Opinion: Local and Green (#28): Why The Library Expansion Project is Not The Sustainable Option

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This column appeared previously in The Amherst Bulletin.

Vote NO on the ballot question. The library expansion project is not sustainable and not how Amherst should be spending our money.  

On Nov. 2nd, Amherst voters will be asked on a ballot question whether they support the Town Council’s vote to fund an addition to the Jones Library.  I voted against this project as being unneeded and unsustainable in 2017 as a town meeting member.  I continue to think that is true.  I hope you will agree.  Many people support this project because it’s nice.  Of course it is nice and wonderful, but compared to what?   The “never leave money on the table” argument that some are using is like saying, “How can you possibly not buy this item?  It’s on sale!”  Because you don’t need it and because the money can go toward other things you need.

  1. Spending on a project that we don’t need is unsustainable.  

We don’t need an addition to the Jones Library that has 49,000 square feet and which far exceeds the per capita space needed for users. The space configuration in the Jones may not be ideal, but I think a creative space planner would be able to come up with solutions to those problems.  Amherst has three libraries serving our permanent residents and some residents from surrounding towns.  We have the N. Amherst Library and the Munson Memorial Library in South Amherst.  We have libraries at each of our three institutions of higher education serving those populations and those libraries are also open and accessible to all Amherst residents.  And of course, we have excellent school libraries in 5 schools for our K-12 students.  Please study the website “Vote No, Start over Smart” for facts about per capita space needs, population, etc.  Being in a climate emergency is going to necessitate thinking outside the box about how we can share library resources as well as other resources across town/gown lines.

A climate emergency is also going to require us to prioritize which capital projects- a school, a fire station and a DPW building and which other priorities coming to the fore post pandemic should be funded.  Our town dollars need to be allocated to needs.  Will we not be able to fund the school building if we fund the library?  How about roads and sidewalks? How about fully funding the CRESS program? How about a resilience hub or a community center at one of the schools to help manage future climate disasters?  Will we not be able to fund solar canopies or rooftop solar on our existing buildings? How will we heat our water treatment plant? How are we going to pay for carrying out our new energy and climate plan? 

  1. Retrofitting the existing library building would be the more sustainable option, particularly in the next 10 years when fossil-fuel emissions need to be rapidly decreased to meet our town’s carbon emissions 25% reduction by 2025 and 50 % by 2030 targets.  

The Jones Library Sustainability Committee worked hard to provide green options for the Expansion Project, but unfortunately, that committee wasn’t asked to look at emissions for the most climate friendly option – renovating/retrofitting the existing building to make it more energy efficient, using renewably-sourced energy.  The library trustees got numbers for us but didn’t give us the information we needed to make an honest comparison of options.  Comparing the building as is to the expansion was not relevant because electricity emissions are slated to be reduced to zero in the next 5-10 years when Community Choice Energy comes on board and the town climate action plan will be dictating transitioning all town buildings to electric heat.  An immediate retrofit would be the most sustainable option, where the near-term emissions cost of demolition and construction is avoided.  

We need to look at each candidate for Amherst Town Council to see their commitment to sustainability, especially to their commitment to reducing town emissions in the next 5-10 years.  Looking only at whether projects are economic drivers or serving downtown developers is not what is needed in our “new normal” and appears to be a priority of several of the candidates seeking re-election.  

So what is the best strategy for building or renovating in this new era?  The National Trust for Historic Preservation has stated that the greenest building may be the one you already own. 

 A new building that is more energy efficient than the average building could take up to 75 years to overcome the negative carbon impact that comes with new construction versus retrofitting and sourcing it with renewable energy.  There is an immense amount of energy and CO2 locked into existing buildings that provide a savings in carbon dioxide compared to the demolition (energy to demolish and haul away) of an existing structure, the energy to make new materials, transport of the materials and then creation of a brand-new building.  The library expansion plan includes demolishing 40% of the existing building – creating 1,600 tons of debris and then creating a building that is 25% bigger than what is currently there!

For a move against climate change, I urge you to vote NO on the ballot question.  

Lydia Vernon-Jones is a retired social worker and a member of the Amherst Zero Energy Task Force, Climate Action Now and Mothers Out Front.

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