Nearly a year behind schedule, the $6 million renovation and expansion of the Waverly library is nearing completion and a soft opening is set for Aug. 31, two years to the month after it closed.
An official grand opening and ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned for Sept. 18, with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake expected to attend, said Roswell Encina, spokesman for the city's Enoch Pratt Free Library system.
Encina said the delay was due to problems encountered by the contractor, J.A.K. Construction Services. He wouldn't specify what the problems were, but he apologized to area residents for the holdup in reopening the library, which he said was one of the five most-used branches in the city before it closed in August 2013. The library is used largely by residents of Waverly, Charles Village, Oakenshawe, Guilford and Abell.
"We understand they're frustrated," Encina said. "We want to make sure the resources of the Waverly branch are there for them."
Some city officials and community leaders in Charles Village and Oakenshawe were disgruntled with the project before the work started, saying the city should have razed the 44-year-old building and started over. City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke was chief among the critics, at one point telling city officials in early 2013 that they should "go back to the drawing board."
Clarke said Sunday she has been even more of "a pain to the city" since construction began and that she asked city officials in vain, including Deputy Mayor for Operations Khalil Zaied, to change contractors because she was unhappy with "endless delays" by J.A.K.
"The construction company was inadequate to the job," she said. "They were in over their heads from day one."
A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's office echoed Clarke's assessment.
"Obviously, all of us are disappointed," spokesman Howard Libit said. "We sympathize with the community's concerns."
Libit added, "There was serious consideration given to replacing the contractor."
But the city decided not to, because it would have meant stopping work, asking the Board of Estimates to cancel the contract, and then rebidding the project, all of which would have caused equally long delays, Libit said.
"The timing wasn't going to bring it home any faster," he said.
However, the city asked the bonding company for the library project to trouble-shoot, and the bonding company brought in its own project manager, "which is a rare step," Libit said.
In addition, the city Department of General Services began sending inspectors to the construction site regularly, "to try to move the project along," he said.
Libit would not say how or why J.A.K. fell behind, or comment on past work that he said the company has done for the city. But he said "steps are being taken" to review the company's qualifications to do work for the city in the future.
Libit also said that J.A.K did not come in over budget, just way behind schedule.
J.A.K. President John Sfakianoudis could not be reached for comment.
Clarke said she hasn't seen the work done or been invited by the city to tour the building as renovated. But she said that delays notwithstanding, "I'm happy that the library is reopening," especially for the sake of children who have used it regularly in the past. "It's been sorely missed," she said.
"We just want to tell folks we're as frustrated as they are over how long it took," Encina said.
The good news, Encina said, is that the renovations are worth the wait.
"It looks like a completely different building," he said. "I think the community is going to be very happy with it. I think this branch is a sign of a 21st century library."
"We think the community is going to be very happy with the end product," Libit said.
The Messenger toured the building Aug. 7, as a small army of volunteers began to fill new shelves with books. Furniture, including some for a lounge area was already put in.
"It's exciting," said Eunice Anderson, chief of neighborhood library services, who is in charge of all the branches in the city. "I look at everything as a great adventure and a challenge."
Branch manager Ann Marie Harvey (nee Lalmansingh), who has been assigned to the Northwood branch since renovations began, but is returning to Waverly, was unavailable for comment because her father died unexpectedly last week.
As renovated, the now 17,000-square-foot building at the corner of 33rd and Barclay streets, near the 32nd Street Farmers Market, still has the same footprint. But the 1971 building, last renovated in 1986, has basically been gutted except for some of its original brick, and has gained more than 3,000 square feet, accommodated partly by a narrowing of sidewalks on 33rd and Barclay.
It will open with about 47,000 volumes of books, DVDs and audio books, a gain of about 2,000 volumes, Encina said.
The library now has 54 computers — compared with 19 before, Anderson said — and contains state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment. A computer lab will be dedicated to instruction in job market preparedness skills, such as resume-writing.
As before, there is free Internet service with free Wi-Fi. And now, tables and chairs in the library are equipped with plugs for connecting and charging laptops and electronic devices.
A community meeting room, which seated 50-75 people before the renovations, has been enlarged partly by relocating a pantry and removing a stage. The room, which community groups can apply to use, now seats 175 people with a separate entrance from the street — "so we can have programs there without opening the rest of the library," Anderson said. She and Encina said the library system plans to expand its programming at the Waverly branch.
The building is now banked by windows in its cavernous main room.
"You can peek out. You can peek in," Encina said. "It just seems more inviting. You can see the farmers' market. You can see 33rd."
"It feels more expansive and open," Anderson said.
There's also more visibility inside, where new book shelves in the main room are lower.
"We can look across the room," Anderson said.
The library will be safer, with security cameras outside and in, a security guard and a security station inside the front door.
Other new features include an in-wall book drop from outside the building, a "quiet room" for adults, and new areas for children and teens, including "creation stations," which Anderson said will focus on science, technology, engineering and math, in conjunction with the city schools' STEM curriculum.
In fact, the Waverly library will be closely aligned with the school system's educational priorities and the soft opening is deliberately scheduled to coincide with the first day of school.
"Most of what we do is for kids," Anderson said. "Libraries are educational institutions. We try to keep abreast of what (schools are) doing."
The library staff will continue to go to schools to offer curriculum support, and will be available for teachers who want to take classes of children to the library, Anderson said.
"We try to work very closely with the schools," she said. "We need them and they need us."
For adults seeking a high school Graduate Equivalency Diploma, the library will offer GED classes, Anderson said.
There are now three larger public restrooms, including one for families. There are also water fountains, a rarity for libraries in the city, Anderson said.
"A lot of branches would love to have water fountains," she said.
The library is greener and more energy-efficient, with solar-powered sun lights throughout the building. There's also a flower garden outside on the Barclay Street side of the building, specially designed to collect rainwater, Anderson said.
In addition to the expected return of its branch manager, the library will be getting two new full-time librarians, one of them from the Baltimore County library system, and a part-time librarian from the Hampden branch. Also, an onsite technology assistant is transferring from the Hamilton branch, Anderson said.
In another first, the library now will be open Fridays, Anderson said. There are bike racks on the sidewalk near the entrance, yet another first, she said.
Above the front entrance is a new, curved aluminum sign, although a hand-painted "Do Not Enter" sign was still posted at the electronic push doors. Clarke called that sign amateurish and said she has tried to get the city to remove it.
The Waverly branch will be open starting Aug. 31, from noon to 8 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays, noon to 5 p.m. on Fridays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. The library is closed Sundays.
One thing remains unchanged. The library's telephone number is still 410-396-6053.
Clarke said the true test of how successful the project is will come as patrons "see for themselves."