Johnson: Too many questions remain about Jones Library project

  • Jones Library JERREY ROBERTS

  • An artist’s rendition shows a renovated and expanded Jones Library as seen from next to the Amherst History Museum. COURTESY FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Is the upcoming Jones Library vote really the moment that we in Amherst have been waiting for? Or is it the one that threatens to saddle average homeowners with onerous debt and jeopardize reducing the town’s carbon footprint down the road?

This Monday, April 5, the Amherst Town Council is expected to vote on the Jones Library demolition/expansion proposal. Why now? The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) has not even awarded the $13.9 million grant toward the 61,296-square-foot grandiose expansion, now estimated at $36.3 million. And, when it does, the town has up to a year to decide whether or not to accept it.

The Jones Library trustees have committed to raise $6.6 million for the expansion, and the town’s burden is estimated at $15.8 million. Should the trustees’ fundraising fall short, they have promised to tap into the library’s endowment, which is also needed to fund their annual operating expenses.

The alternative proposal to the council is a “repair only” option. In order to have a fully-fleshed out viable alternative to expansion, the council should long ago have demanded the trustees hire a library space planner. This professional could develop designs that would reorganize the current facility for better efficiency. An architect could then develop those designs to incorporate non-fossil fuel systems, to improve the building envelope to reduce energy use, and to address accessibility needs.

Unfortunately, these steps were not taken, and we are left with an unappealing and incomplete repair option, which was probably the trustees’ intention in the first place.

Even at this late stage, many important questions remain unanswered. Evidence is lacking to prove the expansion project could be built to zero-energy ready standards for the allocated budget. The photovoltaic array proposed for the roof would provide only 2% of the building’s energy needs, and no estimate has been provided for purchasing off-site renewables to power the facility. The Jones Library is exempt from the zero-energy bylaw because the MBLC grant proposal was developed before the bylaw was passed.

At a recent Finance Committee meeting, it came to light that to maintain the budget as defined in 2016, at least $1.8 million of items were cut and contingencies, which are a form of insurance against unforeseen costs, were reduced from 11% to 6% — all this before the building design has been finalized. These reductions introduce great risk and raise questions about whether the budget is sufficient to meet its sustainability goals.

What will happen if the actual building costs are significantly more? Who will pay for the cost overruns? Could the building size be reduced further without cutting the programming that was approved by the MBLC?

The architects have said they will provide better cost estimates in seven months’ time, but by that point, the town will probably have signed a contract with the state.

The town’s commitment of $15.8 million to this project now will have a ripple effect on other town essentials, including operating budgets of all town departments and availability of funds for other capital needs like road repairs. And will the Town Council be tempted to gut the zero-energy bylaw when it comes time to build the new elementary school, fire station and Department of Public Works?

There are still many townsfolk who do not understand why the trustees decided to demolish 17,800 square feet of the current building without studying reuse possibilities. The architects provided an estimate showing the energy expended in the demolition was low but never ascertained the amount of the highly-embedded carbon materials that would be wasted.

Demolition runs contrary to the recommendations of climate architects, such as the recent prestigious Pritzker Prize winners, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, who assert, “Demolishing is a decision of easiness and short term. It is a waste of many things — a waste of energy, a waste of material and a waste of history.”

A reasonable action plan would be to delay the vote and require that the trustees hire a space planner/architect to reorganize the current facility for efficiency and flexibility, develop a scaled down library program they can afford to maintain, and commit to a fundraising plan that will honor taxpayers now and in the future.

Terry S. Johnson has lived in Amherst for 40 years and served as a Mark’s Meadow teacher. She is the chair of Save Our Library, a grassroots group advocating for a prudent renovation of the beloved Jones Library.