With vote Monday, Jones Library project in Town Council’s hands

  • A renovated and expanded Jones Library as seen from Amity Street.  PHOTO COURTESY OF FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

  • A renovated and expanded Jones Library as seen from next to the Amherst History Museum. PHOTO COURTESY OF FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

  • Artist conception of the new adult collections room in an expanded and renovated Jones Library. The roof of the 1928 building is to the right. PHOTO COURTESY OF FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

Staff Writer
Published: 3/31/2021 7:14:26 PM

AMHERST — Nearly a decade of planning to renovate and expand the Jones Library culminates in a vote Monday by the Town Council that will determine whether the town embarks on the $36.3 million project.

For the elected trustees, library staff and Library Director Sharon Sharry, the $15.75 million funding commitment from the town — to supplement a $13.87 million construction grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners anticipated in July, and $6.6 million from other private and public sources — will mean a modern, fully accessible library.

During a presentation to the council in February, trustees President Austin Sarat said the project’s highlights include an expanded children’s room, a dedicated teen room, an enlarged and climate-controlled area for special collections, and improved space for the English as a Second Language program.

“Just to be clear, the vital improvements that we are proposing cannot be accommodated within the existing building or any feasible rearrangement of the Jones building,” Sarat said.

“Endorsing this proposal will make a great library even better and sustain its greatness into the future,” he said.

Supporters also say the building, which would grow from 48,000 square feet to 63,000 square feet, would be a model for environmental sustainability while retaining its historic feel, with the original 1928 structure continuing to remain a key part of the Amity Street streetscape.

To fully renovate the existing building and remedy defects, including an aging HVAC system, elevators that don’t individually access each floor, a leaky glass atrium, exposed wiring and worn carpets, an architect has estimated work at between $14.3 to $16.8 million. It’s a key point that expansion supporters stress: The trustees’ preferred plan could actually be less expensive for the town.

But since the project was contemplated, Save Our Library has organized to argue that the project isn’t right for the town and will gut the historic building while demolishing the $5 million 1993 addition that was financed, in part, through a state grant and the $2.6 million sale of Albert Bierstadt’s 1863 painting titled “Platte River, Nebraska.” Critics also fear the project will compromise the Kinsey Memorial Garden and other greenspace surrounding the building.

Terry Johnson, chairwoman of Save Our Library, said neither the full-scope project nor renovation-only scenarios should move forward.

“Neither proposal makes good fiscal sense for the town,” Johnson said. “The demolition-expansion design is overblown, wasteful and expensive. The repair-only option is too limited, failing to analyze space reorganization and the use of non-fossil fuels.”

Johnson argues the council should delay the vote and require the trustees to present a repair and renovation option along with their commitment to a fundraising plan.

What council will vote on

A memo to the Town Council from Town Manager Paul Bockelman explains that it is being asked to take three actions if it endorses the library expansion project.

The first would create a memorandum of understanding between the town manager and library trustees outlining the commitment of funds for the project to be provided by the Jones Library. Second, the council must approve a borrowing authorization for use of $1 million in Community Preservation Act funds for the special collections room.

Finally, it must authorize borrowing $35.3 million, an action that also includes permitting the town manager to enter into a contract with the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners for the anticipated $13.87 million construction grant.

Expansion, modernization

Inside the expanded and renovated building, staff will be able to deliver more services, said Matt Berube, head of information services, including having a place for teen programming. Berube says the current building poses significant problems due to safety and accessibility concerns with numerous rooms, corners and out-of-the-way areas.

“In years past these were charming features. Today, they are safety concerns,” Berube said.

Tony Hsiao, principal director of design for Finegold Alexander, said the plans for the new building will complement what already exists, with the adult collection area, on a new upper level, much more open with natural wood and sunlight.

“This will transform this space and will open up the library for patrons and the community as well,” Hsiao said.

Sharry said the community can appreciate the green aspects of getting the building toward being a net-zero energy facility.

“The building will be so efficient that the actual operating costs to run the building will decrease by an estimated 8%,” Sharry said. “No repair option can meet that.”

Opponents question need

Those who oppose the project include former members of the Jones trustees board, such as Carol Gray. She argued at a recent community forum that town leaders should have taken a poll to figure out where the proposed project fits in with other buildings the town needs. “I don’t think there’s public demand for this,” Gray said.

“Many of us have been raising objections for years,” said Christina Platt of the Save Our Library steering committee.

Sarah McKee, a former president of the library trustees, said there is no rush to vote on a project that isn’t yet ready, with schematic designs incomplete and fundraising hidden from public view.

“If the MBLC awards a grant this July, Town Council still has six months for sure, and 12 months perhaps, to agree to it,” McKee said. “The council should postpone this vote accordingly.”

The town expects to pay its share of the Jones Library costs by borrowing within the tax levy over the next 20 years. As one of four projects anticipated in the coming years, including a new elementary school, a Department of Public Works headquarters and a fire station, taxes on the average single-family home, now assessed at $375,507, would increase by around $250. The average homeowner’s tax bill this year, which went up by $205, is $8,194. A preliminary financial plan for the four projects would only require the elementary school be subject to a Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion vote.

Save Our Library’s website outlines 10 reasons renovation is preferable to a full-scale construction project. One of the reasons is the cost.

“The Jones Library is already struggling to financially manage its current building size, operating at a $100,000 deficit each year and drawing down its endowment to meet its financial shortfall,” according to the group. “Pursuing all four capital projects as proposed … would increase Amherst’s already high property taxes, resulting in the town becoming more unaffordable for more people.”

Isabel Ramirez, who came to Amherst from Mexico with her husband, a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts, told the council in February that the ESL program helps build connections to the community for immigrants and non-native speakers. She likes the idea of improving its part of the library.

“I think it would be fantastic if there were more spaces to interact with our tutors,” Ramirez said.

Both for reducing energy bills and making the Jones a net-zero energy ready building, and providing improved space for children and their parents, Marcie Muehlke of South Amherst said she supports the project, explaining at the February council meeting that a pre-pandemic tour she took showed her the building’s flaws.

“There’s no doubt in my mind we need to renovate and expand,” Muehlke said.

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


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