Belmont Shows How to Constrain Library Project Costs



Wealthy Boston Suburb’s Project Planning and Decision-making May Offer Lessons to Amherst
Like Amherst, the town of Belmont, Mass., an affluent suburb northwest of Boston, is in the final stages of a library construction project. Despite supporting a greater book circulation than the Jones Library and enjoying vastly greater financial resources, Belmont has managed to limit the size and constrain the cost of its brand-new building.

The challenges encountered by the $46.1 million Jones Library renovation-expansion have been widely reported.  A comparison of Belmont’s planning processes and design decisions may provide Amherst with some useful lessons.

Belmont Public Library, with the 8th highest circulation in the state, has operated out of a building of 29,650 sq. ft. which is almost 20,000 sq. ft. smaller than the current Jones Library. Belmont’s population of 27,295 is smaller than Amherst (39,263), but if you exclude Amherst’s 23,000 students who have academic libraries of their own, Belmont is considerably larger.

From the get-go Belmont worked hard to include the community in determining the scope of the proposed construction project.  After 7 public charettes, the town settled on building a new 40,460 sq. ft. library over the footprint of its old library.  Belmont was satisfied that its busy new library would function well despite being 7,500 sq. ft. smaller than the current Jones Library.

The resulting project was estimated to cost $39.5 million, or $6.6 million less than the Amherst plan. The local library foundation pledged to kick in $5 million.  In November 2022 Belmont voted to fund the project with a debt exclusion.

By contrast, Amherst residents had virtually no input into the size of a renovation-expansion project that a small Library Feasibility Committee proposed when it applied to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) for a construction grant.  The committee went big, proposing to demolish the 1993 addition to the Jones Library and enlarging the building to 65,000 sq. ft. at a cost estimated at the time to be $35.6 million.

Rather than embracing Open Government to the MAX, the Feasibility Committee chose to operate under the radar.  Remarked Board of Trustees President Austin Sarat to the group, “We have a problem because many people say, ‘What’s wrong with the Library?’ Also, as a requirement of the grant proposal, we need to consider alternative sites. It was not well received at Town Meeting. We won’t talk about it, but parking is a big problem.”

The MBLC eventually awarded Amherst a $13.8 million library construction grant – the largest in its history.  The downside was that it also represented the largest municipal liability for a state-supported library project in history. Few in town then realized how financially burdensome this liability would become.

Interestingly, Belmont chose not to pursue an MBLC grant. While this resulted in the town possibly missing out on grant money, it had some advantages. The MBLC grant process is rigid and time-consuming.  The Library Commissioners are strict about features they want to see in a library design such as expanded programming areas and long sight lines. It can take several years for a library to complete the MBLC review process and once a grant is awarded, the design is not permitted to significantly change.  This proved devastating in Amherst where costs skyrocketed by $10 million, but neither the library’s programs nor proposed size were allowed to be reduced. The MBLC’s rigidity and required commitment of town funds is a major reason why one-third of 33 grant-supported libraries have canceled their construction plans since 2016.

Belmont appears to be spending within its means.  U.S. News & World Report ranks Belmont High School eighth best in Massachusetts, and the town finished building a new $295-million middle and high school in 2023.  For the next two-to-three decades Amherst taxpayers will be challenged to pay for a new $97 million elementary school while at the same time funding the costliest library project in Massachusetts.

A side-by-side comparison of the Amherst and Belmont Library projects

Population39,263 (17,000 non-students)27,295
Library last renovated19931965
Current size in square ft48,00029,650
Print books circulation260,118381,081
Circulation per capita16.5523.04
Current # of meeting rooms42
Project typeDemolition-renovation-expansionDemolition-new building
Total project cost$46.1 million$39.5 million
Construction Cost$35,500,000$30,000,000
Space being added15,000 sf10,960 sf
Final size63,00040,460
Parking at new building745
Library feasibility study2014-152016-17
Pre-design public forumsNone7
Building Committee formed20212018
ArchitectFinegold Alexander ArchitectsOudens Ello Architecture
Registered historic propertyYesNo
Solar panels on roofNoYes
Appropriation approvedApril 2021November 2022
Appropriation increasedDecember 2023No
Capital Campaign goal$13.8 million$5 million
Construction bid periodJan 10 – Apr 16, 2024Feb 12 – Mar 20, 2024
Groundbreaking scheduledJune 2024April 2024
MBLC grant awardedYes, $15.5 millionNo
Other capital projectsConcurrent new $97 million elementary schoolNew $295 million Middle/High School completed in 2023
Town revenue per capita$2568$5314
Town income per capita$20,969$116,207
Town tax levy$64.2 million$119.4 million
Type of governmentTown Council/Town ManagerTown Meeting
Library project infoJones Library Building ProjectBelmont Library Building Project
Construction bid infoJones Library BidDocsBelmont Library BidDocs
Rendering of the proposed Belmont Public Library.  Source:
Spread the love

2 thoughts on “Belmont Shows How to Constrain Library Project Costs

Leave a Reply

The Amherst Indy welcomes your comment on this article. Comments must be signed with your real, full name & contact information; and must be factual and civil. See the Indy comment policy for more information.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.