OPINION: HARD FACTS MISSING, PRIORITIES NOT SOUGHT AT CAPITAL PLAN LISTENING SESSION

Jones Library. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The first two of four Capital Investment Listening Sessions took place on Tuesday, December 3rd at the Bangs Center.  (Two more will take place Monday, December 9th at 3:30 at Fort River School and 6:00 at Wildwood School.) 

Summary of Meeting 

About 50 folks were at the afternoon session I attended including many Council members and Library Trustees as well as representatives of the School Department, Fire/EMS, and the Department of Public Works (DPW).

After a 22-minute video introducing the needs of all four projects, attendees broke into three groups in what I would call a “fishbowl” approach. Residents talked in a circle with town officials sitting around the outside listening. Four professional facilitators from The Logue Group of West Hartford led the sessions. Town employees took notes. 

We were to stay on point and discuss four topics only: (1) our values as a community; (2)  questions the Council should be asking when it considers the four projects; (3) what additional information residents need about the projects; and (4) what makes us hopeful or excited about the projects.

This was followed by a facilitator “Report Out.”  The Question and Answer component was minimal because it was clear that officials did not want to talk about specifics.  (The video, handouts, and other information are available  on the Town Website).

All in all, it felt like a very controlled meeting with a narrow focus. It was a lost opportunity for Town Officials to hear about what residents feel are the priorities. 

Most people, like myself, wanted more comprensive, even if initial, financial scenarios. When asked about this, Council President Lynn Griesemer replied that the Library Project does have hard figures, recent studies of the DPW (2016) and the Fire Station (2018) were “reasonable” figures, and the school project has not yet been studied sufficiently.  No hard figures or even ball park estimates on any project were provided. 

My Take on the Library  Project
When I analyze a project, I want information. The devil is in the details – how to balance needs, wants, and financing.  I’ve been following the planning for the Jones demolition/expansion for over three years now, and I’ve discovered many hard facts that make me leery of the proposal. Residents need such facts in order to assess and prioritize all the capital projects. 

I love the Jones–it’s a gem. The library staff (half employed part time with only sick leave benefits and no job security) work incredibly hard with professionalism and good cheer. The library is now functioning as a successful community center in spite of less-than-ideal conditions.  

But I found some statements made by library  Director Sharon Sharry on the video to be exaggerated. The library is no more “dangerous” than any other public space in our times.  If she is worried about safety in the stacks in the basement, then the library should be re-arranged immediately to have more staff downstairs.  Of course the library set-up is confusing to newcomers as it would be to anyone in a new space, but does that mean we need to tear down what we have?  Sharry also states that the library is the most dysfunctional library in the state. Really? Then why is it so successful with its current excellent varied programming? 

The Jones does need attention including refurbishment of systems as well as accessibility upgrades.  However, does this mean we need a $35.8 million dollar project which destroys the entire 1996 addition of 17,800 sq. ft., rebuilds that footage and adds 17,000 more sq. ft. for a total of over 35,000 sq. ft. of new construction?  That’s 1660 tons of debris in the landfill! 

And to add insult to injury, most of the original building’s 1928 historic south interior will be gutted including most of the woodworking, stairs and fireplaces.  Walls will be torn down and rearranged. 

The Town is expected to receive the provisional grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) in July, 2020 for $13.8 million. Since this proposed project will be first in line, the Council may be tempted to accept the grant even though there are many flaws in this proposal:

1) The proposal is too large and is designed for 51,000 library borrowers.  The Director followed an MBLC guideline and took the percentage of non-residents borrowers in FYI 2015 which was 35% of all borrowers. She then used the Town’s 2010 census population of 37, 816 and multiplied it by 1.35 to get 51,000 library borrowers. 

This is way off the mark! Most of Amherst’s population consists of students who use their own college libraries.  We have about 12,000 non-student residents in Town and about 7,000 non- residents who have library cards. The projected census for 2035 (estimated by the Donahue Institute) indicates our population may decline by 3,000 residents.  Anyway you slice it, we don’t need 65,000 sq. ft. for 30,000 non-existent borrowers. 

The Director may respond that the Jones has many special programs such as an art gallery, a Special Collections archive, an ESL program, etc.  All true and all wonderful. However, do we need all these programs in one downtown space? Is the library duplicating other free and reduced programming in Amherst? Are there different ways to look at our three-library system? 

Putting money into a mobile library for outreach may be more effective than a huge building. More hours at the branches have been requested by patrons. 

2) The project is very expensive considering the actual number of borrowers. The Jones Library proposed demolition/expansion project stands at $35.8 million, with a possible $13.8 million MBLC grant.  This grants would likely just about pay for the interest on a Town loan of up to $22 million. The Library hopes to raise $6 million through a Capital Campaign and other state grants (though which grants is not yet clear).  The Capital Campaign is just getting off the ground with the Friends of the Library now being in charge of the effort through a new Memorandum of Understanding between the Jones and the Friends.  

3) The original design was not sustainable at even the lowest LEED certification. 

The Trustees did not pursue a Green Energy Incentive award of up to $450,000.  Even though the MBLC is requiring that the Large Meeting Room for 204 people be moved to the basement and new plans must be drawn up, the Trustees cannot now request the incentive money.

One might also consider why the Library needs such a large meeting room when we have the High School auditorium, the Middle School auditorium, and the potential to rent space at Amherst Cinema right next door. 

The Library has established a Sustainability Committee that is listing directives for the architects.  However, the square footage must stay at 65,000 sq. ft. and there may not be money to make the second design financially feasible for sustainability systems in a project so large. Do we need so much new construction that relies on fossil fuels? 

4) The library is struggling with its current funding, proposing cutbacks in current programing as a result.  So it seems doubtful that it will be able to maintain such a large building. It has not been able to re-hire two full positions of staff who retired, and the Jones can no longer afford their part-time gardener.

The Jones is a “hybrid” library in that the building and endowment (which funds maintenance, health insurance and some materials) are owned by the Jones Library non-profit, and the salaries are paid by the Town. A new financial arrangement has not been negotiated in decades.

Director Sharry has stated at other meetings that no new staff will be needed in the proposed larger building because the grant budgeted a $400,000 dollar radio frequency ID system with conveyor belts throughout the library which will require fewer shelvers. Since shelvers are paid the least in the library, it’s not clear that the staff savings will offset the cost of the expensive system and its maintenance contract. George Hicks, Physical Plant Director, says that he thinks more maintenance staff will be needed because the library would be much larger. 

In summary, it’s a shame that the Jones has made little effort to analyze the space it currently has. Now that we are in a societal transition from physical materials to electronic, the Jones could re-think its layout, and hire a space planner for ideas within the current footprint, including addressing accessibility concerns. 

For example, the current third floor of the library could be a terrific English as a Second Language space. The large Goodwin Room (usually locked and infrequently used) could house materials, and the five smaller rooms (now used for storage) could by ideal tutoring and small group spaces if windows were put in the doors. That would then free up some of the ground level for others uses. There are many other space possibilities.

Let’s encourage the Trustees to re-evaluate this huge, expensive, unsustainable plan.  

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3 thoughts on “OPINION: HARD FACTS MISSING, PRIORITIES NOT SOUGHT AT CAPITAL PLAN LISTENING SESSION

  1. Hear, hear, Terry!

    The devil is, indeed, in the details. Thanks for carefully analyzing the director’s miscalculation of the effective library population. How could such a howler have slipped past the MBLC?!
    It would be nice to compare this with other projects under consideration (the Jones proposal almost pales in light of recent efforts to use a large, wet Amherst College farm tract off S. East St. for a new DPW facility).
    Rob Kusner

  2. Thanks to Terry for her comprehensive commentary. We come out at the same place in terms of the library expansion, although not for all the same reasons. The figure of 65,000 square feet for an expanded library came from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) based on bizarre and unconvincing formulae and metrics. I am very concerned with the size and scale of buildings downtown and hugely disappointed in the new construction that has been allowed in the past few years. I don’t want the library to expand either outward or upward.

    However, unlike Terry, I do not think the current Jones building is a gem. As a one-time member of the Friends board, I came to know the entirety of the building in a way most users do not. It is awkward and inefficient and I would be glad to see it replaced with a building of similar size and scale but with more usable space. Clearly the first step is to disengage from the MBLC and their imperialistic approach to funding. Then, as Terry suggests, we can get to work re-envisioning a Jones that serves the real needs of our real community.

    Michael Greenebaum

  3. Thanks for putting this out there, Terry.
    Given that the bulk of this piece is about the Jones, rather than the Listening Session, it would have been nice to see that reflected in the article title.
    Regarding the library — I think a renovation and re-visioning of the space could be incredibly valuable to the town as a whole, serving as an informational and social hub for Amherst. The library in Cambridge MA is a beautiful example of how a renovation can create a modern, effective library space. There are some good points here about whether the proposal is too big, or too expensive, given the population that it serves – but I hope that we can find a creative way to transform the space.

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