Jones Library project in Amherst voters’ hands

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  • A Jones Library patron drops off a book at the returns window of the Amherst library on Friday. At right is an artist’s conception of the proposed renovation and expansion of the library, provided by Finegold Alexander Architects. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Elaine Cat of Belchertown searches the catalog in the atrium of the Jones Library on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The atrium of the Jones Library in Amherst. Photographed on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A Jones Library patron exits through the front lobby of the Amherst library on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Patrons enter the Jones Library in Amherst on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The fiction room for grades 5 and up in the west wing of the Jones Library in Amherst. Photographed on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This copy of an artist's conception of the proposed renovation and expansion of Jones Library, provided by Finegold Alexander Architects, is posted next to the elevator in the lobby of the Amherst library. Photographed on Friday, Oct. 29, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 10/29/2021 6:32:04 PM

AMHERST — Few observers would dispute that to continue serving the community well, the Jones Library needs extensive renovations to replace worn-out carpets, update aging mechanical systems and deal with an atrium roof that leaks.

But whether the current plans for a $36.3 million project to expand and rehabilitate the Amity Street building is the appropriate way to make the structure handicapped accessible, update the HVAC system, and provide a dedicated teen space and more room for special collections is at the heart of a debate that will be settled at Tuesday’s town election.

Voters are being asked to either support the Town Council’s 10-2 vote in April to move forward with the project, or to oppose that vote and have elected library trustees and library staff go back to the drawing board.

Polls for the biennial election are open Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Voters in Precincts 2, 4 and 10 will again vote at the high school, while voters in other precincts will vote at their traditional locations throughout town.

For the Vote Yes for Our Library ballot question committee, which is endorsing the project that also has unanimous support from the library’s trustees, the approved plan is the smart choice financially, environmentally and socially.

“For the same amount of money as the cost of urgent repairs, Amherst can leverage state and private funds for an expanded, welcoming, climate-friendly building, and restore vital aspects of the original 1928 building,” the committee, chaired by Kent Faerber, wrote in a statement.

That ballot committee also notes that the town’s share of the project’s cost is capped at $15.8 million, and that a Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners grant of $13.8 million, coupled with fundraising, will cover the remaining costs.

The Start Over Smart ballot question committee, though, is asking voters to halt the project, arguing that there has not been enough community input, including from Black, Indigenous and people of color in Amherst, and that the scale, scope and price tag is too much.

“The proposed library expansion is designed to serve a population of 51,000, more than twice the 19,000 registered cardholders,” the committee, chaired by Terry Johnson, wrote in a statement.

Johnson also calls the proposal “extravagant”  and that voters should be concerned about changes to the town’s library. “Once they learn more about the downside, they’ll want to vote no and Start over Smart,” Johnson said.

Analyses conducted by Western Builders of Granby and Kuhn Riddle Architects of Amherst have determined that the minimum repair work required to keep the building safe and bring it up to date will cost $14 million to $16 million. The building was last expanded and renovated in the early 1990s.

Both supporters and opponents of the library project understand that addressing the plumbing and heating systems, along with accessibility adjustments, have to be done sooner or later.

Sean Mangano, Amherst’s finance director, said during a community conversation on the project that a financial adviser's model shows that the costs of the repair work alone would be similar to doing both a renovation and expansion at the same time, due to the state grant.

The Progressive Coalition of Amherst political action committee is urging a no vote.

“The scope of the project is excessive, wasteful, and contrary to climate action goals. We do not believe that increasing the size of the Jones Library by 50% in a town that already has a plethora of first-class libraries (including those at UMass, Hampshire and Amherst Colleges) is necessary or the best use of our limited financial resources,” the coalition said in a statement.

The Amherst Forward political action committee is urging a yes vote.

“The Jones Public Library is an important resource in downtown Amherst that is relied on by town residents of all ages and demographics,” the committee said in a statement. Amherst Forward believes that our town’s main public library should be fully accessible to all who want to use it, and should provide a safe, enticing space to meet our town’s educational, entertainment, and public information needs.”

Council President Lynn Griesemer said she struggled with the topic but came out in favor of it. “The real choice is do you want the existing library with the same facade that will be there even if we renovate it, the same building will be there even if we renovate it, do you want that, or do you want a modern library?” Griesemer said.

The Jones is one of four building projects the town could undertake in the coming years, with the others being a new elementary school, a South Amherst fire station and a new Department of Public Works building. A plan developed by Town Manager Paul Bockelman requires a Proposition 2½ debt exclusion vote only for the elementary school.

Also at Tuesday’s election, with the referendum on the back side of the ballot, contests will be decided for three at-large seats on the 13-member Town Council, the two seats in both Districts 3 and 4 and the five positions on the School Committee.

There are no contests in District 1, where incumbent Cathy Schoen and Reparations for Amherst Chairwoman Michele Miller are running; District 2, where incumbents Griesemer and Pat De Angelis are seeking reelection; and in District 5, where incumbent Shalini Bahl-Milne and Conservation Commission member Ana Devlin Gauthier are running. Five incumbents and one newcomer will also be elected as library trustees.

The election also features contests between four residents for three seats on the Housing Authority and two residents for the position as Elector under the Oliver Smith Will.

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

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