What’s next for Jones?

A detailed Q&A about controversial Amherst library expansion project

  • Under Proposed Option 1, a library expansion would remove a large portion of the Kinsey Memorial Garden, which is located at the top of the purple area in this architect’s rendering. It would also require demolition of much of the 1990s addition. JONES LIBRARY

  • Under Proposed Option 2, a library expansion would encroach on a smaller portion of the Kinsey Memorial Garden. Though it would require demolition of much of the 1990s addition, this would fit better with the surroundings, planners say, but this option was rendered unfeasible by the failure of the rezoning measure at Town Meeting last month.  JONES LIBRARY

  • Alexander Shepard, 3, of Amherst, listens as his mother, Renata Shepard, reads to him in the Jones’ children’s room. CAROL LOLLIS

  • A poster and comments in the entry way to Jones Library in Amherst. —carol Lollis

  • Alexander Shepard, 3, of Amherst, plays as his mother, Renata Shepard watches in the Jones Library children’s room. carol Lollis

  • Town Meeting members asked that the Kinsey Memorial Garden at Jones Library be preserved. Library trustees say they intend to keep as much of the garden as possible during the building project. Carol Lollis

Staff Writer
Published: 6/4/2016 12:52:22 AM

EDITOR’S NOTE: On May 16, Amherst Town Meeting rejected a proposed rezoning of the Amherst History Museum property at 67 Amity St.

The change was sought to give those planning an expansion of the Jones Library more elbow room.

Today, the Gazette looks ahead at the project’s future.

What does the defeat of the rezoning mean for the plan?

While the defeat of the rezoning of the library’s neighboring property from general residence to general business doesn’t stop a potential expansion, it does limit options for such a project.

“The preferable solution was the zoning change,” said John Kuhn, a principal with Kuhn Riddle Architects, which is assisting lead architect Finegold Alexander of Boston.

Kuhn said the zoning change would have been the best outcome for the library because if the land can be acquired, it would have given maximum flexibility for the project. Now, even if a portion of the historical society land is purchased, the general residence zoning limits the amount of land that can be built on.

Any expansion of the building would also intrude more on the Kinsey Memorial Garden, which forms the back yard of the library.

Yes, about that garden … Town Meeting members also asked that it be preserved. What’s the impact of that?

Library trustees have all along said they intend to keep as much of the garden as possible during any building project, so the vote mirrors what is planned. As originally written, the advisory from Town Meeting was to preserve the garden in its entirety, but this was never taken up by the session last month.

Let’s back up. Why is an expansion and renovation even being considered?

Elected trustee Tamson Ely said the bottom line is that the Jones Library building is already too small. “We are not meeting the needs of current library users,” Ely said.

Kuhn said there is a misconception that the size of any proposed addition is being driven by the town’s population. In fact, if library officials can show that the current building isn’t meeting the town’s needs, then an expansion is warranted.

Department heads have outlined their concerns with the current building, last renovated and expanded in the early 1990s. Library Director Sharon Sharry said these concerns, along with input from users through surveys and community forums, are guiding the project.

Linda Wentworth, head of collections, said there is insufficient room for audiovisual materials, and too few tables and chairs for patrons to use.

Mia Cabana, head of youth services, said there is no private area to plan children’s programs and limited space for activities to be held. For instance, when story time happens, children aren’t allowed to continue using the computers. Not having enough room also caps the number of children who can participate in events.

More problematic, said young adult coordinator Garrett Pinder, is that there is no dedicated space for teenagers. While many teens come to the library, unlike toddlers and elementary school children, they have no area to call their own.

Amy Anaya, head of borrower services, said problems she observes include a dysfunctional circulation desk and challenges for staff in moving materials around the building without disturbing patrons.

At special collections, space is so tight that Cyndi Harbeson, head of special collections, said there is no room to accept many donations related to Amherst history.

What is the Save Our Library group and why are its members against an expansion?

This is a community group made up of residents, including some past presidents of the library trustees, who argue the public has not been adequately consulted about the need for an expansion.

Its members haven’t yet been convinced a library expansion is warranted, in part because some are familiar with the functioning of the library and have, in the past, called for studying space needs before embarking on a costly building project.

Couldn’t library space issues be dealt with by reconfiguring the building? Aren’t there some empty rooms in the Jones?

Some who question an expansion say there is unused space, pointing to the third floor of the original building where the public rarely ventures, including the Goodwin Room, used mostly for trustees meetings.

Members of Save Our Library have argued that there may be sufficient space at the Jones and off-site, calling for trustees to explore using the vacant East Street School building as a site for processing materials to free up room at the Jones.

With the library drawing in so many teenagers and children, isn’t expansion a necessity? 

That is the argument made by staff.

Young adults are the patrons most affected by the limited space, Pinder said, with a collection growing into the atrium, but no room of their own in which to hang out and act as teenagers. “The reality is that teens do not feel welcome in other places in downtown,” Pinder said.

Cabana said youth services is a microcosm of the problems in the library, with shelves too tall for some children, the collection split between two floors and the lone public bathroom on the main level.

“There’s a bit of a false sense we don’t need an expansion,” Cabana said.

“Part of that perception is that staff puts up with these problems so cheerfully.”

How will space needs for this project be determined?

How big a new library should be will be based on continuing feedback from staff and public, as well as figuring out what the community can afford.

The space needs in the whole library program suggest an expanded Jones should be 101,000 square feet, up from the current 47,000-square-foot building. Kuhn said architects have already reduced this to 68,000 square feet.

Sharry said she wants the public to trust the architects in developing the project.

“Finding a happy medium is what the architects will do,” Sharry said.

This all sounds expensive. What’s this going to cost – and who’s paying?

Current projections for a 68,000-square-foot building show that the project would cost $33 million, with about $12.5 million provided by the state.

That means the town’s share would be $20 to $21 million.

Couldn’t a smaller renovation be enough?

While it is true a renovation-only project would take care of some issues at the building, the town would pick up the entire tab for the work.

Matt Blumenfeld, a financial consultant assisting trustees, said the town would likely have to spend millions on its own for no net gain of space.

At a bare minimum, Sharry said early projections indicate there are an estimated $655,000 in building repairs needed over the next five years. T

he atrium roof, for example, continues to leak, and the two elevators often break down.

But these renovation costs are likely going to rise to between $5 million and $10 million, and include installing sprinklers and additional climate controlled space, as well as the urgency in dealing with the growing teen population that wants to use the library but has limited opportunities to do so.

“Doing work piecemeal would force another generation of children and teenagers to not be served the way they need to be,” Sharry said.

The town has so many other building projects being planned and studied. Why should the Jones Library get so much money?

Sharry said she understands the town has other projects under discussion, including an expanded and renovated Wildwood School, a new Department of Public Works headquarters and a new fire station for South Amherst

“We would never go to Town Meeting saying our building project is the most important,” Sharry said.

Sarah McKee, a former president of the trustees, said the costs are paramount.

“A number of Amherst residents are more concerned right now about financing for the schools and fire house, and paying for roads,” McKee said.

Town Meeting previously backed money for project planning for the library. Are members sending a mixed message to trustees?

Town Meeting approved spending $25,000 to match the state’s $50,000 Planning and Design grant, but even when this was done in 2014 members expressed concerns about the potential for a new building and whether renovation would be sufficient.

Carl Erikson, a former trustee, said the votes against rezoning shouldn’t be seen as sending a mixed message, but rather making responsible decisions based on the pressure of a state deadline, with an application due to state library officials in January, and not having enough information about the project.

Carol Gray, another former trustee, agrees with this assessment.

“Rather than being a contradiction, this is just prudent planning,” Gray said.

“It’s OK to spend a little to explore a possibility but bad to spend enormous amounts on an idea that, after exploration, turns out to be more negative than positive.”

Does the vote against rezoning mean the library and historical society won’t forge a partnership?

By all indications, the society and Jones Library will continue to work on collaborations, with the library pledging to set aside 1,000 square feet of climate controlled space for collections held by the society. These collaborations could still include a future land sale.

If this all makes so much sense, why are three past trustee presidents, along with other former trustees, questioning the project?

Uncertainty about whether the trustees and Sharry are addressing real space needs concerns underlines many of the worries for those previously involved in library operations.

Gray said her question is how expansion became a top priority when it wasn’t listed as a need following public surveys that led to a long-range plan covering the years 2011-2016. During Town Meeting, she showed photographs of space that she believes is not being used, or not being used well, throughout the building.

In fact, Gray and others advocated for hiring a consultant to do a space needs study several years ago, though this was never funded.

Gray also questions whether there has been public feedback advocating for an expansion, something that has not been shown in discussions and votes at Town Meeting.

For former trustee Erikson, mixing together the space needs for existing services with the space needs for community services that could be provided elsewhere is creating tensions.

A teen center, a computer center and public meeting spaces, as well as community programs, might not need to be in the Jones.

But Sharry, library staff and library trustees counter that they are being advocates for many children and teens from low- and moderate-income families who don’t have constituencies speaking for them at Town Meeting.

Merrylees “Molly” Turner, who served as a past trustees president, said her worries center around whether an expansion and renovation will reduce the home-like feel of the library for patrons and damage the legacy of benefactor Samuel Minot Jones.

“There is a very large amount of square footage that could be used to better provide services,” Turner said. “I never imagined the trustees would disregard the legacy of the original building.”

And McKee said many people are concerned when they learn much of the 1990s addition might be demolished to make way for this project.

But this may be the only way to create a library that functions as a modern building should, Kuhn said, with a layout that is sensible to both those who work at the library and those who use it.

Would the Jones consider moving if the building can’t be expanded?

It is clear is that no matter what happens with the building project, the Jones Library will remain at its 43 Amity St. location.

A document prepared for the trustees by former Planning Director Jonathan Tucker in April 2015 shows that the current site remains the best because it is the “most central available site for a public library in Amherst” and has sufficient land to accommodate expansion to 100,000 square feet.

Is there anything proponents and critics agree about?

No one argues that the original 1928 building isn’t an attraction for Amherst center and shouldn’t be improved and modernized, in some ways. Even the concerns over finding room to serve teenagers seems to be common ground.

The questions appear to center on just how much space should to be added and what sort of renovation will occur.

So what happens next with the library project?

Sharry is promising to continue to have meetings of the building committee on a regular schedule that will provide updates to the community.

In the months ahead, she hopes more information will be provided and more questions will be answered.

“We are asking for people to keep an open mind,” Sharry said.

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



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