Jones Library director: Proposed renovation and expansion wouldn’t harm garden, historic elements of building



Last modified: Tuesday, May 19, 2015

AMHERST — A memorial garden that graces the rear of the Jones Library and interior architectural elements that make the building feel like a historic home will be preserved under any expansion project, Library Director Sharon Sharry said Monday.

Despite what Sharry described as growing worries from the public that a plan to enlarge and renovate the Jones Library in the coming years will decimate the garden and damage the intimacy of the 87-year-old public building, Sharry is assuring residents that a renovation project will involve only positive changes. If the project proceeds, construction would take place in 2019.

During a tour of the building and grounds Monday, Sharry said any expansion of the 57,000-square-foot building will, by necessity, take place at the rear of the building, in order to retain the original streetscape on Amity Street. But, she said, any project won’t come at the cost of ruining the garden planted in the late 1990s.

“We don’t want anyone to think we’re paving this over or doing away with what is a beautiful garden in the middle of downtown,” Sharry said.

Known officially as the Kinsey Memorial Garden, it forms a buffer between the library and the public parking lot behind the CVS Pharmacy.

George Hicks, maintenance supervisor for the library, said he hires workers each spring, summer and fall to take care of the garden using money from the Friends of the Jones Library organization.

Sharry said part of the preservation plan for the garden involves partnering with the Amherst History Museum to acquire a portion of its property, which may be used for an addition to the library. “We want to buy the property to expand onto and to maintain the green space,” Sharry said.

The library and museum will remain independent organizations under that plan, but Sharry said there will be more overlap in functions. An expanded library may also include a corridor connected to the museum’s Strong House, she said.

The land acquisition will be an important step, allowing an architect for the library project to know how much property is available for the expansion. The architect is expected to be hired later this year using a $50,000 planning and design grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners.

Meanwhile, interior renovations to the oldest parts of the building may be limited, in an effort to maintain the characteristics that give the library the feel of being in another person’s home, rather than an institutional setting.

The children’s room is among the spaces featuring dark wood and a fireplace. Sharry said one of the architect’s charges will be to create a more cheery place for children and their parents without compromising this historical look.

“I wish we had a bright, lively entrance that says ‘this is the place to come and have fun,’” Sharry said.

Library trustees next month are expected to approve a long-range plan and issue a request for qualifications to hire an “owner’s project manager,” as mandated by the state.

The last renovation project, a $4.6 million expansion in the early 1990s, added 12,000 square feet to the building.

While the garden and feel of the building are important, patron surveys show the biggest negative about visiting the library is a lack of parking. Just two dedicated handicapped spaces run alongside the driveway.

Sharry said the state factors in the need for parking in applications for projects. “Parking is important to the library’s grant application,” Sharry said.

Most patrons park either in the CVS lot or the Amity Street lot.

Earlier concerns about whether the Jones would be able to remain on Amity Street have dissipated. Sharry said an analysis completed by the town’s Planning Department shows that no other place in town could accommodate the library, and that the library should remain part of the cultural district that includes the history museum and the Amherst Cinema.

Any project will help improve access to the building and security once inside.

“Patrons have a really difficult time navigating this library when they first get here. That contributes to the homey feel,” Sharry said.

She is also concerned about a number of rooms that are “hidden,” and areas where staircases and landings aren’t visible.

“It’s a kid’s dream to play hide-and-go-seek in,” Sharry said. “One thing the renovation needs to accomplish is to make the building safe.”

Security cameras have helped promote safety, but Sharry said cameras aren’t as good as having staff being able to keep an eye on activity and handle potential issues.

There are many areas — such as the basement where stacks are tall, allowing people to hide — where staff can’t see all activity.

A renovation will improve other aspects of the operation, Sharry said. She cited examples including:

∎ The children’s area is primarily on the main floor, but additional children’s books are in a room on the second level and space for children’s activities is in a basement room where a dehumidifier needs to run.

∎ The special collections area is not big enough, its exhibits can only be accessed by ringing a doorbell, and the space is far away from other parts of the library. “It’s so hidden from the rest of the building that I would argue many of the existing patrons have never been here,” Sharry said.

∎ The circulation desk doesn’t flow well, and the building is too noisy for people who want to study. “We don’t have enough quiet spaces,” Sharry said.

The atrium, an addition to the building during the last renovation, was poorly designed, Hicks said, and has never worked well in the winter. “It leaked before it even opened,” Hicks said.

The state would decide in 2017 whether to select the project. Then, Annual Town Meeting in 2018 would be presented with a measure to cover up to half the cost.

If approved, construction would take place in 2019 and the library would have to operate from a different site for up to a year, Sharry said.

Sharry said she believe there will be significant fundraising, noting that the library will begin taking pledges from donors this summer.

“Our hope is to raise as much money as possible,” Sharry said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


 


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