Residents of New Haven’s Hill neighborhood have been without a library for 15 years. Now a plan is underway to complete construction of a new branch as early as next fall.

City librarian Jim Welbourne attended a meeting Thursday morning which set the time frame for the new library’s construction in the Hill neighborhood, traditionally one of the city’s most economically depressed areas. Last month, the Bond Commission approved a $500,000 state grant to get the new library up and running.

The site will be at the corner of Washington Avenue and Daggett Street, in the former building of Leon’s Restaurant.

Before Thursday’s meeting, the new branch was predicted to open no earlier than 2005. Now Welbourne said the building that will house the new branch should be finished in fall of 2003.

“[This] is unreal,” Welbourne said.

The Hill, which has been experiencing a population boom in the last decade, is one of New Haven’s largest neighborhoods. It lies in a ward that is primarily African-American and Hispanic. Ward 3 Alderman Juan Candelaria said the residents in the neighborhood have a diverse educational background. He said today’s most pressing issue in the ward is the increase in drug activity. Candelaria said he is optimistic about a new library for his neighborhood.

“I am excited,” he said in an e-mail. “This is not only a learning environment but also a safe place for our youth.”

Aldermen and community members alike have been pushing for a number of years to open a library branch in the Hill neighborhood, Library Board President Michael Morand said. Within the past two years, the momentum has picked up and now plans are actually underway.

Welbourne said he would describe the Hill community as “under-served” for several reasons. There is no library facility in the area. And given the poor economic conditions of the neighborhood, many people do not have the Internet access linking their homes with the resources of the library’s main branch on Elm Street. Also, members of the Hill community have limited transportation to the far-away Elm Street location, Welbourne said.

The layout of the planned Hill District Branch will be atypical. Welbourne said the library will consist of two levels: the main level will serve as a normal branch, while the lower level will provide a cultural and technological center for the Hill community. One room in this level will be an Internet cafe — the New Haven Library system’s first — while another room will provide a permanent family center.

Morand, who is also Yale’s associate vice president for New Haven and state affairs, said Yale has an important relationship with the public library system in New Haven. For instance, he said, the Yale University Press provides the library free copies of all its titles.

“When the new Hill branch is open we will look for opportunities to strengthen further this strong relationship,” Morand said.