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Cohoes public library relocation plan will bring an end to tiny temporary space

Work continues to move Cohoes’ public library to a new permanent location after the former site was closed following concerns about structural integrity.

St. John’s Episcopal Church in Cohoes was the long-time home of the library. The late 19th Century building closed in 2021 after stones began falling off the exterior. The city had originally intended to renovate the building and move the library back in, but after the full scope of the needed repairs came to light, the city council approved funding for a new building.

WAMC toured the old church with Steve Napier, Cohoes’ Economic and Community Development Director.

“The work just to be done on the bell tower was going to cost around $700,000," Napier said.

The floor creaks and sags under foot in certain spots. There are tarps covering sections as well.

“As you start to pull at one thread, many things come behind it. Right. So you know, talking to our city engineer, and following his expert lead, you know, we sort of have identified probably somewhere between $3 and $7 million in work to be done there," Napier said. "Some people say even higher than that. And so it was beyond the scope of what we were able to do here based on the funds that we had currently available.”

Napier says necessary work wasn’t done in time.

“That building, as is the case with many old church buildings is very, very hard to maintain," Napier said.

Napier says that’s for a number of reasons.

“It has very high ceilings, you know, high pitched slate roofs, they're very hard to heat and cool, also very expensive to heat and cool. The floor was not- at least today the floor has trouble holding up the books that are in there. So there are a lot of issues. And then, of course, the issue that acutely prompted the closure of that library a couple of years ago, was that the stone facade started to come loose, was coming off. And so yeah, so it became, you know, a dangerous situation," Napier said.

And that’s not everything.

“There’s a lot of masonry work that needs to be done in here, roofing work that needs to be done. The cooling system needs to be replaced completely. So it's, you know, we're talking about stone facade. We're talking about windows, we're talking about roof. We're talking about HVAC," Napier said.

In August 2021, the city opened a small library inside the Senior Center. Library Director Christiann Gibeau says she’s seen more senior citizens stop by.

“The other thing that we didn't realize being in the old building, and then moving to the Senior Center is that a lot of seniors had certain issues with either mobility or vision or something, and they just stopped coming to the library. No one thought at the time, to contact them to find out why they stopped. We moved here found they were here, we've gotten them reinstated," Gibeau said.

Clerk Patty Normandin says the opposite is true of younger people.

“I don't think teenagers associate very well with the senior center," Normandin said.

But that’s nothing new, Normandin says.

“I don’t think we’ve had a big teen turnout in a long time, even in the other building," Normandin said.

Normandin agrees with Gibeau: the new location is better for older residents.

“You see a lot of people that you've never seen before, because a lot of them come in to eat lunch every day, but they're not necessarily readers or whatever. And they don't make use of the library. But there's a lot that do, and many of them take advantage of our programs. And our summer reading was a success with a lot of the older people. They joined in, and they read more. And they seem to have enjoyed that. And they also came to a lot of our programs. So I think we got more seniors than we got at the other building," Normandin said.

While seniors seem to appreciate the location, local Diane Gregorio disagrees.

“We don't have the space that we need. We don't have private rooms for you, no specific tutoring, or we don't have a community room. It just is not a library. It's a spot for a holdover until we can get our home again," Gregorio said.

The satellite branch of the library is small, about the size of a master bedroom. That means that all the books can’t fit.

“All the books that don't fit here are either in a storage bin in the large conference room in our main building, or they're just on the shelves being monitored by the mastodon, who's hanging out there. Just checking everything out, making sure it's OK," Gibeau said.

The Cohoes Mastodon watches over the old library, a replica of one that was found when excavation was being done for an area mill.

“The original mastodon I think originally was once here. It was since moved to the New York State Museum.”

For the time being, the process of moving into the former Cohoes Savings Bank building on Remsen Street continues. Completed in 1924, the building has been vacant since 2018. WAMC also toured the proposed space with Napier.

“The usable interior space, the main space here, is actually around the same, maybe even a little bigger than the usable interior space in the main area of the other building," Napier said.

That doesn’t mean that plans are final yet, according to Democratic Mayor Bill Keeler.

“There are a lot of balls in the air right now. I mean, first of all, the owner has agreed to sell it to the city. And that's wonderful. But we've got to get an appraisal done," Keeler said.

But the process is underway. Again, Napier.

“The Common Council voted to bond the funding that was needed to purchase the other building," Napier said.

Napier says while the new building is in better shape, there is still work to do on it.

“One of the things that needs to be done with the building is there's a membrane roof here on the addition," Napier said.

Which is a flat rubber roof, and this one leaks. It also would have to be brought up to code.

“So, there's restrooms here, you know, the obviously these will have to be made ADA accessible, that's another one of the major projects will need to be done. But you know, making ADA accessible bathrooms, putting in a handicap accessible ramp into the building, probably through the side, to make it so that people can get in. Just making the buildings just generally more usable for our community," Napier said.

Napier says there will be a focus on making the new space a community asset.

“I think that it means that, I mean, certainly there are books and periodicals, like you would see, in any library, I think that there is a greater emphasis on things like, you know, access to computers and the internet, which is, you know, in a city like Cohoes, that has a significant population of people who live below the poverty line and don't have access to the internet, it's very important to have those things available to them," Napier said. "So maybe greater thrusts on that. But beyond that, things like community meeting rooms, you know, making it a place that is truly a hub of the community.”

Napier says preserving the history of the bank, including the murals representing the area’s history, is important as plans advance.

“People ask me about them all the time, what's the condition of the murals in the Cohoes Savings Bank building. So people have positive, nostalgic feelings for this building, and they're excited to come in here," Napier said.

But besides the building itself, there’s also the location.

“This very prime location, right on Remsen Street, between the Cohoes Music Hall on this side and the City Hall and the post office and the bank, I think that it's this is an area that people are more well-traveled through, we have a bus stop that stops directly out front. There's a bus sitting there right now. So I just think that this area, the location here is going to make people more cognizant of its presence in the community," Napier said.

Mayor Keeler says once the new library opens, the satellite branch in the senior center will likely close. It’s a plan patrons and area residents Carol Taylor and Pauline Degeault don’t much care for.

“I probably wouldn't be going as much as I like to come here. And there's a lot of foot traffic here because it's here, you know. And it's very convenient, although the other one’s just down the street. But I really like it here," Degeault said.

Taylor says the senior center location is more convenient.

“I volunteer over at the senior center. So I have more access than I would normally," Taylor said.

Despite their concerns, Napier says moving the library is nothing new in Cohoes.

“It hasn't been done in a generation, right, but it has been done many times over the course of its life," Napier said.

Napier adds moving the library to the bank preserves city history.

“It's a treasured building in Cohoes. When I was a kid, and I think when most Cohosiers were kids, we were brought here to open our first Passbook Savings Account when we were in elementary school. And it's a beautiful building, it was built in 1924. It's been vacant for several years now," Napier said.

A large portion of the money to carry out the renovation is coming from the state thanks to a $10 million Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant.

Mayor Keeler says the new library will open as soon as possible, perhaps this fall. For right now, though, the library staff is making do. Here’s Gibeau.

“We provide every single service that we would have in the main building. So instead of computers, we provide laptops, we still do the printing, we'll do your faxing, we'll do, you know, copying, whatever that we need to do. And in terms of the materials themselves, we are limited," Gibeau said.

It was quiet when WAMC visited the library on Monday morning, but as several people mentioned off-handedly, it was lunchtime, meaning people were eating, not reading.

A 2022 Siena College graduate, Alexander began his journalism career as a sports writer for Siena College's student paper The Promethean, and as a host for Siena's school radio station, WVCR-FM "The Saint." A Cubs fan, Alexander hosts the morning Sports Report in addition to producing Morning Edition. You can hear the sports reports over-the-air at 6:19 and 7:19 AM, and online on WAMC.org. He also speaks Spanish as a second language. To reach him, email ababbie@wamc.org, or call (518)-465-5233 x 190. You can also find him on Twitter/X: @ABabbieWAMC.