Trustee Denies Library Grant Application Wrongdoing

Postcard depicting Jones Library

Photo: Digital Commonwealth (CC BY-NC-ND)

Highlights of the Meeting of the Jones Library Building Committee, February 15, 2022

Austin Sarat (Library Trustee Chair), Alex Lefebvre (Library Trustee), Sharon Sharry (Library Director), Paul Bockelman (Town Manager), Sean Mangano (Town Finance Director), Anika Lopes (Town Council), George Hicks-Richards (Library Facilities Supervisor), Christine Gray-Mullen (resident member), Ken Romeo (Colliers Project Manager).

Meeting Packet

Library Trustee and Jones Library Building Committee (JLBC) Chair Austin Sarat spoke concerning a letter sent by two former Jones Library Board of Trustees presidents to state officials alleging the downplaying of the library’s historical significance and a disregard of Massachusetts historical preservation laws on the part of the Jones Library Building Project and the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC).

Among the complaints detailed by Sarah McKee and Merrylees Turner in the nine-page letter were a failure of the library to disclose in its $13.8 million MBLC grant application that the Jones Library is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places, and the absence of any announced plan to submit schematics and photographs to the Massachusetts Historical Commission (MHC) for a review of adverse effects on a State Register property as previously requested by the MHC. 

They cite Massachusetts regulation  950 CMR 71: Protection of properties included in the State Register of Historic Places which requires state bodies subsidizing building projects that may harm historical properties to notify the MHC prior to committing funds, and calls for public participation in determining how proposed impacts to historical properties should be resolved.

Sarat defended the Jones Library’s process, pointing to an email from Andrea Bunker of the MBLC informing Library Director Sharon Sharry that, “You filed the project notification form as required, and the architects know that they will have to provide the information requested for review when you get to a place in the design that warrants it.”

Recent schematics show, and the project notification form confirms that demolition of parts of the historic 1928 Jones Library building is planned.  The project notification form also contains a curious answer to the question, “Are any historic or archaeological properties known to exist within the project’s area of potential impact?”

The library answered, “The envelope of the original 1928 structure is listed with the State Register of Historic Resources.”  That they referenced the envelope and not the entire 1928 building which is the actual entity listed in the State Register may indicate that the building project planners do not consider the interior of the building worthy of preservation.  The Jones Library Historic Structure Report commissioned by the Town describes dozens of remarkable interior historic features in its seventy pages.

The JLBC meeting also set up two subcommittees to focus on different aspects of the project.  Sharry, Christine Gray-Mullen and George Hicks-Richards will sit on the Design Subcommittee and Anika Lopes, Alex Lefebvre, and a new resident member expected to be named at the February 28 Town Council meeting will make up the Outreach Subcommittee.  Sarat will serve as a voting ex-officio member of both subcommittees.

The group developed official charges for both committees. The Design Subcommittee charge includes making design recommendations to the JLBC and considering the recommendations and concerns of the Outreach Subcommittee, Massachusetts and Amherst Historic Commissions, Disability Access Advisory Committee, Jones Library Sustainability Committee, Burnett Art Gallery Committee, the Jones Library Gardens Advisory Committee, library staff and the MBLC to revise previous schematics.

The Outreach Subcommittee charge includes developing an outreach plan, seeking community engagement, gathering community input through listening sessions, and making design recommendations to the Design Subcommittee.

Asked for thoughts about the goals of the outreach group, Town Manager Paul Bockelman explained, “I think one of the important features of this charge for the Outreach Committee is that it’s specifically designed to inform the design of the building. It’s not just to do outreach, but actually to take that outreach and communicate it back into the design. I really like that as being part of the charge.”

Building Committee Chairperson Sarat offered a different perspective.  “Myself, I think that the first task of the Outreach Committee is to explain who the Jones Library Building Committee is, what its work is and what its process will be.”

The next meeting of the JLBC is scheduled for Tuesday, March 1 at 4:30pm.

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22 thoughts on “Trustee Denies Library Grant Application Wrongdoing

  1. Regarding historic preservation of the Jones Library interior, I attended an early meeting on the Jones Library project (maybe 2016) when the architects discussed the idea with Library Trustees of eliminating the walnut staircase in the historic part of the library and displaying the staircase on the wall of the new addition as an “art piece.” There was push-back from the public on this idea.

  2. That’s exactly what Finegold Alexander did to the Holyoke Public Library – to grotesque effect. If readers want to understand how hackneyed and characterless the Jones will become, I
    recommend a visit to Holyoke.

  3. I think the Holyoke Public Library is beautiful. Yes, go see ito get a sense of how great designers can combine new with old to great public benefit.

    Full disclosure, I worked hard on that project, and am extremely proud of the result.

  4. There’s an irreconcilable tension here between “artistic vision” and “political reality” – the need to “please most of the people most of the time” – which an Outreach Committee embodies, and with which it must simultaneously grapple.
    Taken to an absurd extreme: imagine a world where the only art is “art-by-committee”!

    Will the impending demolition-renovation be an act of “creative destruction” with a new-and-improved Jones re-emerging Phoenix-like from its own ashes?

    In the hands of a Stravinsky, The Firebird; in lesser hands, the musical equivalent of arson.

    But, at least with music, the new doesn’t necessarily destroy the old….

  5. Finegold Alexander architects were explicitly informed at the get-go that historical preservation is not important for the Jones library renovation/expansion. Maybe the same instructions were given for the Holyoke Library project, which offers vast, uninviting and unused space with minimal intimacy, comfort, or appeal. The Holyoke library design was so controversial that several trustees resigned over it, it’s rumored. Now I’m wondering which expansion has been more controversial, Holyoke’s or Amherst’s? My 2-part question remains: Precisely what parts of the design can still be changed? And in the best of all worlds, how can the public participate in upcoming decisions about changes to it?

  6. During this upcoming and long overdue outreach process, it will be interesting to see just how much of the public’s input can actually be incorporated into the Jones project. Detailed schematic designs have already been completed and approved by the Trustees in the fall of 2020.—Updated-Presentation-by-Finegold-Alexander-Architects-October-8-2020-PDF

    Programs, square footage and room locations are pretty well set as is the extensive destruction and rearrangement of the historic 1928 section. What specific feedback will the public be allowed to give at this point in the process?

  7. Kitty. You are incorrect. No Trustee resigned over the design in Holyoke.

    I was there. The design also evolved and improved over time.

  8. Opinions may vary on how the Holyoke Public Library renovation turned out, but an article from the National Trust for Historic Preservation points out a serious planning flaw that both the Holyoke and Amherst Jones Library building projects have shared.

    In both cases the Massachusetts Board of Library Commmissioners chose to award construction grant funds before vetting the projects’ impact on state registered historic properties. When the Holyoke Historical Commission learned that Finegold Alexander Architects’ initial design called for demolishing the entire stack wing of the 102-year-old landmark, they pushed back. The renovation project was forced to revise its plans and “use a soft touch on the old building. They gave the exterior one light power wash, and the interior woodwork was cleaned but not refinished.” Most of the stack wing was saved. As it was, Holyoke failed to qualify for historic tax credits due to the extent of the modification.

    An aspect of the Holyoke renovation that was commendable was the restraint they showed in scoping the project’s size and cost. The renovated library which re-opened in 2013 had been enlarged to 40,000 square feet — 8000 square feet smaller than the current Jones Library. Holyoke taxpayers were able to pay for the library project with a $5.5 million bond. By contrast, the Amherst Town Council last year approved borrowing $35.3 million for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library.

  9. There is no official relationship between the awarding of an MBLC grant and Historic Tax Credits so to claim that there is a “flaw” is incorrect. The Holyoke Public Library did not qualify for Historic Tax Credits because the rear stack wing had to be removed – that is correct.

    While the building was located in a park, there were restrictions in place that severely limited the project’s ability to expand the building footprint – making it necessary to “square” the building in order to provide sufficient square footage for all the necessary library functions (e.g. teen room, archives, reading room, children’s wing, community room, etc.). A great deal of care and consideration went into the evolution of the design and that thoughtfulness was recognized upon completion. Finegold Alexander were terrific to work with and their sensitivity and expertise were recognized with several awards…Here are two awards that the Holyoke Public Library received:

    2013 Massachusetts Housing Investment Corporation, Excellence in Community Development Award
    2015 Preservation Massachusetts, Paul E. Tsongas Award

    Further, here is a link to an article about the project with great pictures:

    The HPL process represented the best of preservation and practicality, and as a result a magnificent 1902 building remains in use for the community’s benefit for decades to come. The same will be said about the Jones project.

  10. Jeff Lee wrote:

    “Holyoke taxpayers were able to pay for the library project with a $5.5 million bond. By contrast, the Amherst Town Council last year approved borrowing $35.3 million for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library.”

    This is misleading. Holyoke approved borrowing of $14.5 million or thereabouts for their project. That was paid for by a combination of a $5.5 million municipal bond, an MBLC Grant, New Markets Tax Credit proceeds, and fund raising by the Library. In Amherst’s case the expectation is that the municipal bond will be $15 million or so (I’ve forgotten the exact amount), and the rest will be paid by the $13.5 million MBLC grant, capital campaign commitments and hopefully Historic Tax Credits. This is not to make light of the serious commitment by Amherst tax payers, of which I am one, but to be truthful in highlighting the mix of resources that are going into this project.

  11. Matt, according to the article you cite, the City of Holyoke only bonded out, or borrowed, $5.5 million for the library project.

    You are correct that Amherst anticipates eventually receiving $13.5 million from the MBLC, $5.6 million from the capital campaign and $1 million in CPA funds, but that money does not become available all at once. Therefore the town has been authorized to borrow $35.3 million (see Authorization Order FY21-046).

    This large commitment of borrowing capacity is a major reason why the town will need to pass a tax override to exclude debt in 2023 in order to pay for an elementary school replacement.

  12. I just wanted to say, as a former Town Councilor, that one of the strong arguments for why the Jones project was affordable was the sizable amount of money that we would receive in Historical Tax Credits. Town Council was assured that we would get them.
    Also, advocates for this particular Jones Library project told Town Council, as well as the public that in no way would this project force a two and a half override in order for Amherst to build a new school and this library.
    I love the library. I support the library.
    I really just wish that people involved in these projects would tell the truth when these issues come up in decision making.
    If the truth were told then maybe we as a town, and in town government could have come to some middle ground and worked things out.
    This is why people have a hard time believing the experts. Or why it is difficult to not ascribe intent.
    It is not that we are hateful or stupid.
    What are people in Amherst supposed to conclude from this?

    Sarah Swartz

  13. Sarah,

    I really don’t understand what you meant when you stated…

    “I really just wish that people involved in these projects would tell the truth when these issues come up in decision making.”

    Are you saying that there hasn’t been truth coming from library advocates, trustees, staff and consultants?

    I maintain that there has been a lot of consistency and transparency throughout on the part of advocates for the project.

  14. While “consistency” of a logical system is necessary for a logical system to assign “truth” values to a statement, it’s far from sufficient.

    And “transparency” is a property of materials, describing how matter interacts with radiation (such how certain wavelengths of light readily pass through, while others are reflected or scattered): doesn’t conflating “truth” with “consistency and transparency” reflects some scatter?

  15. Matt Blumenfeld writes: “Are you saying that there hasn’t been truth coming from library advocates, trustees, staff and consultants?”

    In one fundamental respect, the answer is: No, “there hasn’t been truth telling.”

    On page 9 of their application for a Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners’ construction grant, the Trustees left blank the mandatory fields asking whether the 1928 Jones Library was on the State (Inventory) of Historic Places or the National Register of Historic Places.

    Yet the 1928 Library is on both Registers. This means that the Trustees’ demolition/expansion project must comply with the Massachusetts Historic Preservation Law. This is in the Massachusetts General Laws at Chapter 9, Sections 26 through 27C, and in Title 950 of the Code of Massachusetts Regulations, at Section 71.00 et seq.

    In fact, in their Grant Application, the Trustees legally undertook to comply with the Massachusetts Historic Preservation Law as a condition of getting their $13.8 million grant. See Grant Application, page 75, paragraph 21.

    Furthermore, Trustee President Austin Sarat, the remaining Trustees, the Library Director, and a great number of other Amherst officials signed the Grant Application, attesting: “We the undersigned, having official responsibility for the project herein described, do hereby attest to the facts and figures presented as true to the best of our knowledge and belief and do hereby certify our intent to carry
    out all the provisions and conditions agreed/delineated in this application.” See Grant Application, pages 76 (unnumbered) et seq.

    Yet what all these officials attested as true about the 1928 Jones Library’s historic status was NOT true. The 1928 Library IS on both the State and National Registers. Furthermore, the Trustees have so far failed to comply with the historic preservation obligations that they freely and knowingly undertook. These are scarcely trivial.

    The Massachusetts Historical Commission’s mandatory process for reviewing projects on State Register properties can take three months or more. This is because it first requires the Commission to identify all of a project’s “adverse effects” on a State Register property. Here, State Register properties also include the historic Strong House, on the lot that abuts the Library’s lot to the west. “Adverse effects” include demolition of all or part of a State Register property. Demolition of interior features counts. Among other “adverse effects,” the Jones Library schematic design calls for quite a bit of demolition and rearrangement of the historic Library’s interior.

    The Massachusetts Historical Commission’s review then involves negotiating with the project proponent, with public input, on feasible and prudent ways to eliminate, minimize, and mitigate those “adverse effects” in the project’s design. Doubtless it takes additional time and money for the architects to modify a project’s schematic design accordingly.

    Yet the Trustees have never submitted their schematic designs and other data required for the Commission’s historic preservation review. No construction timeline that the Trustees have ever published has included a span of time for the purpose. What can they possibly be thinking?

    I am at a total loss to explain this failure. Finegold Alexander Architects, the Trustees’ architects for this project, certainly know about the Commission’s mandatory historic preservation review process. So does Colliers International, the Trustees’ Owner’s Project Manager (OPM). By the way, an OPM must have a license from the State of Massachusetts. Even if the Trustees wanted to flout the law here, why have their architects and their State-licensed OPM not insisted that they comply? The unique historic architecture of the Jones Library is a precious heritage of the Town and of the Commonwealth. We deserve that all those with legal responsibility for the Jones Library take their responsibilities seriously.

  16. Re: Rob
    “ [does irony get rusty when exposed to crocodile tears…?]”

    Not if you apply snake oil liberally

  17. Hi, Rob – To your question, here’s what the Massachusetts General Laws, Chapter 149, § 44A 1/2 , say about the Owner’s Project Manager:

    “The owner’s project manager shall be a person who is registered by the commonwealth as an architect or professional engineer and who has at least 5 years experience in the construction and supervision of construction of buildings or a person, if not registered as an architect or professional engineer, who has at least 7 years experience in the construction and supervision of construction of buildings. The owner’s project manager shall be independent of the designer, general contractor or any sub-contractor involved in the building project. ”

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