates. Ms. Soldano says she carefully sifted out all duplicates.
Ms. Soldano also said that before her family sold the property, they received letters from Hyde Realty stating the library could use the house, that employees could park in the back, and that the library would "name the building in your honor."
The library's legal counsel, Sheldon Turtletaub, said, "Even if the Realtor had made promises about the house, nothing was in the contract." Maybe Mr. Baker talked about saving the house, but the contract only stipulates that the house could only be for library use while Mr. Baker was alive. Also, the family was very well paid. When Mr. Turtletaub was asked several days later if he had been aware of promises in Realtor letters, his reply was no. Furthermore, he pointed out, if the contract prohibited demolition while Mr. Baker was alive, the family must have expected demolition after his death.
Jacqueline Wood, co-chair of the library's Music Advisory Council for the past 25 years, said that the library needs an expanded parking facility so that more people can come to the Council's popular concerts.
Joel Snodgrass, project coordinator for the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities (SPLIA), who also spoke at the preservationist's demonstration on library election day, asked the board to respond to "the ground swell of people who want to save the house." He said that one of the obligations of the library is to conserve community history. He cited several studies by the Roslyn preservationist Guy Frost who categorized the house as a surviving component of the early village. Snodgrass said federal assistance is available to help groups save and manage old buildings. When Snodgrass said the state had endorsed the building as a landmark, however, Joan Kent quickly corrected him: "They've said it's eligible." Snodgrass then backed down and said, "but they're supportive."
Nancy Curtin said that SPLIA's director had looked at "the white structure" but did not offer to assist the library in moving it, nor did he find another group to move it. SPLIA wouldn't even accept the building free of charge.
Alice Rubin said she thinks the less vocal 37,000 Port residents who were not at the meeting are probably more interested in using the library, which means they'd want more parking.
A lot of discussion centered around the question of how many parking places could be obtained if just the red house were torn down or if both houses were torn down. Trustee Julie Geller said that the number of spaces had to be reduced to get a configuration that would satisfy Baxter Estates. Both David Keegan and Floyd Mackey asked for clarification on how many parking spaces could be obtained under both conditions and still comply with Baxter Estates requirements.
Don Sclare, the architect for the library's space redesign and expansion plan, explained that his designers originally tried to work around the house and described some of the alternatives considered. The renovation of the house was going to cost $250,000 - 300,000, however, and none of the plans provided enough parking spaces.
Before the meeting ended, Nancy Curtin reiterated two primary reasons for replacing the house with a parking lot: More parking space is needed so that people can use the library, and attempting to operate the library from two buildings (with insufficient space) will hinder the library's efficient operation.
At approximately 10:28 p.m., chairman Fred Kramer thanked everyone for coming and said that the board would take all comments under advisement.
That was Wednesday, April 15.
Addendum: Lawsuit & Rental?
The next day, Thursday, April 16, according to Karl Maier, the library received a letter from Dean Witter Reynolds, Inc. saying that the company might be interested in renting the Baker house for office space. (Norman Nemick, the architect from Manhasset, not coincidentally works for Dean Witter.) The company has already renovated an historical house in Locust Valley for similar use. Mr. Maier believes photos of this adaptive use of an historic house were delivered to Library Director Nancy Curtin on Monday, April 20.
That same day, April 20, the Library Board of Trustees announced that a special meeting would be held that night. The board convened publicly at 7 p.m. and met in executive session until 8:15 p.m., when they announced that they had met to discuss possible litigation. (Under sunshine laws a publicly elected board can only discuss litigation and personnel matters in executive session.)
When Mr. Maier was asked if he knew if the library had been threatened with a lawsuit, his reply was, "Yes, that may be the case." According to Mr. Maier, the NYS Department of Education may have been in violation of Section 14.09 of the Historical Preservation Law of the State of New York when it approved the library's plan to demolish the Baker house. The law states that a state agency must notify the Commissioner of the NYS Department of Parks, Recreation and History in the early planning stage before granting approval to any project that would cause any change to a building that is listed or is eligible for listing on the National or State Historic Register. Destruction of property is, of course, listed as an adverse change under this law. Because the Baker house was granted eligibility for listing in June 1995, Mr. Maier, Ms. Soldano and others believe the law could be used to save the Baker house. According to Mr. Maier, lawyers for the preservationists were discussing the issue Monday, the day the library called the special meeting.
When the library's counsel, Sheldon Turtletaub, was asked at 5 p.m. that day if the library had received notice of a lawsuit, his reply was no.
In the meantime, even though contracts have been signed to demolish it, "the white house next door" was still standing as of April 21, and library patrons were driving around trying to find a parking space.