In a recent Daily Hampshire Gazette Op-Ed, Jones Library Board President Austin Sarat and Director Sharon Sharry declared the Trustees’ readiness to proceed with the expensive demolition/expansion project and to ask the Town Council to approve the capital project by the end of April 2021, before their anticipated Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) grant is awarded. Although the Trustees hope to be awarded the grant in July 2021, there is currently no state funding approval for any future library construction due to COVID budget uncertainties.
The Trustees are asking the Town Council for approval in six months. The Town is now beginning their FY22 capital budget planning so concerned residents should consider writing their Town Councilors about what the Town’s capital project priorities should be. How do residents feel about approving the huge library expenditure before there is clarity about a new school?
But first, let’s get the facts straight.
For those of us who have carefully followed this planning process, the Trustee proclamation of readiness reads as smooth marketing masquerading as expository writing. It attempts to be a summary of the project’s development, but is filled with misleading statements and lacks critical information that residents, voters, and taxpayers need to know.
The cost of replacing the demolished square footage will be $7,440,000. Repurposing this space would have been more cost effective. All in all, there will be 35,800 square feet of new construction, including the 17,000 expansion beyond the current footprint, resulting in a 68,000 sq. ft. facility This is just 10,000 square feet smaller than the entire Fort River School.
The Trustees fail to mention the total costs of the proposal. They state that the “cost of addressing [maintenance and structural issues] by repairing the existing building showed that it would cost between $14 and $16 million which is very close to the amount the town would contribute.”
Let’s look at the actual figures. The Trustee proposal has a huge price tag of $35.8 million. The MBLC provisional grant will provide $13.8 million and the Town must provide $22 million. These figures do not include a recent addition of $656,000 in extra energy saving measures, cost overruns, and debt service. The Trustees are poised to commit $6 million towards the project but have not done so yet.
The Trustees fail to mention that they might have to borrow from the Library’s endowment if they cannot raise the $6 million. Trustee Treasurer Bob Pam voted against this proposal. The Library’s budget is challenged now, and the Library depends upon a healthy endowment in order to function.
The Trustees fail to mention how destructive this project will be. The entire 1993 addition (40 percent of the current facility) will be demolished. Neither the Director nor Feingold Architects did a formal study of repurposing this 17,800 sq. ft. space. Although Kuhn-Riddle recently finished a consultancy to look at handicapped accessibility in the current Library as it is functioning now, they were not asked to analyze alternative library space usage within the footprint either.
Such destruction necessitates taking out the entire back garden during construction. Few, if any, trees will survive. Of course, stonewalls and walkways will be gone. There also has been no mention so far as to the impact of this upheaval on the fragile foundation of Amherst Strong House next door, which had to be girded during the 1993 construction.
The Trustees fail to mention that our Town’s governmental and private organizations and services were not considered when planning the project. Although other Library expansions in our area interfaced with their towns when planning (Listen to the Library Chat, August 20), Sharry did not do so, instead developing a 190-page document that the Trustees now call a “wish list.”
Let’s remember that Amherst residents can use the UMass and Amherst College libraries. We are also blessed with excellent school libraries. We have two other ESL services in Town as well as Leisure Services, the Senior Center, and the Amherst Girls and Boys Club. For large meeting spaces, Amherst has two school auditoriums, and the Amherst Cinema could be rented.
Our town has a wealth of services and space. The Jones should not need to duplicate and/or enlarge their services when collaboration with others might be most cost effective.
The Trustees failed to mention that these first plans were rejected by the MBLC right after the Jones was put on the waiting list for a grant, necessitating redesigning the entire project with all the additional costs involved. The Trustees are also glossing over the fact that they did not apply for a Green Library Initiative award of up to $450,000 and cannot do so now.
Trustees also misrepresent the amount of public input, which has been middling, at best.
The focus groups yielded little information. The 2015 survey did not even ask patrons if they wanted an expansion. Most patrons were pleased with the existing Library services; they wanted more parking and more hours of operation, neither of which will happen with this current proposal. There were only two advertised public forums in 2016 apart from Trustee subcommittee meetings, which were open to the public but were not advertised (and half had no public comment time on their agendas).
The Trustees fail to mention that they themselves know that they were not proactive enough in engaging the public during the first set of designs. Sarat stated on August 12, 2019 at a Feasibility & Design Subcommittee meeting that “we need to be active this time” in including the public and it “will save time in the long run.”
After four long years of no invitations to the public to participate, soliciting public input resumed this past August in hour-long Library Chats. These on-line sessions highlight guest speakers and are followed by a written Q & A which Sarat manages. The public does not know who is speaking and how many audience members are attending.
So the plans are supposedly “set.” But are they?
The Trustees assert that their second designs are ready but fail to mention that two important state agencies must approve them — the MBLC and the Massachusetts Historic Commission (MHC). Since the 1928 portion of the building is on the National and State Register of Historic Places, the MHC must work with the Jones “to eliminate, minimize and mitigate all adverse effects.”
This will be a challenge. Much of this part of the building will be gutted, with most walls, staircases, and woodworking on three floors demolished and/or moved. The MHC asked the Library for extensive information in December 2016. Nothing was sent to them concerning the first set of designs. We do not know if the Trustees have sent them the information about the second set of designs.
The Trustees must also have the MHC certify their plans to sell $1,600,000 of historic tax credits to individuals as part of their fundraising scheme. Without MHC approval, they will have nothing to sell and therefore will raise less money.
The Trustees have failed to provide a detailed account as to whether or not the Library can fund staffing and maintenance for a larger facility when it is already having significant budget difficulties now. The Jones has not filled five full-time positions in the last two years. The building has certainly been neglected, with dire consequences. For example, the Special Collections HVAC has leaked four times in as many years and the Library continues to house books in that room. The leak that took place last July significantly damaged 157 books. Materials remain under tarps.
Amherst deserves an upgraded facility, but the Trustees need a stronger proposal that shows why the building is so large with so much destruction and how they can maintain staffing and maintenance well into the future. Are they going to ask for a new building every 25 years?
Most importantly, the Town needs to figure out how the library demolition/expansion project fits into ALL of the capital needs of the Town in these precarious times.