Broken elevator at Oakland Main Library probably won’t be fixed until summer
The sole elevator in the Main Library has been broken for three months now. Credit: Natalie Orenstein

Sign up for our free newsletter

Free Oakland news, written by Oaklanders, delivered straight to your inbox three times a week.

For the past three months, librarians and patrons at the Oakland Main Library have had a tough time getting to the second floor due to a broken elevator. 

Until recently, city officials said they lacked the funds to fix the elevator—the only one at the downtown branch designated for public use. But even with money now secured and repair plans underway, library-goers likely won’t be able to use it again until late this summer. 

Librarians at the branch have had to carry heavy items up and down a staircase connecting the second floor, the mezzanine, and the ground level of the facility. They have used the small service elevator, which is only accessible to staffers with a key, to assist people with disabilities, according to library officials who spoke with The Oaklandside. 

The second floor is a favorite destination of researchers who use the Oakland History Center, a popular resource for information about the city’s diverse and colorful past. The second floor also features one of the only public bathrooms in the building.

“If you need to use the restroom, you have to go outside, walk around half a block, and come in through the children’s room. And then go back outside and come all the way around,” Library Director Jamie Turbak told The Oaklandside. “It’s inconvenient, and there are patrons who have mobility issues, who are on walkers. It is very problematic.”

The elevator has been out of service since Nov. 17. Over the previous three months there had been 10 elevator malfunctions. Librarians were forced on several occasions to call the fire department to rescue people trapped inside, she said.

A city spokesperson told The Oaklandside in a written statement that the city “recognizes that the elevator’s unavailability impacts service and accessibility.” But the parts needed to fix it “are significantly impacted by global supply chain challenges, and at this time the City’s supplier estimates delivery of the parts in the late summer.” City staff are “actively exploring alternatives to expedite these repairs.” 

Howard Tevelson, who chairs the Mayor’s Commission on Persons with Disability, did not know about the situation before being contacted by The Oaklandside. He said the city should have prioritized fixing the elevator months ago when it first broke down. 

“Disabled people like to read and like to go to libraries as well,” said Tevelson. “We’re concerned it has not been fixed. The Main Library should be available to all citizens in Oakland.”

Federal law states that while service interruptions are unavoidable, failure to take “prompt action” to repair public elevators and escalators constitutes a legal violation.

California building code also stipulates that elevators should be compliant with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements by making them available to people without assistance.

A hefty price tag

Oakland Public Library, main Downtown Branch. Credit: Pete Rosos

Speaking before the City Council’s Public Works Committee two weeks ago, Oakland Department of Public Works officials attributed the elevator problems to a lack of money. The cost to repair the elevator is $250,000. 

“The elevator at the Main Library is inoperative and unsafe. It is a critical ADA access infrastructure, but we’re unable to repair it because of no funding,” Building Services Manager Derin Minor said at the meeting. 

The city did recently approve $150,000 for the repair job through its ADA Programs Division. On Thursday, city officials confirmed to The Oaklandside that the remaining $100,000 would be paid using one-time salary savings. 

$250,000 is the going price for a “full modernization” of an elevator in a building the size of the Main Library, according to multiple Bay Area elevator repair companies. A full modernization may involve changing the motors, the ropes, or even the elevator cage—the box that passengers stand in.

Oakland does not currently have an electrical engineer on its staff that can do that job. Berkeley, by comparison, does have a licensed mechanic to maintain elevators, though the city may also hire contractors to complete large jobs.

Only certified electricians are allowed to repair elevators, which contain thousands of components and require high voltages of electricity to operate.

“You’re not touching anything in an elevator unless you have a certification and know what you’re doing,” said Michael Blaszczyk, the owner of Otis Elevator Company, which contracts with the Oakland International Airport to maintain its elevators.

Oakland’s maintenance budget has shrunk

The Facilities Services Division, which maintains city buildings and other facilities, currently has a backlog of $3-5 million in maintenance work a year, including fire stations, due to recent budget cuts, according to city staff. The 2021-22 budget provides $800,000 for emergency maintenance for its Facility Services Division, down from $2 million the previous year. Usually, Public Works would pay for additional costs by dipping into its emergency funds, but those have been exhausted this fiscal year on other projects, according to Public Works Assistant Director Richard Battersby.

At a recent Public Works meeting, Public Works Director Harold Duffy lamented that Oakland’s numerous maintenance and repair needs, coupled with smaller budgets, is forcing city departments to compete with one another for dollars. 

“The city has over 2.5 million in square feet [of buildings and facilities] and you are allocating $800,000 to maintenance [this year]. The industry standard is $1.40 per square foot,” he said. “It is a systemic issue and it’s amazing what the [Public Works Department] has been able to do with the resources, using salary savings to augment lack of funding.” 

Repairs could take months

Dream Ride Elevators, the company contracted by the city to fix the Main Library elevator, is currently waiting on parts to start the job, according to co-owner Ivan Werblow. 

A complete single elevator modernization, said Otis Elevator Company’s Blaszczyk, usually takes at least six weeks to complete—four weeks for the contractor to complete their work, and about two weeks for additional tasks done by electrical workers and the fire department, like installing a fire control panel, smoke detectors, and a new sprinkler system. 

“We always tell our customers that there’s about 30% of additional work on top of the main fixing of the elevator,” Blaszczyk said. 

Once the contractor’s repairs are complete, the work will need to be inspected by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration elevator unit, a process that can take several weeks, before being cleared for public use.

This means that even if the parts are not delayed by global supply chain issues and the work begins in February, the earliest the elevator is likely to reopen would be sometime in April.

Jose Fermoso is a University of Michigan Knight-Wallace Reporting Fellow.

Jose Fermoso is a 2021 Knight-Wallace Fellow reporting on traffic and road safety for The Oaklandside. His work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Born and raised in Oakland, Jose has also worked on the bestselling unauthorized biography of Apple's Jony Ive and led all content initiatives at App Academy, the top U.S. coding boot camp. He is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.