Library innovates to serve downtown Ypsi patrons after water damage forces branch closure

The Ypsilanti District Library's staff and board have been brainstorming ways to continue serving the downtown Ypsi community, ranging from free bus tokens to additional Bookmobile runs.
Closing the downtown Michigan Avenue branch of the Ypsilanti District Library (YDL) for the remainder of 2023 due to flooding was a tough move for the library system — especially after YDL's successful funding campaign for its new Superior branch.

"We were feeling very high after the opening of the Superior branch, and we had big plans for 2024, but this sidelined us," says YDL Director Lisa Hoenig. "It was completely unexpected and awful."
Ypsilanti District Library Director Lisa Hoenig.
However, YDL's staff and board have been brainstorming ways to continue serving the downtown Ypsi community, ranging from free bus tokens to additional Bookmobile runs. They're also dreaming about how they can improve the branch for patrons and employees alike when it reopens.

Down to the studs

On July 1, a severe rainstorm created flooding across Washtenaw County. Library staff don't know exactly why that caused such a major problem for the YDL Michigan Avenue branch, but they think it may have been due to roof drains and gutters being unable to take the heavy rainfall.

"We found out because water in the walls set off the fire alarms," says Sam Killian, community relations coordinator for YDL. 

When he and Hoenig met the fire department at the library, they found out how extensive the water damage was. The branch's book collection largely survived the flood, with only about 100 titles lost to water damage, Killian says. But walls, floors, electrical systems, and furniture were damaged. A construction crew couldn't even begin rebuilding until remediation for moisture was complete, further delaying reopening. 
YDL Community Relations Coordinator Sam Killian.
Remediation was completed as of mid-September, and an environmental testing firm declared the space safe to enter so restoration could begin. YDL is working with Ypsilanti-based Phoenix Contractors in the current phase, and an architect recently took a 3D scan of the interior to aid in design development for the restored building. 

YDL administration already knew the building, a former Carnegie post office, needed an update and unveiled a new strategic plan for the downtown branch in March. Community input suggested the branch is in dire need of more space for programming, but patrons were also strongly against eliminating the library's courtyard. That means the library may have to add another story to its historic building, which comes with its own challenges.

Hoenig says she and the library board knew they weren't going to be able to renovate the Michigan Avenue branch in three years, but they had a roadmap that could lead to a firm plan and design in three years. 
The ground floor of the YDL Michigan Avenue branch during remediation.
"The flood really forced our hand," Hoenig says. The long-term plan will now take longer than three years, but at least a few design elements they desired in the long-term plan are likely to be incorporated into the current renovation work, as recently approved by the YDL board.

"We're going to look at some redesign elements that will make the building more effective and efficient, and more welcoming," she says, including changing the layout of the youth department.

Hoenig says construction timelines can be unpredictable, but her hope is to have the library branch open again by early June 2024, just in time for YDL's summer reading challenge.

Leaping into action

Aaron Smith is an adult services librarian who formerly worked at the Michigan Avenue location and has been temporarily relocated to the adult reference desk at YDL's Whittaker branch. Smith says the people typically served by the closed branch are the ones who can "least afford to take the bus to the Whittaker or Superior branch."

"I think about those people every day," Smith says.

The library is using a variety of approaches to serve the needs of YDL's downtown patrons. They include stationing the Bookmobile on Adams Street by the library's community garden from 1-5 p.m. each Friday, with closings for holidays and inclement weather. Patrons can still return books at the Michigan Avenue branch and request books for pickup in lockers at the library. The water damage also interfered with the lockers' electronics for a few months, but that issue has since been resolved.
Aaron Smith, Lisa Hoenig, and Sam Killian at the bookmobile outside of the Ypsilanti District Library Michigan Avenue branch.
Another strategy is to make it easier for downtown patrons to get to other branches. YDL staff were hoping for a partnership with the Ann Arbor Area Transportation Authority (AAATA), similar to their summer reading program perk that offered free bus rides by showing a library card on weekends throughout the summer. However, so far, Hoenig says AAATA has offered "a modest supply of tokens." She adds that AAATA encourages riders who have trouble affording the cost to look into AAATA's Fare Deal program.

Downtown programming remains a challenge. Some events that could be held outside in the library's courtyard will still be held there, including the library's annual Halloween party. Downtown businesses and organizations have also stepped in to host some other programs. 

For instance, Ann Arbor SPARK East hosted an author talk by nationally-known romance author Beverly Jenkins, Bridge Community Cafe has other events like storytimes, and other events will take place at Riverside Arts Center, Parkridge Community Center, or the Ypsilanti Senior Center.

"We're figuring out things we can do to keep events and activities downtown," Smith says. He says any community members or organizations who would like to propose a partnership should reach out to him at asmith@ypsilibrary.org.

More than a building

These changes have also affected staff assigned to the Michigan Avenue branch. Killian says the YDL has been able to absorb all those employees and reassign them without any need for layoffs. 

"But one thing you hear a lot is the fact that they miss the patrons dearly and miss seeing them every day," Killian says.

And the patrons miss their librarians.

"We miss our people, miss downtown," Smith says. "There are so many regulars, and we get calls every day wanting to know when we're going to reopen."
Ypsilanti District Library librarian Aaron Smith.
"We understand what a blow this is to not have that space. A lot of people depend on it," Killian says. "It's important to have a space where you don't have to buy anything to come in and be welcomed."

Killian says the branch is "more than a building." It's also a space for people to experience the downtown area, use computers, stay cool, stay warm, or use the restrooms, he says.

"We've been trying to be creative in how we serve downtown and trying to keep our chins up," Hoenig says. 

Patrons can keep tabs on updates about the Michigan Avenue branch here.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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