SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Officials and residents gathered in the Pierro Gallery at the Baird Community Center to discuss the proposed renovation plan to the building and share their input on the project in a town hall-style meeting June 13. The village has hired The Biber Partnership AIA, a Summit architectural firm, to develop a plan for the reconstruction and renovation of the building.
“We know what we want to use the building for now,” South Orange Trustee Karen Hartshorn Hilton said at the meeting. “We also want to figure out what we can do with it in the future. We are all familiar with this building but we also know that it’s a mess and we want to fix it.”
Currently in the early stages of the planning process, Peter Biber, the principal partner at the firm, and Lauren Mitchell, a senior associate partner, shared the progress they have made so far. The two have worked on buildings similar to the Baird before, and Biber said at the meeting they have designed approximately 37 community centers and YMCAs.
“We have a good feeling about this type of building because we’ve done them before,” Biber said. “A lot of them have gone through very few changes because they’re expensive to maintain. So we want to renovate the building so that it doesn’t have to be done again in 10 years, because the money just isn’t there.”
Mitchell said that meetings with staff members at the Baird and community groups were held before the town hall meeting, and input from residents will be woven into the final renovation plan.
“There’s client design and approval at every step,” she said at the meeting. “We’re not designing what we want to design and shoving it down your throats; there will be community feedback.”
The project will involve outdoor changes as well as indoor renovations. The architects said they will try to expand parking so that more lot space will be available, and the roof will be redone to ensure that it is weatherproof. The fire escapes will also be moved and redesigned to fit in with the building’s design.
Another issue brought up by Biber and Mitchell, and by several residents, was storage. Many rooms and offices in the Baird are crowded with supplies and furniture, and there is currently no way to create an efficient storage system.
“There’s not enough places for storage,” Biber said at the meeting. “This place has been here for so long that people don’t know where to put anything. We’re going to find more storage outside and also inside.”
The renovation will also focus on the Baird’s main entry. Currently, the building’s front door opens into an empty hallway.
“When you walk in the main entry you’re in this bare room,” Mitchell said. “We need to figure out what’s going there, whether it’s display cases or a window looking into a class going on.”
By updating the entryway, Biber hopes to attract more people to the Baird.
“We want people to come in, so when they’re invited into the main entrance they want to participate,” he said. “Our goal is to get people to come in and be a part of it.”
In addition to the lighting upgrades that will also be a part of the renovation, Mitchell said the hallways should be better identified and color-coded so it will be easier to understand which is which.
“Wayfinding is a real issue here,” she said. “There are three corridors that all look exactly the same. I think we need to color code and have directions so you know where to go.”
One of the major components of the renovation involves potentially moving the Pierro Gallery from the second floor to the first floor. Relocating the gallery would expand the space and make it the centerpiece of the building, rather than having it upstairs and harder to find.
“Not a lot of people know it’s here,” Biber said about the gallery. “There’s a lot we can do to expand it, including lighting, that asks whether or not it should be on this level, so we’re looking at where else in the building it can be. This is a strong arts community, so the question is: Should that be the first thing when you walk in? That’s what we’re looking into. We want to turn it into a gallery that you’ll be impressed with.”
Another arts aspect of the Baird that Biber and Mitchell addressed at the meeting was the theater on the third floor. The space is used by interACT Theatre Productions, and is a space that Biber said he was surprised to see on his first tour of the building. Nick Clarey, artistic director of interACT, asked about noise and airflow issues that have plagued the building when a show is in progress. According to Mitchell, both of Clarey’s concerns have come up in the architects’ review of the building and are being taken into consideration.
“We’re going to turn this into a more traditional black box theater; that will expand the seating,” Biber said. “But it’s a great space for the programs you have here. When I saw it, I thought ‘Where did this come from?’ There are a lot of surprises here.”
In addition to improvements to the art spaces inside the Baird, Biber and Mitchell have also considered the sports and recreation elements. A new teen space is being considered, as well as an expansion of the indoor gym, and the outdoor basketball courts and batting cages.
Despite being in the preliminary planning process, Biber is optimistic that he and the village can develop a renovation plan that will work for all residents of the town.
“We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback so far,” he said. “This is a community that is very involved and I think this is something that will turn out great.”
Residents who would like to contribute ideas and/or concerns may reach out to Adam Loehner , the acting village administrator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Amanda Valentovic