OPINION:JONES LIBRARY: RENOVATION ESTIMATE REVEALED: REFLECTIONS ON THE JONES LIBRARY TRUSTEE MEETING OF 6/12/20

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 Trustees tackled a variety of important issues at their June 12  meeting.  Following their Zoom preferences during the crisis, the meeting “packet” was not available for the public, the meeting was not recorded, and no public comments were allowed. Two critical current library concerns were not addressed. 

Major Agenda Items Addressed

1) A Kuhn-Riddle Cost Accessibility Estimate was presented

2) Updates on the MBLC provisional grant were shared. 

3) Specific dates for partial resumption of library services were given. 

4) A new initiative by the library staff to eradicate racism was introduced. 

Estimate for Accessibility and Systems Renovation Only
Aelan Tierney, President of Kuhn-Riddle Architects, presented the results of an $18,600 contract to estimate renovation costs for accessibility and to incorporate the findings of the 2017 Western Builders estimate for replacements of the skylight and south elevator as well as the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) systems.  

This 206 page document delineated costs for meeting mminimal code for public and staff areas as stipulated by the federal American with Disabilities Act (ADA) which is triggered when there is a lawsuit, and the more stringent Massachusetts Architectural Access Board (MAAB) which is required for all public spaces. 

The Trustees requested a review if the proposed work could be performed in phases and at what point the value of the work would require full MAAB compliance.  Tierney made it clear the 1928 historic portion of the library could apply for a variance and keep the current stack layout. If construction is performed to a cost of 30% or more of the full value of the building, then the project must follow state regulations for the entire building. The Jones is currently assessed at about $19.2 million and 30% of that value is $5,758,800.   

Kuhn-Riddle looked at the most logical workflow, the priority of each system, the most cost effective process and what work could be completed with the library open. 

Two options were presented.  The first option would be in three phases, alternating interior and exterior work and phased over 6 years for $16.8 million including moving, relocation and design fee expenses. The library would have to be relocated twice and closed for a total of 82 weeks. 

The second option would cost $14.4 million over a four year period and would require the library to be moved only once.  The library would be closed for 52 weeks. It can be noted that the demolition/expansion project would close the library for about two years. 

Here is Kuhn-Riddle summary: 

“Both of these options would bring the building into full compliance and provide the building with new systems which would last 25 to 50 years, before systems would require replacement.  The projects would not increase the library space or modify or improve the program spaces with the Library. The library would essentially function as it is currently functioning.” 

Trustee President Austin Sarat led the discussion of these options by saying that the Trustees are experiencing “a minefield of problems” and have to “rationally approach” the needs. Trustees’ concerns centered on possible system failures before a renovation, the differences between the minimal MAAB accessibility codes and “ideal” accessibility and whether or not the MEP renovations would make the building more sustainable. 

It’s curious that Kuhn-Riddle estimates did not update the 2017 Western Builders estimate. All system replacements would be using fossil fuel systems only, although they would be new and hopefully more efficient. 

There was clearly no coordination between the Trustees’ own Sustainability Committee and this new study.  

Building Project Grant Update
There has been no vote in the legislature yet concerning the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) grant. Director Sharon Sharry stated that the MBLC may consider pausing grants for a year, and libraries on the waitlist, such as the Jones, may be getting more money than originally promised. No further details were given. There are no updates about this on the MBLC blog. 

President Sarat asked if the Town could approve the Jones building project before receiving a provisional grant and then be reimbursed.  Sharry said that was “OK.”  Trustee Alex Levebvre added that this scenario would mean the Town’s portion would be “front end loaded” and the reimbursement would occur in stages over a period of time. The MBLC’s grant is for $13.7 million with the Town’s share at $22 million should the Friends of the Library capital campaign fail to raise the $6.1 million promised. The total cost of the project is $35.8 million plus interest.

It is curious that Sarat would ask that the Town Council vote to fund the Jones Library demolition/expansion project before the grant was given when the required redesign has no blueprints yet drawn and no independent cost estimates. The Council would be voting blind.

Sarat added that “the Town has an urgent decision to make.  Either the Kuhn-Riddle plan is implemented or the Town invests in the renovation/expansion project for not much more money.”  

This is a false dichotomy. There are other possibilities to plan for library space usage such as hiring a library space planner to look at the current use of space, and/or collaborating with other organizations for space in town. The New York Times recently published an article concerning the issues libraries are now facing post-COVID.  

Library Opening Dates
The Jones has been working with the state MBLC and the Town to develop partial resumption of library services. Online programming will continue for the foreseeable future. Staff will be trained for safety next week and have already been in the building moving furniture and phones as well as developing signage. Sharry stated that the Town Manager will not allow any town buildings to open to the public until after Labor Day. 

Here are the initial dates of resumption of some services which will be announced on the Jones and Town websites:

Thursday, June 18th, the Jones will allow patrons to return books in the book depository in the back of the library on the CVS side of the building. 

Starting Monday, June 22nd, books may still be returned and patrons will be contacted to pick up books on hold before COVID.

Monday, July 6th, the Jones will offer new books and materials requests through phone, email and the website. The Amity Street parking lot will be reserved for patrons to park.  ESL Conversation Circles will begin on the library lawn. 

Unfortunately, compared to other public libraries in our area, the Jones is behind in its re-opening schedule.  Libraries in Northampton, Greenfield, Easthampton, Sunderland and South Hadley have already contacted patrons about picking up holds made before the crisis, and some have already been taking new requests for books and other materials. It is curious that the Jones is lagging behind.

 Initiative to Eradicate Racism
The Director announced that there was an emotional online library staff meeting on Monday, June 8th, in which the George Floyd death and subsequent national unrest was discussed. She declared that the staff wanted “to mobilize and are done talking about this stuff.”  She then summarized the meeting in her monthly Director’s Report to the Trustees which was in their packets but not available to the public.

Initial brainstorming included forming a new staff committee (as yet unnamed) which will look at local library holdings, statewide holdings in the CWMARS system, library policies and programming.  The library also wants to look at how the Jones might help with scholarships for library MLS students in programs such as Simmons. President Sarat said that we don’t want to “reinvent the wheel,” but should have a substantive discussion about collection development.

This following statement appears on the Jones website but was not referenced at the meeting:

“Racism and racial injustice remain as they have always been, pervasive facts of American life.  The Trustees, Staff and Friends of the Amherst Libraries condemn them. They have no place in a decent society.  We pledge to lend our support to their eradication.” Signed by the Jones, Munson Memorial and North Amherst Libraries. 

Ongoing Concerns Not Addressed
1) There was no capital campaign update from the Friends of the Jones Library and no mention of the current controversy over the Library’s Community Preservation Act request for $1,000,000 for the new Special Collections space in the expansion project. 

2) There was no update on the Feingold Alexander Architects $57,000 consultancy for possible sustainability in the demolition/expansion project which was originally due in mid-April.

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4 thoughts on “OPINION:JONES LIBRARY: RENOVATION ESTIMATE REVEALED: REFLECTIONS ON THE JONES LIBRARY TRUSTEE MEETING OF 6/12/20

  1. Everyone should read all of Terry Johnson’s articles about the Library Trustees. There is so much we don’t know about their finances and plans for the proposed demolition/reconstruction. Apparently, they don’t even have a final plan. Yet they expect the Town Council and the Town to support them to the tune of $16 to $22 million (depending on the success of their fundraising, which we also don’t know). Now with the controversial request for CPAC funds, we need to be more vigilant about what is going on behind the scenes of this beloved institution.

  2. Re Sarat’s comment that “the Town has an urgent decision to make. Either the Kuhn-Riddle plan is implemented or the Town invests in the renovation/expansion project for not much more money.”
    I’m disturbed by this comment that $22 million is not much more money than $14.4 million. I can think of a lot of projects that could be completed for the $7.6 million difference. That is a significant chunk toward a Fire Station or a DPW or the cost of expanding Crocker Farm to accommodate more students, not to mention all the other needs of our municipal buildings and recreational areas.

    It is concerning to me that the Trustees meetings are not recorded for later broadcast and that they do not make public their meeting materials. Why all the secrecy? I appreciate Terry Johnson’s dedication to covering and writing about these meetings so that the public can learn what is going on.

  3. The Indy has made at least half a dozen requests to the library Trustees -collectively and individually – to sit for interviews so that the Trustees can better inform the public about their project and so they can address questions that many of us have that have gone unanswered. In each instance they have politely refused and in the last case, told us that everything that we need to know is on their web site. (This is not the case). It seems irresponsible to suggest that we plow ahead with any project, much less one that requires tens of millions of dollars, without revisiting our needs and our priorities in light of the challenges posed by COVID-19. It looks to me like many libraries around the country are indeed reassessing their post-pandemic capacities and priorities and asking questions about how they can best serve their patrons in this new world we are entering. Many are prioritizing the expansion of on-line programing and remote services which is expensive and requires specialized personnel. The Jones seems to have difficulty meeting their current personnel budget and looks to be in no position to be expanding into on-line programming or supporting expanded remote services. . I would like to see some discussion on the part of the Trustees in response to specific questions from the public around service needs and spending priorities.

  4. Despite the fiscal austerity that COVID-19 has forced upon us, the Library Trustees still want a whopping number of millions of dollars from us Amherst residents, both in public funds and in private donations. So I am particularly grateful to Terry Johnson for making deadline on this comprehensive update from the Trustees’ 6 p.m. meeting yesterday. For timely INDY reporting to be as hard as possible, 6 p.m. on a Friday are the hour and day to choose.

    As a former Trustee President, I find the present Trustees’ pervasive lack of transparency deeply disturbing. There is no good reason, for instance, why they do not video their meetings, so that Amherst Media can post them. The Library’s website could post them, too. Selfie videos nowadays could not be simpler. Almost everyone else seems to make them.

    Nor is there any good reason why fundraising for the Library’s proposed demolition/construction project is so secretive. The Trustees are subject to the Open Meeting Law. The Massachusetts Attorney General enforces this law. Does their private fundraising agreement with the Friends of the Jones Library pass muster with the AG?

    Candor from the Trustees about their obligations under the historical preservation law would be welcome, as well. The Jones Library is on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. This means that the Trustees were legally obligated to submit their demolition/construction plans a few years ago to the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Its historical review process is more than a pro forma, rubber stamp exercise. It involves additional costs. The Trustees have done nothing about this. They will have no final plans until they do.

    Those of us who love the Library, as well as those of us who will pay for it whether we love it or not, deserve a great deal more light on this subject.

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