OPINION: EXPANSION OR REFURBISHMENT? TWO OPTIONS FOR THE JONES LIBRARY

Atrium in the Jones Library constructed as part of a 1993 renovation. The atrium is slated to be demolished under the new expansion plan. Photo: Art Keene.

The Jones Library Trustees are completing preparation of two options for the Town Council: acceptance of a Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) grant for a demolition/expansion of the library, or a refurbishment of the existing structure. The Council had requested more detailed information from the Trustees about upgrading the building without an expansion. 

The major agenda item on the February 11th Trustees’ meeting was a discussion of whether or not to approve a contract with Kuhn-Riddle Architects (KAR) for $18,600 for an “Accessibility Study and Review of Required Improvements” as preparation for the possibility that the Council would turn down the MBLC grant. A Council vote on the grant might come this July.  The Trustees unanimously approved the contract.

Aelan B. Tierney, a principal at Kuhn-Riddle, discussed the contract details with a timeline of 8 to 10 weeks with a mid-April completion. The goals of their work will be to provide an Architectural Survey to see if the building layout matches the drawings provided by project designers Feingold Alexander Architects (FAA).  Kuhn-Riddle will also analyze accessibility requirements, regulatory requirements, and cost estimates. 

In addition, Tierney stated that her firm will work with Western Builders, who finished a study in May, 2017 that identified and examined building improvements required “to keep the library running” and came up with an estimate of between $8 and $9.5 million.  These data, now three years old, did not include “soft costs” such as architectural fees. Trustee Alex Levebre stated that the Western Builders estimate also did not address handicapped accessibility and the HVAC system for the Special Collections.

Director Sharon Sharry emphasized that “our job is messaging.”  She said that if the Council turns down the MBLC grant, the Town will have to pay for all of the repairs, and there would be less space without an expansion.  Sharry maintains that the building is currently unsafe and dysfunctional (see also this article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette).

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The meeting continued with a range of topics—and a curious shortage of information on some agenda items. Vice President Chris Hoffman ran the meeting, as President Austin Sarat was away. 

1)  Community Preservation Act Grant (CPA). Neither the Director nor any member of the Board knew the status of the Library’s request for  $1.5 million of CPA funds over five years to support improvements in Special Collections in the event  that the MBLC grant is funded.  Someone thought that only $1 million would be granted. Trustee Bob Pam said that it will be critical to get the funds in a timely manner. 

2)  New Expansion Re-Design. There was a passing reference to very basic sketches of the expansion re-design that were presented on February 4th by the Feasibility and Design Committee.  These preliminary sketches are not available online but hard copy versions were available at the meeting. The sketches reveal that the entire 1993 addition will still be demolished (as in the first design) but more rooms in the original 1928 building will be preserved in some way (a variation on the first design). The front staircase, which had been on the chopping block, will remain.  Most other original stairs and woodwork will be removed. 

This committee gave the go-ahead for drafting more complete schematics, with the goal of having them ready by their meeting on Wednesday, February 26th at 9:30 a.m.   

NOTE: The MBLC insisted that the Large Meeting Room in the original plan had to be moved from the first floor to the basement level. So far, $75,000 was spent on the first design, almost $10,000 on the Western Builders estimate, $41,500 on the re-design, and $51,652 paid to the Financial Development Agency, an Amherst-based development and marketing firm, for promoting the MBLC building program between 2014 and 2017. This firm has now been awarded $75,000 for a one-year contract to run the capital campaign through the newly-formed Friends Development Committee (see below). 

 3-4)  Capital Campaign Summary Agenda Item Skipped 

Now that the Trustees have signed a Memorandum of Understanding moving the capital fundraising campaign from the Jones Development Committee to the Friends Development Committee, information about the capital campaign is scarce as the Friends’ meetings are private. Even though Trustee Lee Edwards was scheduled to give a capital campaign update, the agenda item was skipped during the meeting. 

However, data from a Jones Library Five Year Capital Plan draft of 2/4/20 were included in the meeting packet.  If the MBLC grant is accepted, the Trustees are requesting $22,959,937 from the Town. The Trustees hope to offset this figure with gifts and grants of over $6,405,000.  More details about this draft will be discussed in a future Indy article.

5)  Director’s Report – Sharon Sharry thanked the Friends of the Jones Library for their work on the recent 2nd Mini-Golf fundraiser. “It’s the best event of the year at the Library,”  she asserted. 

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In summary, as more and more capital proposals are presented to the Council such as the four projects recently announced in the “Destination Amherst” initiative,  the Council will need to receive more public input so they can decide how to prioritize town projects and take into consideration what the town needs most and what voters will support. 

Although Trustees President Sarat stated at the beginning of the re-design process that there needed to be more public information sessions and forums than during the first design period, no public sessions have yet been announced. 

If the MBLC grant is accepted by the Council early this summer, the remaining amount ($15 to $22 million) would have to be covered by the town some way. If the town decided to fund the project using a debt exclusion override, and if that override was approved by voters, it could reduce the chances that voters would approve a second override in a year or two to cover the cost of a new elementary school.  

What are our priorities and how will the Council evaluate voters’ preferences?

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