As a former Jones Library Trustee President, and as a retired attorney who is familiar with the applicable law, I have serious concerns about the Jones Library Trustees’ rush to get Amherst Town Council to approve their proposed demolition/construction project by April 30, 2021.
As of next month, it will be 5 years since the Trustees first unveiled possible plans with a view toward getting a construction grant from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC). July 2021 is the earliest that the MBLC could fund its $13.8 million provisional construction grant for this proposed project.
Counting sustainability upgrades, increases in construction costs since the original estimates, interest, and more, its total cost will be closer to $50,000,000 than the original estimate of $35.8 Million. Amherst would have 6 months after the award of a grant “to complete local financing.” Yet the Trustees are pushing Amherst Town Council now, hard, for an immediate commitment to fund this proposed project.
After five years of effort, costing nearly $200,000 so far, you might think that the proposed project is based on documented needs for Amherst public library services; that the Trustees have complied with all legal requirements; and that they have a completed final design for Town Council to approve.
On every count, you would be wrong.
The Trustees have never reached out to unserved and underserved Amherst residents to ascertain what they want or need from their Jones, Munson Memorial, and North Amherst public libraries. Existing Library patrons, when surveyed, have wanted more hours and parking. The Trustees’ proposed project provides neither.
Compliance with grant requirements? To be eligible for the grant for which the Trustees applied more than 4 years ago, Amherst was required to have a “comprehensive plan for library service town-wide….” The Trustees have started to prepare one only recently.
More consequentially, the Trustees left blank the mandatory fields on their grant application for whether the Jones Library is on the National Register of Historic Places, or on the State Register. See Grant Application, p. 9. The Library is on both. This is therefore a material omission.
Why? Because, when a library is on the State Register, project proponents must comply, before applying, with the Massachusetts historic preservation statutes and regulations. These include “afford[ing] the Massachusetts Historical Commissioner the opportunity to review and comment as early as possible in the planning stages of the process.”
This review allows the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) to identify any “adverse effects” on the State Register property. This proposed project’s obvious “adverse effects” on the interior include eliminating original Library fireplaces, carved woodwork, and whole rooms.
On the exterior, they include such major alterations to the Library’s iconic main entrance as eliminating the steps, and adding a permanent canopy anchored into the stone. These are not only “adverse effects.” Shockingly, they directly violate the Historic Preservation Restriction Agreement that the Trustees themselves signed in 2017, in exchange for $140,000 in Community Preservation Act funding to repair the original slate roof and chimneys. What is going on here?
It is worth emphasizing: The Trustees were legally required to submit their designs and data to the MHC more than 4 years ago, before they applied to the MBLC for a grant. They still have not done so.
The MHC regulations, furthermore, provide for public input into prudent and feasible ways to eliminate, minimize, and mitigate “adverse effects” on a State Register property. In consultation with the MHC and Amherst public, therefore, the Trustees’ schematic designs will require yet another redesign, at yet another additional cost, before the Trustees have a final design.
In addition, the proposed project must avoid “adverse effects” on the abutting Strong House. It, also, is a State Register property. It is within feet of the Library. Its foundation is partly unmortared drystone. Its Historic Structures Report shows the whole House to be fragile. Vibrations from demolishing 1/3 of the present Library are all but certain to jeopardize both foundation and the structure itself. The Trustees have neither planned nor budgeted to protect the Strong House from being damaged by their proposed project.
On the Library’s west (Strong House) side, moreover, the Trustees own to only about four feet. They will therefore need a temporary easement from the Amherst Historical Society (AHS) in order to bring their demolition and construction equipment onto the Strong House land. The Trustees have evidently never even approached the AHS about getting an easement.
MBLC regulations also require towns to “make all full and good faith efforts to ensure that sufficient funds will be available for the effective operation and maintenance” of any library that receives a grant. The Trustees’ proposed addition would add some 18,000 net square feet, equivalent to the size of 6 average-sized new homes. The Library Director maintains that this will not increase Library operating costs. That scarcely seems plausible. But it means that the Town has not planned for “sufficient funds” for the Library in its annual budget going forward.
There’s more. For decades, the Library’s Burnett Gallery Committee has organized monthly art shows. These have provided an invaluable venue for less established area artists. Before the COVID, I played Celtic harp at the opening receptions for more than 200 such shows. They have consistently been fresh, varied, and strong — a popular contribution to the quality of life in the Valley.
An Amherst resident recently noticed that, nonetheless, last September’s revision of the Library’s schematic designs no longer showed any dedicated space for the Burnett Art Gallery. As you can see from Frames 3 – 6 in the architects’ presentation, the current schematics omit the beloved Burnett:
It turns out that, at a Library Chat last September, a Finegold Alexander architect admitted to Trustee President Austin Sarat, “[T]he Burnett Gallery – it appears that it got, uh, squeezed out.” Listen here (scroll down to 9-23-20), starting at 38:10. Some five months later, these schematics remain unchanged. The Burnett Gallery remains “squeezed out” still.
This Library planning process has been one glitch after another for a good five years. It is not done yet. Furthermore, the MBLC grant is capped at $13.8 million. Every cent of increased costs must be borne, one way or another, by the Town. Town Councilors might ask themselves: If this is how the Trustees manage a $200,000 planning phase, how will they manage a $50,000,000 demolition/construction project?
In addition, of course, COVID-19 is stressing Town, business, and personal finances that were stressed already. For Town Council to commit nonetheless to this proposed Library project, when that might well prevent funding for our badly needed new elementary school, fire station, and more, would be — regrettable. I therefore strongly urge Town Council to vote No now on the Library’s proposed project.
If you, too, are concerned about the Library’s proposed project, the time to let your Councilors know is now. One email address reaches all 13 Town Councilors: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In light of these facts, the Town would be wiser to invest instead in a professional redesign and renovation of the Jones Library within its present footprint. If finances later permit, increase the hours. Perhaps add a mobile library. Treating the Jones Library as one of several vital Town services, all of whose needs must be balanced, is more prudent governance, and would better serve our Town.
Sarah McKee is former President of the Jones Library Trustees.