Treasurer Raises Building Project Concerns
The packet for the October 25 meeting of the Jones Library Building Committee (JLBC) included two letters from Treasurer for the Library Board of Trustees, Bob Pam. Pam raised several concerns over rising budget line item costs and features cut or missing from the latest building design.
Pam observed that recent landscaping designs have added $815,000 or 37.8% to the estimated cost of sitework since September 2022. He also pointed out that Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment (FF&E) for the building project are no longer being included in cost estimates. He suggested that costs have risen about 25% since the last FF&E cost estimate which was $1.6 million. Pam expects that furniture-related costs have risen by $400,000.
Neither landscaping nor FF&E costs are eligible to be paid for out of the $13.8 million state construction grant that has been used to justify the $46.1 million project. Budget restrictions may force further elimination of originally promised landscaping and furniture features in the way that “Value Management” has eliminated slate roofing, areas of cross-laminated ceiling tiles, an energy-friendly saw-toothed roof design and most likely solar panels.
Pam also worried that climate change and the increasing frequency of 100-year floods may render the expanded building’s outside drainage capacity inadequate. And like several commenters at the Amherst Historical Commission review of the project, Pam felt that more needs to be done to address the stark contrast between the proposed new addition and the original historic library.
In separate correspondence and in public comment Pam raised two additional questions. He wondered if the renovated Board Room and/or Woodbury Room would be fitted with the ability to record and transmit meetings to a remote audience. Library Director Sharon Sharry responded that “Zoomability” in these rooms will be available through data drops and wireless access, but whether technology to support hybrid meetings will be affordable is uncertain.
Pam brought up the fact that Feingold Alexander Architects (FAA) has had to design the new parts of the renovated library’s ground floor to be three steps higher than the level of the original building. He asked where the steps were located that would allow passage from the Civil War Tablets Room and the Special Collections Room in the old building to the hallway of the new additions.
Sharry replied that a stairway to account for ceiling height differences would be located farther south. Pam objected, saying “I don’t think that the answer of there being [a stairway] 100 feet down the hall is in fact useful at all.”
JLBC meeting chair Austin Sarat pressed Owners’ Project Manager Tim Alix of Colliers for more information.
Alix replied that he would need to look into it and began pulling up the latest design drawings.
“Do you have anything else you want to say, Bob?” asked Sarat.
When Pam indicated he was done and no one else wanted to offer public comment, Sarat adjourned the meeting. Pam’s stairway access concern remains unclarified.
$1 Million Gift from Amherst College to Library Project Will Not Reduce Amherst Taxpayer Burden
Amherst College has pledged to contribute $1 million to the Jones Library Building Project as well as $250,000 to the Cooley Dickinson Hospital for its emergency department renovation and $75,000 to the Drake, a downtown Amherst performance venue.
Many will find a cause for jubilation, as the Town has long appealed to Amherst College for more financial assistance to compensate for the school’s exemption from local property taxes as an educational institution. Amherst College is reportedly the largest property owner in Amherst and possesses a $3.32 billion endowment.
However, a closer look at the terms of the library donation may bring disappointment.
For one thing, the gift will be directed to the Friends of the Jones Library Capital Campaign who are committed to raising more than $16 million to cover their share of the total project cost. The contribution does nothing to lower the expansion project’s demand on Amherst’s tax-levy-funded capital budget. The town share currently sits at $15.8 million plus an estimated $9.16 million in borrowing costs.
Secondly, it is not clear if the $1 million gift is contingent on the Town Council approving full funding for the nearly $50 million project as it is currently designed. Project costs have ballooned by more than $10 million over the Council’s April 2021 borrowing authorization, leaving both the town and the Jones Library endowment facing greater financial liability.
An updated project cost estimate was due to be received last week. Should the Town Council decide that, with an abundance of competing budget priorities, the town cannot afford to complete the renovation-expansion, what will become of the pledge? Will Amherst College be willing to direct the $1 million to major library building maintenance and repairs that the trustees and town leaders have been deferring for ten years, or will it walk away from its commitment?
It is heartening to see that new Amherst College President Michael Elliot is hinting at future support by the College for Amherst schools and the fire department. However, he should be aware that the Jones Library renovation-expansion project has been plagued by problems and controversy since its inception. In an April 2021 referendum, more than a third of the Town’s voters rejected town funding of the project, and that was before cost escalations hit.