Editorial: Consensus needed on Jones Library project in Amherst

  • Former projection room at Jones Library. JERREY ROBERTS

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Consensus is needed in Amherst to avoid having the $35.6 million Jones Library project meet the same disappointing fate as the elementary school proposal — defeat by vote of Town Meeting.

The proposed renovation and expansion of the library at 43 Amity St. moved ahead last week when Town Meeting approved applying for a $13.7 million state grant to help pay the construction costs. If the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners approves the grant in July, Town Meeting could vote as early as next fall on the town’s share of the project — an estimated $15 million to $16 million.

However, the 105-94 vote May 10 endorsing the grant application falls well short of the two-thirds majority needed to win Town Meeting approval to borrow that amount. That means the Jones Library project may be on the same futile track as the proposal to build two co-located elementary schools, which — despite approval by a majority of voters and a $34 million state grant — was twice voted down by representative Town Meeting.

Library trustees and other supporters of the project must seek to avoid that by working with opponents to reach consensus on a plan that appeals to a broad cross-section of the community.

The current plans call for enlarging the three-story library from 48,000 to 65,000 square feet. The original building opened in 1928, and an addition was completed in 1993. That addition would be demolished and the expansion would extend from the rear of the original building toward the CVS Pharmacy parking lot.

The project would create space for children’s and teen programming, expand the English as a Second Language instruction program now housed at Jones and add a reading room for adults. In addition, a host of deferred maintenance items — including a new fire alarm system and elevator, and mechanical, electrical and plumbing upgrades — would be undertaken.

A report released this month by Western Builders Inc., of Granby, estimates that repairs needed to meet current building codes and the Americans with Disabilities Act will cost between $8.1 million and $9.6 million, even if the larger project is not approved.

Kent Faerber, a former library trustee, is among the organizers of the Jones Library for Everyone group supporting the project. He contends that “Amherst’s library should be special, but its founders had an even more radical vision – the library could help sustain that special character of the town by ensuring that everyone is attracted to it.

“The proposal will provide a facility that, once again, can play that role for today’s Amherst. Far from ‘destroying’ the library, the proposal has been endorsed by the Friends of the Jones Libraries, the Amherst Historical Society and Museum, The Literacy Project, the Burnett Gallery Committee, and many others ...”

Opponents who organized Save Our Library object to the loss of the 1993 addition, which cost $5 million, as well as much of the Kinsey Memorial Garden; the replacement of the 125-seat Woodbury Room in the basement, which was renovated in 2012 at a cost of $175,000; and the architecture of the proposed addition, saying that it is out of character with the existing building and the adjacent Amherst History Museum.

Sarah McKee, one of three former library trustee presidents active in the opposition group, argues that there has been “no public procedure for getting input from the town in general, and all areas of town, as to what Amherst residents want and need from our public libraries, and what sort of project design we prefer.”

Without question, significant renovation is needed at the Jones Library to bring it into compliance with building codes and to make sure it is fully accessible to handicapped people, including widening the space between stacks. Less clear, though, is whether a major expansion that would increase the library’s size by 35 percent is needed, or whether some services — such as the English as a Second Language program — could be moved elsewhere downtown.

We are encouraged that Austin Sarat, president of the library’s board trustees, said after last week’s vote, “It was terrific that Town Meeting endorsed the article, and a lot of conversation on the future of the library can continue.”

Sarat called on residents to offer suggestions about improvements they believe are needed to make Jones the kind of library they want in town.

It is time for Amherst to come together on a plan for the Jones Library that will make it a comfortable, welcoming and educational space for all residents, while preserving its historic character.