Opinion: Jones Library Building Project – A Motion Impeded, A Motion Befuddled, And A Question To Readers

Jones Library. Photo: wilkipedia.org

Terry S. Johnson

During the last month, there have been numerous Jones Library subcommittee meetings and a public Library Chat which have presented and evaluated the required new schematics redesigns of the proposed $35.8 million demolition/expansion library building project.

A vote to approve these redesigns was expected at the September 17 full board meeting. However, Board President Austin Sarat delayed a motion to accept them. Later in the same meeting, Sarat significantly reinterpreted a previously approved motion (August 13) regarding the project’s funding. What’s going on?

A Motion Impeded
The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) insisted in 2017, right after the Jones project was wait-listed for a provisional state grant of $13.8 million towards the total project cost, that there was a major design error. The Large Woodbury Meeting Room had to be relocated to a different floor. This necessitated a total redesign of the project, costing the library significant funds. 

The Library’s Sustainability Committee, then the Feasibility and Design Committee, and the Building and Facilities Committee approved the “net-zero ready” schematic redesigns for the proposed project as well as recommendations for an additional $656,000 for increased energy conservation measures, including a cross laminated timber framework. Redesign development had been ongoing since January, 2019, and project architects from Feingold Alexander Architects (FAA) participated in several of these subcommittee meetings. 

However, on the 17th, when it was Trustee Tamson Ely’s turn, as Chair of the Building and Facilities Committee, “to bring a motion to accept” the redesigns, Sarat interrupted her and asserted, “We need to wait to receive the entire FAA recommendations for the new schematics.” 

Ely replied, “We have discussed the new schematics.” Sarat retorted that it is not clear if the library is adding $656,000 (to the cost) or if it will be included in “value engineering.” Value engineering looks at the current design of a building to consider where money might be saved by using cheaper materials. The design is already bare bones. For example, a composite material, not stone, will be used in the 35,800 sq. ft. of new construction. 

This delay was a surprise. What is Sarat’s strategy?

The Sustainability Committee had made it clear on September 3 that receiving additional grants and/or rebates from energy companies towards the extra green features cannot occur until the Design and Development (D&D) phase, when more detailed drawings and costs are established. FAA had stated at a meeting on September 8 that seeking additional cost savings within the project budget cannot occur until D&D. Meanwhile, it has now introduced the completed redesign schematics at the public Library Chat on September 23 (video not yet posted) and will do so again at the next Library Chat on October 8 at 4:30.

Let’s recall that the Jones did not apply for a Green Energy Initiative award in its original grant application and cannot do so now. Up to $450,000 was left on the table. 

Let’s also remember that the entire 1993 addition of 17,800 sq. ft. is being demolished. The June 2020 cost estimate from Fennessy Consulting Services shows that replacing that demolished square footage will cost $7,440,000 ($418 per sq. foot of new construction x 17,800 sq. ft.). The expansion, an additional 17,000 sq. ft., will be about the same. (pp. 56-59)

No library architectural space planning of the entire building has ever been initiated, and utilization of the 1993 addition was never considered. The latest Kuhn Riddle Report on Library Accessibility only examined the Jones as it is currently organized.

Is the issue of the extravagant cost of the demolition/expansion projects finally coming to the fore? There hasn’t been a “peep” about results of the capital campaign, now under the umbrella of the Friends of the Jones Library, and the Town has not yet evaluated priorities for its four capital projects.

Or have negotiations with the Town concerning the Trustees-approved motion of August 13, regarding the project’s financing, been stymied in some way? See below.

A Motion Befuddled
The August 13 motion was to engage in negotiations with the Town regarding the Jones’ commitment to provide $6 million toward the proposed Jones demolition/expansion project if the Town commits to fund $22 million for it, even before a grant is given. (If the Jones does not raise $6 million, it will take out a loan using their endowment as collateral.)

Treasurer Robert Pam was the only dissenting vote. Ely was absent. Sarat was to appoint negotiators of his choice after the August meeting.

However, at the September 17 Board meeting, when Pam attempted to discuss the memo he had written to Trustees explaining why he voted against this motion, Sarat cut him off, commenting that he never “disagrees with the Treasurer but for now.” (Sarat has, in fact, sparred with Pam over the years when Pam has requested more details about financial decisions, particularly during the development of the two Memorandums of Understanding with the Friends of the Jones Library, who now are responsible for fundraising for the Annual Fund as well as the Capital Campaign.) No other Trustee said a word. 

Sarat asserted that the motion did not “obligate the Town to commit to anything. It just obligates us [the Trustees].” Nothing was discussed about how the August motion was being implemented. The names of the negotiators were not revealed.

What is happening?  Has Sarat initiated negotiations with the Town or not? If the Town doesn’t have to commit to the project now, is the library still going to attempt to raise $6 million towards the project, as it has stated in almost all documents and presentations over the last four years?

Have machinations on the national debate trickled down to our town? “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” Maybe Clinton could maneuver his way around a verb tense, but I’m pretty sure that “if” is invariable.

So, Gentle Reader, here is the motion. What do you think? Please consider posting a comment.

“MOTION: That the Jones Library, Inc. enter into an agreement with the Town of Amherst pursuant to which, if the Town will commit to the MBLC to provide the $21,751,789 balance of the cost of the renovation/expansion project to be funded by the Commissioner’s conditional grant of $13,871,314, JLI will provide $6,000,000 of that $21,751,789 total; such $6,000,000 to be provided simultaneously with the final payment from the MBLC. Any such agreement to be approved by the Board.” 

Terry S. Johnson  is a retired Amherst teacher, blossoming poet,  and a lifelong student of art, architecture, history, and languages.  

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3 thoughts on “Opinion: Jones Library Building Project – A Motion Impeded, A Motion Befuddled, And A Question To Readers

  1. Once my head stops spinning, I guess my reaction is that this motion as written doesn’t commit the Town to anything so the question really is what kind of negotiations have been going on, and is there any indication that the town is interested in this kind of conditional “guarantee.” It would be good to hear publicly from both Austin Sarat and Robert Pam on this. It would also be good to know where the other Trustees, who apparently are silent in meetings, stand.

    On the whole matter, my current position is:
    1. No enlargement of the footprint or height on Amity Street
    2. Redesign the interior to create much more usable space for those functions that remain there.
    3. Engage in discussions with the town that would lead to converting Wildwood School to town use when it becomes available, including a substantial part of the library’s stacks, collections, and meeting spaces currently housed on Amity Street.

  2. Thanks for this Michael. I too am intrigued by the idea of turning Wildwood School into much needed civic space. I have no idea whether this is technically or fiscally feasible but I would welcome a community conversation on the prospect. So much potential there. Let’s get folks talking about this and see where it takes us. By exploring this creative use of the school we might avoid two environmentally costly demolitions (Wildwood and the Jones). And as architect Carl Elefante (and our own Terry S.Jonson) remind us “The greenest building is the one that is already built.”

  3. These days, our COVID-ridden Commonwealth is short on wealth. So is our Town. We don’t know when that will improve.

    The motion reported above looks like a sneaky way to get the Town Council to commit to the Library Trustees’ proposed demolition/construction project, without quite coming out and saying so.

    Let us be clear about the total amount of money that the Library Trustees want for their Jones Library demolition/ expansion project. Including interest, it’s $49,000,000. Yes, interest counts!

    True, perhaps next year, perhaps later, who knows when, the Mass. Board of Library Commissioners is supposed to pay $13,871,314 toward this $49,000,000. It would still leave the Town on the hook for more than $35,000,000.

    Also, that $35,000,000 figure is doubtless low. All increased costs for the environmental redesign that the Trustees at last are doing would fall completely on the Town.

    In addition, for Town Council to commit now to this $49,000,000+ deal, on the premise that the Trustees will kick in $6,000,000 toward the Town’s share some years from now, is pie in sky. For one thing, the Town has yet to prioritize its vital capital projects. The Council and residents might find the priorities to be the schools, and a firehouse located where ambulances with EMTs can rapidly reach all parts of town.

    Also, a tax override vote might be needed — and the voters might defeat it. Furthermore, the Trustees for years have needed every cent of income from their Endowment simply for day to day operating expenses for the Jones Library they have now.

    Even by not hiring replacements for at least four retired full time staff members, they still constantly scrape hard to make budget. If they borrow against their Endowment to get capital for their proposed demolition/ expansion, this will shrink their already inadequate operating expense funds — for a Library planned to be 1/3 larger than they have now.

    This is not the act of responsible fiduciaries. It’s noteworthy that Trustee Treasurer Bob Pam is reported to oppose it.

    What makes good sense instead? Retain a professional library space planner. Figure how to make the most of the 51,000 square feet that the Trustees have now, “if all spaces are used most efficiently,” as their architects determined in 2016.

    As the writers above suggest, see as well what other spaces in Town could accommodate various Jones Library functions.

    The Trustees can still do this. In fairness to the Town, this former Trustee President thinks that they should.

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