Amherst council commits to library project through bid stage

  • An artist’s conception shows a renovated and expanded Jones Library as seen from next to the Amherst History Museum. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

Staff Writer
Published: 9/20/2022 7:32:36 PM

AMHERST — Amherst officials are renewing a commitment to modernizing and expanding the Jones Library, even with concerns about rising costs and pressures on the capital campaign team to raise an additional $10 million.

Town Council voted 8-5 Monday in favor of having Town Manager Paul Bockelman enter into a revised memorandum of understanding with library trustees that will ensure the project, currently pegged at $46.4 million, gets to the point for contractors to submit bids next summer.

“We need this building. We need it for our community,” said At Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke.

Hanneke said her support is about being partners with the elected trustees, who have pledged to cover the costs of the design team, Finegold Alexander Architects, and owner’s project manager Colliers, to getting the bid documents advertised. That will cost at least $1.4 million.

“We are not placing an irresponsible ask on the trustees; they have asked for it themselves,” said District 5 Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier.

Her fellow District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne said her vote in favor was about respecting and honoring the trustees, and the residents who voted last November by a nearly two-thirds majority in favor of a $36.3 million project to enlarge the library building from 48,000 square feet to 63,000 square feet.

Also voting for the revised accord were Council President Lynn Griesemer and fellow District 2 Councilor Pat DeAngelis, At Large Councilor Andy Steinberg, District 4 Councilor Anika Lopes and District 1 Councilor Michele Miller.

Those who opposed the new agreement included District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam, who compared the reluctance to put the project on pause to the NASA engineers who refused to call off the January 1986 Challenger shuttle launch despite known issues with the O-rings in the rockets, and the U.S. decision to not withdraw from the Vietnam War, despite mounting casualties, because of commitments already made.

“The library plans is based on some false premises, too,” Pam said, adding that she worries the town will end up with a flawed building as costs are cut to make it fit the budget, and a building that taxpayers can’t afford.

Pam was joined in voting no by her District 3 colleague, Councilor Jennifer Taub, as well as At Large Councilor Ellisha Walker, District 4 Councilor Pam Rooney and District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen.

Schoen said she voted against the new deal because she is “terrified” at the prospect that fundraising will come up short of the trustees’ goal, and that town finances could be put at risk.

“This is no longer likely to be the project all those voters saw a year ago in design plans,” Schoen said.

Austin Sarat, president of the trustees, said the project needs to happen because the library can’t propserly serve users within the confines of the existing building, and that the project will mean a dedicated space for teens and more room for the English as a Second Language program.

“The citizens of Amherst endorsed the vision for the library,” Sarat said.

Some of those who voted against the accord appeared to be swayed by Robert Pam, a library trustee and its treasurer, who said he can no longer support the project because cost-cutting is already leading to a building that was not promised to voters, such as the loss of sawtooth roof skylights that accommodate solar panels.

Other councilors noted that residents will face other capital expenses: the likely Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion override vote next spring for the new elementary school, and the costs of a South Amherst fire station and a new headquarters to replace the aging Department of Public Works trolley barn.

But Griesemer said the Town Council can’t balk now, and that councilors have to be both realistic and unafraid to complete the four buildings.

“We are at the beginning of a tough capital process,” Griesemer said. “What I’m not willing to do is give up some level of vision for our town and our future.”

Miller said too many people have put in too many years of hard work to give up, advising that inflationary pressures won’t diminish. “We have to get used to this reality,” Miller said.

Steinberg said a pause in the project would mean giving up the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners’ $13.87 million construction grant. “I just don’t think there’s a second chance,” Steinberg said.

Before the final vote, councilors rejected an amendment by Rooney that would have given an earlier “check-in” point in the design process, and another round of cost estimates next spring.

Before the vote, an oral comment was made by Laura Draucker of the Cushman section of Amherst. Draucker said longtime opponents of the project are seeing inflation as their way to kill it, even though more than 3,000 voters want the building. “Let’s not give up now,” Draucker said.

But another commenter, Ken Rosenthal of Sunset Avenue, said the cost pressures indicate that it is time to find an alternative way to renovate the building on its existing footprint.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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