Old Library

The front steps of the old Tompkins County Public Library, which is slated for redevelopment into a senior citizen-focused housing complex. 

It looks like the Old Library redevelopment project is destined for another showdown between developer and community after a contentious meeting over the building's planned demolition. 

A large group of people from the surrounding neighborhood packed the Common Council chambers at City Hall to call for a construction plan that puts asbestos removal first, before any demolition takes place. The current course of action for the building is to remove the asbestos contamination while the building is being demolished and containing it on the site using a water-based method that is meant to suppress the harmful, asbestos-laden air particles. Air monitoring testing will be conducted frequently to ensure the asbestos is not escaping outwards off the site. This solution has rankled the community around the project, who say the method is a cost-cutting measure that could have been avoided if work had started closer to when the project was approved last year, so that the library's structure wouldn't have had a chance to decay. They also say its too risky to take the chance when exposure to asbestos can be lethal, even though symptoms can sometimes take decades to surface. 

The meeting ricocheted between amenable to argumentative throughout the two and a half hours, including an extended back-and-forth between Frost Travis, Travis-Hyde Properties' owner, and residents of the nearby neighborhood. Susie Kramer, specifically, led the charge for the area homeowners, saying she felt the city had been remiss in keeping Travis Hyde in line and on schedule, and that the city might be showing favoritism to a popular developer's financial situation over the needs of other citizens. 

Mayor Svante Myrick tried to assuage those thoughts, saying that though he believes some parts of the process leading up to this point could be improved (the project has been, frankly, endlessly controversial), he still sees a path to a resolution that could be satisfactory. 

"I think things could have been done better, by the city, the county and by the developer," Myrick said. "About asbestos, but about the whole thing. This building should never have gotten to this state of disrepair, the county should have abated the asbestos when it had the chance [...] But the purpose of this meeting is to see how this demolition can be completed as safely as possible."

It appears asbestos removal followed by demolition was the initial plan, before the building was condemned, which opened the option for the developers to demolish and abate the asbestos simultaneously. If it had to be boiled down, that's probably the crux of the community's anger: they feel as if Travis Hyde Properties dragged its feet on the asbestos abatement, potentially so that they could receive a condemnation order once the building had decayed past the acceptable point. Kramer articulated these points again and again, often to a chorus of support from the crowd. Travis, for his part, argued that the time delay was just part of the development process and that by the time the third-party engineering firm wrote their report on the building, commissioned by Travis-Hyde, it was bad enough that the city's Director of Code Enforcement Mike Niechwiadowicz followed their recommendation and condemned the building based on New York State code. 

Niechwiadowicz said during the meeting that the primary structural deficiency with the building involves the roof decking, and said parts of the roof have started to collapse, putting potential workers at risk and directly leading to the condemnation order. 

One idea floated by Myrick, and which gained momentum throughout the meeting, was using the tax abatement process to leverage some sort of compromise. The idea, basically, was that the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency would increase, or at least reconfigure, the abatement given to the project if the developers agree to clean out the asbestos prior to knocking the building down (which may mean restoring the structure to the point its safe for asbestos workers to enter). 

Theoretically this would satiate the desires of the community by carrying out what they feel is a safer asbestos removal process, while also compensating Travis Hyde for the increased cost they will incur. Myrick doesn't have any control over that, though; the extent of his involvement would be a letter of recommendation sent to the IDA, though the public would likely be a powerful voice in the process as well. It's unclear when the project is scheduled to be discussed or voted upon by the IDA. 

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