Public libraries in Erie County are asking for nearly $150 million in renovations — more than half of that for the downtown Central Library.
A physical assessment conducted by the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system identified a wide range of needs, including roof repairs, asbestos abatement and enhanced security involving 26 of the system’s 37 library locations.
“A lot of it is just trying to get the buildings in good shape,” said John Spears, director of the library system. “It has been a long process to get all of the Buffalo libraries to where they are now.”
Spears acknowledged that some of the construction requests may not be realized, particularly the big-ticket items like the Central Library’s expansion. But the draft report, once finalized, will act as a blueprint for renovations through 2027, Spears said.
Other library systems in Western New York have previously reported tens of millions of dollars of capital needs, as well. Historically, only a small portion of the work is funded in any given year.
Total requested upgrades to the Erie County’s system’s 37 locations primarily focus on maintaining current facilities, but a few are looking to expand. The county system assessed the Central Library and Buffalo’s eight branches, according to Spears. Beyond the city, each municipality assessed its own branches.
Libraries in Aurora, Buffalo, Tonawanda, Lackawanna, Marilla, North Collins, and Orchard Park, as well as the Central Library, included proposed expansions. The Central Library’s projects alone account for $87.5 million of the total assessment.
The Central Library’s suggested remodeling would include exterior modifications to “create a plaza commons area to create a vibrant open space in the heart of downtown Buffalo.”
“That was a project that was done years ago called ‘Reimagine,’” Spears said. “It really opened this building in a way that it hasn’t been before. It’s something that has been continuously put in the capital request for the county, but it has not been something that the county has been interested in doing.”
Proposed renovations at Central also included asbestos abatement and replacing “near end of life” building components. They will use “green design and energy efficiency features.”
Other proposed projects include $25 million in renovations to the Town of Tonawanda’s Kenmore branch, in part to replace crumbling brick and create bathrooms compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act; $6.6 million to replace Buffalo’s North Park branch’s leased space with a new location; and nearly $4 million to expand Orchard Park’s library by 3,000 square feet.
Buffalo’s eight branches need $11.7 million in renovations, according to the assessment. That number declined from $14.4 million in a previous construction needs report submitted to the New York State Library system in 2019.
The Buffalo libraries' requests do not include a neighborhood association’s call for a new branch in the Broadway-Fillmore district. An Investigative Post analysis found funding cuts in 2005 — which closed 16 libraries countywide, including eight in Buffalo — created a book desert in that section of the East Side.
The $149.6 million construction needs assessment comes off the heels of the completion of several projects across the system, including an elevator at Buffalo’s Crane library to make the building compliant with the disabilities act. Crane reopened last week.
“We are getting those facilities to a level that I think the City of Buffalo can be proud of,” Spears said.
Also this year, Amherst reopened its Audubon library upon completion of a 5,000-square-foot addition, which included an expanded children’s area.
“I used to do storytime and programs at Audubon, and I always had to check what the fire code limits were,” said Kristi Dougherty, Amherst Public Library director.
“We would often meet and exceed the demand for various early literacy programs. So the fact that our community room is expanded, we’re able to not only host our library events, but also various community events, as well.”
Construction and renovations to library branches are largely funded through state aid, and to a lesser extent by municipalities.
In 2019, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library system reported an assessed need of $119.5 million in renovations. Since then, $5.7 million has been awarded to the county library system through state construction aid, including $1.7 million this year.
The Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System, with 38 branches, identified capital needs of $27.9 million in 2019.
Over the past four years, Chautauqua-Cattaraugus libraries received $3.3 million in state construction aid.
The Nioga Library System, which serves Niagara, Orleans, and Genesee counties, identified capital needs of $7.1 million in 2019. The system is made up of 23 library locations.
Since 2019, Nioga libraries have received $3.3 million in state construction aid.
State Sen. Sean Ryan, who serves on the Senate Library committee, is calling for more funding for libraries.
“There’s definitely more for the state to do,” the Buffalo Democrat said. “We need to put more into that part of the budget. It’s an ongoing struggle. It’s not going to be solved in one budget year. But we are nowhere near close to meeting the capital needs of libraries throughout New York State.”
“There is no library renovation that occurs without state money,” Ryan said. “Erie County couldn’t afford to do it alone.”