Editorial: Rethinking basics of Jones Library project

  • Jones Library

Published: 6/11/2016 11:06:47 AM

People planning an expansion of the Jones Library in Amherst are regrouping. Last month, they failed to win Town Meeting support for rezoning that would have given them more room on the back side of the downtown landmark.

The library’s director, Sharon Sharry, says she plans soon to answer questions townspeople have about the project and provide more information. “We are asking for people to keep an open mind,” she told Gazette reporter Scott Merzbach.

We think the building committee should embrace that openness by revisiting the need for an expansion of the magnitude proposed.

Today, it is clear, the Jones is struggling with a good problem: keeping up with its own popularity and meeting public expectations. The project now outlined would create more space for children’s and teen programming and for collections by increasing the 67 Amity St. library’s size from 47,000 to 68,000 square feet.  

While the Jones could receive as much as $12.5 million in state support for the project, the town’s share would come to more than $20 million.

On its own, that sort of investment in a more modern and spacious library might win town support.

But unfortunately, the Jones project is not the only one on the horizon. Amherst faces big-ticket projects for an elementary school expansion, a new Department of Public Works facility and a new firehouse. Add to those costs the need to continue to catch up with road repairs and other infrastructure improvements.

In their household budgeting, most families need to triage expenses, balancing bills and timing when they tackle home maintenance.

On the townwide level, it is hard to imagine, push come to shove, that Amherst residents can be persuaded to green light all the projects taking shape.

The Jones team has already made concessions, since some estimates say the library should be expanded to 100,000 square feet to properly serve a town that values learning as much as Amherst does.

And officials have been thinking outside the box by reaching out to a nonprofit neighbor, the Amherst Historical Society, about a partnership that would provide more room for the library expansion. The May 16 Town Meeting vote nixed a needed zoning change, though, limiting those options and making it more likely that any expansion would eat away at a memorial garden out back.

Now is a good time for Jones officials to consider their chances of getting residents to agree to back a $20 million project amid competing needs in town.

We see two particular hurdles: opposition from members of the vocal Save Our Library group and the fact that the project as envisioned would require that a major addition erected as recently as the 1990s be mostly taken down.

Its name aside (no one is proposing to demolish the library) the opposition group is making credible arguments that more space for programming and operations can be found within the existing building, including on the third floor. And many residents will think the town ought to get more use out of an addition that went up only 20 or so years ago.

The library team is right that it may not make great sense to invest in modest changes and repairs in a structure that is clearly too small for Amherst’s needs. Sharry estimates that $655,000 in repairs will be needed over the next five years. But there is a big difference between that figure and $20 million.   

We applaud members of the Jones Library building committee for seeking to improve a vital community resource. It’s their duty to make the Jones the best library they can by angling for state and local support.

But timing may just not be on their side. Smaller, more focused renovations that address specific pinch points in the library and improve its utility to the public may be the better route.


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