Letter: The Jones Library Should Go To School


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The town of Amherst is proud to be known for its support of education.  That support is about to be tested, as its government asks its taxpayers to invest in two expensive capital education projects: a brand new elementary school and a renovated public library.  Because (in part) of the past year’s inflation, the building committees for both projects received construction cost estimates that were much higher than expected. How they have dealt with that news has taught us at least one thing: It’s time for the Jones Library to go to back to school.

The Elementary School Building Committee, when faced with high cost projections, quickly asked its architects to make design changes to reduce those inflated costs. The result is a project that, they feel, the town’s voters will endorse in May. Their speed and efficiency in responding to the challenge are a model of how to deal with unacceptable estimates.  Contrast that with the library board’s decision to invest up to $1.8 million in a design development process not expected to produce results until late this year.   In the process, they are ignoring an outline for less expansive renovations that has been in their files for years.  And they are basing their design on an overly generous estimate of in-person public library usage in this town that has three fine university and college libraries.

Because the Jones Library trustees persist in developing a design that has already been estimated to be well over budget, they are likely to produce a plan that will remain unaffordable.  What will they do then?   The town council’s leadership is on record saying they will provide no more Amherst taxpayer funds than have already been committed.  Significant state and federal monies have already been awarded; if more is received, it will help but is not likely to close the gap.  Do they think private contributions will make up the difference?  And what about the town’s higher interest payments for the borrowing that will take place once construction starts and before the private cash is in the bank?

The right thing for the library’s planners to do now is to follow the example of the elementary school’s planners:  Admit that the current design will not be affordable. Then spend what’s left of that $1.8 million to develop a design, on a smaller building footprint, that uses the earlier renovation proposal and realistic expectations of future public engagement.  If the library’s trustees are willing to accept this reality, a year from now they’ll be able to put out for bids a plan that they and the Amherst residents they serve can comfortably afford and will be proud to use.

Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal lives on Sunset Avenue in Amherst.  He was Chair of the Zoning Board of Appeals and of the former Development and Industrial Commission, and was a member of the Select Committee on Goals for Amherst. He was a founder of Hampshire College and its first chief financial officer.

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5 thoughts on “Letter: The Jones Library Should Go To School

  1. As in the fable of The Emperor’s New Clothes, sometimes it
    takes an independent observer like Ken Rosenthal to recognize the
    naked truth.

    And just as the ever-growing war budgets in the 1960s spawned a lot
    more than a few folksongs, so too will “Alby Jay’s Big Muddy Library”

    With apologies to the real folksingers among us, here’s a new verse to
    an unpublished folk-lovesong Ida Juana written last year:

    We had a little library,
    Whose middle name was Juana.
    They couldn’t raise the money,
    But they said that we was gonna’!
    Ida Juana!!!!!! Ida Juana!!!!!!
    Ida-Juana! Ida-Juana! Ida-Juana!!!

    [*I took the liberty of editing the 3rd line of the new verse for
    better meter ;-]

  2. Bravo, Ken. What seems to get lost in discussions of the Jones Library Project is that everyone agrees that the Jones Library needs a FULL RENOVATION. What the residents of Amherst cannot afford is an EXPANSION that requires 40% of the library to be demolished. To be clear, the $50+ million price tag for the demolition/expansion that Jones Trustees are doggedly pursuing, requires tearing down an ADA accessible, 30 year-old brick addition with a metal roof that has a 50+-year life span. The Jones Library demolition/expansion is unsustainable and financially irresponsible. The alternative, to renovate the Jones Library within the existing footprint of the building is both sustainable and affordable. It is past time for the Jones Trustees to go to school.

  3. Yesterday, the NYTs wrote a long article about how Valaparaiso University in Indiana has decided to sell off a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe and 2 other paintings in order to renovate 2 dorms to better compete with similar universities.
    This is my “reader’s letter” published yesterday in the NYTs along with 400 other responses– some in favor and some opposing that decision.

    A cautionary tale from Amherst, MA to the administrators of Valparaiso University. The Board of Trustees of our public library, the Jones Library, sold off the library’s prize jewel– Albert Bierstadt’s 1863 painting, “Platte River, Nebraska 1863″ for $2.6 million to partially pay for a $5 million renovation completed in 1993. There was an outcry about the sale but town meeting members (standing vote) affirmed the trustees’ decision. See the NYT’s headline in Nov 20, 1988 ” Town votes painting sale.”
    Now, just 30 years later, the current Jones Library Board of Trustees headed by an Amherst College professor has unanimously voted to completely demolish the 1993 renovation! Its destruction is imminent. I wonder what would have been the reaction of the Jones Library trustees in 1988 if some seer had told them that their state-of-the art renovation with its towering atrium and spacious reading rooms would end up in a landfill within 30 years!

  4. David, you have touched on the root of the Jones Library demolition-expansion debacle — Amherst College “only the best” values without Amherst College’s financial resources. The key visionaries behind the library project are Austin Sarat, long-serving Board of Library Trustees President and a distinguished Amherst College professor, and Kent Faerber, head of the Friends of the Jones Library Capital Campaign and formerly Amherst College’s chief development officer.

    A $50 million library project might be par for the course at Amherst College, but unfortunately the Town of Amherst does not have the college’s $4 billion endowment to draw on. Sarat, Faerber and their allies have pushed the false and unprecedented assumption that the Town and not the Library is primarily responsible for the cost of their grandiose plan. The result is the Town Council’s $16 million commitment from Amherst’s budget.

    For the 1993 library addition, which the new plan will tear down, the Town limited its contribution to $1 million toward the $5 million project.

    But times have changed. Kent Faerber managed Austin Sarat’s trustee election campaign, and his PAC, Amherst Forward, has helped like-minded majorities get elected to the Town Council and Board of Library Trustees. And today Amherst finds itself painted into a nasty financial corner.

  5. As I commented in a reponse to an earlier issue, it appears the trustees did not pay attention to the treasurer who cautioned against the cost of the increase. WOW! Now I better understand what is happening. Well if the trustees from Amherst College think they are bettering the town in a manner that makes Amherst College more attractive they had better think again. We were informed that property taxes are increasing by $400 this year and that the construction of the new school will add another increase of $478! We have not even been informed re future tax increases to support DPW site and a fire station to cover South Amherst. Why is the fire station which will provide needed protection for South Amherst not being constructed before the library renovation? The tax situation is causing too many people to think about leaving town, and just selling their homes to investors. Why are the Amherst College professors so invested in making their impression on this town?

    I recall that based on the incredible increase in the cost of the renovation, the treasurer of the trustees advised the rest of the trustees not to go ahead with the expansion as planned. It appears that the treasurer’ s caution wqs ignored.

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