Opinion: The Jones Library Demolition/Expansion. The Trustees Say They’re Ready. It’s Time For The Public To Respond!

Architects rendering of the proposed renovated Jones Library. Feingold Alexander Architects. Photo: Jones Library

Terry S. Johnson

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.

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6 thoughts on “Opinion: The Jones Library Demolition/Expansion. The Trustees Say They’re Ready. It’s Time For The Public To Respond!

  1. Ms. Johnson,

    I live on North Prospect St., about a 5-minute walk from the Jones. I have followed but have not been involved in the library expansion question for some time. I acknowledge that you are intimately familiar with the Jones Library’s plans and all of the arguments for and against major changes to the town library.

    Nevertheless, I fully support a major demolition and expansion of the library, even if it comes at significant cost to taxpayers, even if it means drawing on the library’s endowment.

    First, I feel that the in most ways the 1993 addition and renovation has largely been a failure: The atrium roof leaks and can be unbearably hot in the summer, the general traffic flow through the library is poor, the downstairs stacks induce claustrophobia, and the space is especially unwelcoming to people with physical disabilities. I say tear most of it down.

    Second, I consider the original building to be lacking in architectural or historical merit. The building is less than 100 years old and, while it boasts some well-crafted woodwork (some of which might be preserved in the new building), the general tone of the building, with its silly Chippendale pediment and ersatz colonial touches, calls nothing so much to mind as “Early American” furniture from Sears Roebuck 60~70 years ago. The only colonial-style public building in Amherst is the Jones, which was built around 150 years after this country was no longer a colony.

    I am well aware that, in financing a public works project, the devil is in the details. This project will cost a great deal of money. You may be right in your frequent insinuations that the planners are being disingenuous in their estimates of the project’s ultimate costs. Often, however, visionary planners must stretch the truth a bit to get a large project done and open to the public. No one really knows exactly how much a large building will ultimately cost.

    Moreover, I dispute your argument that the residents of Amherst and its surrounding communities already have access to the great college libraries. The Frost and DuBois libraries are indeed large collections of books and other media. But they are not truly open public spaces. You cannot just go into Amherst’s Frost Library and feel at home. Even though I live downtown and can easily walk to the Amherst campus, I have been in the Frost Library but once, and did not get past the circulation desk. I do not feel welcome in that space. I feel like an outside visitor who is viewed warily. I am simply not a member of that library’s community. And, frankly, as a 62-year old who does not have an academic affiliation, I do not feel comfortable surrounded by large numbers of college undergraduates. I prefer a broad mix of ages.

    I believe that Amherst needs a large, shall I say a grand, public space. A public library, especially these days, is far more than a collection of books and other media. In fact, I would argue that a library’s collection is almost beside the point: The purpose of a public library is to create a space that is accessible to and welcoming of the entire community. It should be a place where information is exchanged, where people receive assistance far beyond what they can find out by Googling a topic. It should be place of random, serendipitous encounter. It should affirm all the good reasons for living in a community comprised of many different kinds of people. And it should be a place that inspires a kind of awe in everyone, young and old, rich or poor, able or differently-abled. The space should speak proudly as if to say, “members of this community came together, made sacrifices, commitments, and labored hard with a sense of purpose to create this extraordinary space.” That is what I feel – a delightful shiver of joy – every time I enter a great library, whether it is the incomparable New York Public Library on 42nd St., the Forbes in Northampton, or even that incongruous Roman temple in a tiny Western Massachusetts hill town, the Field Memorial in Conway (notwithstanding my earlier argument against the fake colonial fabric of the Jones Library).

    I acknowledge that these public libraries were built largely with funds donated by 19th century plutocrats. But the magnificent Central Library of the Brooklyn Public was built in the depths of the Depression, largely with public money, and opened in 1941 on the eve of America’s participation in World War II. Perhaps the Jones can secure funding from one or more of our present-day plutocrats? A few million dollars is lunch money to a billionaire.

    I support the trustees of the Jones Library and applaud their often-scorned efforts to reimagine and rebuild the library. Even in these difficult times – ESPECIALLY in these difficult times- Amherst should be bold, find the money, and build a library, a truly public space, for all.

  2. Interestingly, Mr. Kent’s vision of the purpose of a public library, “to create a space that is accessible to and welcoming of the entire community … [and] affirm all the good reasons for living in a community … of many different kinds of people … that inspires a kind of awe in everyone, young or old, rich or poor, able or differently abled” was very much the vision of the Jones Library’s Founding Trustees.

    It is certainly one of the reasons that I ran for Library Trustee and served for 3 years on that board.

    I agree heartily with Mr. Kent that the glass Atrium roof is flawed and must go. In addition to the points he names, no caulking job can stop the leaks into the Atrium area when it rains. In 2010, the Trustees spent $45,000 for the purpose. If that made any difference, it didn’t for long.

    We part company, however, in thinking that the public library of his and my dreams will result necessarily from the extensive demolition, and the even more extensive new construction, which the present Trustees have in mind.

    Yes, I do think it important to note that the past 6 years (not 10) of planning for this proposed project have included practically no public input. At 51,000 square feet, if all space were used most efficiently (per the architects), the Library building is already exceedingly large for the 18,000+ Amherst population that it serves. Many other Massachusetts towns and cities have public library buildings that are about 1 square foot per resident.

    Granted, Special Collections is really special, and is in dire need of additional space with controlled climate. This can be built be restoring part of the second floor in the Adult Reading Room.

    What’s essential is that the Amherst public has not been clamoring for a larger Jones. More hours? Yes, at both the Jones and the two branch libraries. More parking for the Jones? Yes. But not a larger Jones Library building.

    And, just as important, the taxpaying Amherst public cannot afford a larger Jones. Agreed, Andrew Carnegie built many public libraries, and magnificent ones. And so a billionaire might foot the bill for this project on the Jones. But Carnegie was canny: he never gave a cent for operating costs. Those were up to the community to whom he gave each of his libraries.

    So I think that we must keep coming back to the Town’s resources, and the Library’s. The Trustees cannot afford to operate the Jones Library they have now. Terry Johnson reports above that their full-time staff now are down by five. The Trustees cannot afford to replace them.

    The project they plan is to have 1/3 more interior space; no more books; and — no additional staff. Really? How will they clean a building 1/3 larger for no additional cost, let alone staff it at no additional cost for its various functions?

    The Endowment is not a good source of capital for this proposed project. The operating budget needs all the Endowment’s income, each and every year, to cover the inexorable operating expenses that the Library has now.

    I note that this proposed project is nowhere ready for the Town Councilors to opine on it. The Trustees must still submit their most recent designs to the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC). Given the extent of the demolition they envision; the proposed industrial sawtooth roof; and other anomalous features, it is beyond belief that the MHC will not want design changes to eliminate, minimize, and mitigate adverse effects on historic features.

    Parenthetically, whatever Mr. Kent might think of its aesthetics, the Jones Library is a landmark in the history of American library architecture. This is because it eschewed the Carnegie “temple of learning” approach, for a homelike structure in which people would meet and browse and stay.

    I thank Mr. Kent for his comprehensive comment. And I continue to think that the most prudent course, as well as (in the eyes of some) the most beautiful, will be to rethink the use of the various interior spaces of the Jones, and to renovate prudently in the light of them.

  3. I appreciate reading Alex Kent’s comments. I’ll just add the following.

    As to our local academic libraries, I’ve always found the staff at both UMass and Amherst College to be very helpful, particularly the latter’s reference librarians. I am grateful we have these resources including extensive subscriptions to on-line journals and other archives which community libraries can ill afford.

    The Jones has always been a successful community hub for both materials and programming. I’ve raised my children and taught decades of elementary students using resources from the three libraries in the Jones Library System. Kudos!

    As a Town, we need to analyze all the costs of construction including debt service and possible cost overruns as one does when considering purchasing a home. We also need to study the future Library budget which depends heavily on its endowment. If the endowment is used, the library will have to ask the town for a larger portion of its operating expenses.

    Preservation is complicated and involves many considerations. Apart from personal tastes, I hope residents realize that when we lose older structures, we lose a part of our history and also waste the materials and labor that went into constructing them in the first place.

    World renowned architect Carl Elephante asserts, “The greenest building is the one that already building exists. Renewing existing buildings is the smartest smart-growth strategy.”

    At one meeting of the Jones’ Sustainability subcommittee, a member made reference to this quote but said it didn’t apply to their charge because “We’re building a library.”

    We cannot afford to rebuild every civic structure every twenty-five to thirty years just as folks cannot demolish or rebuild their homes even though they might prefer to do so. The Library has not made the case for so much destruction.

  4. Yes, supporting all the foregoing comments ! Improvements needed – just how biga project is the question. I am one who would like to see more ‘pocket parks’ in the down town. I have directed non-english visiting scholars seeking the Jones ‘back yard’, spent time there, admire it, and wish to see it preserved.
    Chad Fuller

  5. I agree with Chad regarding the importance of green space and ‘pocket parks’ in our downtown.   

    I was the designer and former major financial benefactor of the Kinsey Garden for the 14 years after the Friends of the Jones Library’s initial support and maintenance. I continued to provide significant funding for the new plants and trees that made the Kinsey Garden a unique and beautiful botanical green space until dismissed 13 years after its installation.

    We should be adding green space, not destroying existing ones which will occur in the Jones’ expansion project.  Demolishing the entire 1993 addition and significantly expanding its footprint will surely damage the distinctive plantings, including the large trees, and will destroy all the stonework and walkways. The smaller garden planned will have no relation to the Kinsey Garden or its unique plantings and design.

    I was dismissed by the current Director of the Library with no explanation and no word from the Trustees soon after she was hired around 2012.  From that time to the present, the Garden has been in steady and dramatic decline due to a lack of attention or horticultural knowledge.  This has resulted in the continued loss of a beloved sanctuary.   

    Carol Pope

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