Amherst Town Council approves $36.3M Jones Library project

  • Valerie Gracechild of Amherst reads in the atrium of the Jones Library in Amherst on Thursday afternoon, Aug. 15, 2019. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/6/2021 1:45:35 PM

AMHERST — A $36.3 million project to expand and renovate the Jones Library for the first time in more than 25 years is expected to get underway in early 2022 following Town Council’s approval Monday.

With District 3 Councilor George Ryan comparing the project to the vision and courage shown by Jones Library founder Samuel Minot Jones a century ago, councilors voted 10-2, with District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen abstaining, to authorize $15.75 million in borrowing for the project.

Plans call for rehabilitating the original 1928 structure and replacing the 1993 addition, increasing the size of the Amity Street building from 48,000 to 63,000 square feet, while modernizing the interior, providing sufficient space for services and making numerous repairs to air-handling systems, wiring, carpets and elevators.

The town’s commitment matches a $13.87 million construction grant expected to be received from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners in July, and $6.6 million from other private and public sources, including $1 million from the town’s Community Preservation Act account — also approved by the council Monday — for a new special collections room.

“A yes vote ensures the library will serve our residents for the next 50 years,” said At-Large Councilor Mandi Jo Hanneke, who joined the council’s majority.

“The Jones is a second home for our residents,” Hanneke added. “And, 100 years on, that home needs to be upgraded and expanded to be able to carry out these needs for the next 50 years.”

District 4 Councilor Evan Ross, who also supported the project, said the library is the biggest social justice issue facing the council and the project will benefit immigrants, disabled and low-income residents, among others.

At-Large Councilor Alisas Brewer said refusing the state contribution would make no sense for the town.

The council also authorized Town Manager Paul Bockelman to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the elected trustees for the library. That agreement would protect the town and spells out obligations related to the project’s budget.

Council President Lynn Griesemer pledged that as long as she’s on the council, “there will be no more (town) money than what we are voting tonight.”

Austin Sarat, president of the trustees, praised the decision on Tuesday, calling it the culmination of a decade of work, as well as a recognition of the needs of the town.

“When finished, the renovated/expanded library will be a beacon of hope and a welcoming place for all of Amherst’s residents,” Sarat said. He thanked Library Director Sharon Sharry for her vision, commitment, energy and spirit.

Sharry said there are many people to appreciate in the community for getting the project to this stage. The next steps will include finalizing the agreement with the town, delivering signed contracts to the state so the first disbursement of money arrives, forming a building committee and beginning design development.

The only votes against the spending came from District 1 Councilor Sarah Swartz and District 5 Councilor Darcy DuMont. “To me, the library expansion is not a need, it’s a want,” DuMont said.

Swartz said she would speak for the working-class residents who can’t afford rising taxes. The Jones is one of four major building projects on tap in Amherst, the others being a new elementary school, Department of Public Works headquarters and fire station for South Amherst. “I am concerned about people being able to stay in town,” Swartz said.

But District 5 Councilor Shalini Bahl-Milne disputed that voting against the project would lower property taxes. Instead, she said, the town should be encouraging the right kind of development to support the tax base.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the library is a cornerstone of the community that will become more accessible and broaden its reach, and be an economic driver. “This is a significant step forward for the town,” Bockelman said.

Terry Johnson, chairwoman of the Save Our Library group, said the outcome was expected since the majority of the Town Council ran on a platform supporting the proposal.

“The trustees must now deliver on their promises to raise $6.6 million, keep the endowment intact and continue to staff a larger library along with the two branches,” Johnson said.

With three other town building projects on tap, including a new elementary school that will be subject to a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion vote, approval of that project could prove more difficult. “Let’s hope that this risky vote will not jeopardize the future override approval needed for the schools,” Johnson said.

Plans being developed by Finegold Alexander Architects of Boston include providing a bigger children’s room so that more families can participate in programs, having a dedicated teen room, creating an enlarged and climate-controlled area for special collections, and improving space for the English as a Second Language program.

The project should also bring energy efficiencies in the renovated building and get the library to net-zero in terms of energy usage.

The full renovation of the existing building remedies defects, including an aging HVAC system, elevators that don’t individually access each floor and often break down, a leaky glass atrium, exposed wiring and worn carpets. An architect has estimated that work alone, with no expansion of the building, at between $14.3 million and $16.8 million.

When work begins, library services will be offered from a different site for 72 weeks, meaning that a reopening would come in fall 2023.

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


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