Guest columnist Terry S. Johnson: Vote ‘No’ — start over smart for Jones Library

Thursday, October 14, 2021

Amherst voters will shortly decide a referendum question whether or not to borrow $35.3 million for a Jones demolition/expansion proposal or to “start over smart” by planning a more modest, less destructive and less expensive project which will meet the needs of the library and not jeopardize other capital and operating budgets.

Start Over Smart supporters understand that the Jones trustees’ extravagant proposal is too large, too expensive, wasteful and has been planned exclusively by all-white homeowners appointed to various trustee planning committees. There has been scant community outreach and not one BIPOC representative was ever invited to join in the planning.

The Jones is already the third largest library in western Massachusetts by square footage, according to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. The MBLC grant, that the Town Council voted to accept, is for a design that would add the equivalent of seven new houses to the already cramped site. Not surprising, since it was designed for 51,000 supposed library users, when, actually, only 19,000 hold library cards.

If constructed, the building will cost way more than it should, since the trustees decided, without any serious formal study, to demolish the entire 1993 addition, thus dumping close to 18,000 square feet of highly embedded carbon materials into landfill.

Replacing this lost town resource alone would cost at least $7.4 million, before the construction of an additional 15,000 square feet over the garden. Knowing now what we do about climate change, can we really justify destroying 40% of the existing Jones?

Such destruction undermines the core tenet of sustainability: “Never demolish, never remove or replace; always add, transform and reuse.”

The trustees and their marketing firm have created a false dilemma, asserting that taxpayers will only have to fund about $16 million of the total cost of their project, while simply bringing the building up to code would cost almost the same, as estimated by Western Builders, Inc. Debt service is rarely mentioned.

Yet, the trustees have told the Town Council that they will not mount a capital campaign for a renovation only, even though there are many granting opportunities, including local Community Preservation Act grants, Massachusetts Cultural Facilities funds as well as state and federal historic tax credits, to say nothing of garnering individual and corporate donations.

The trustees have therefore guaranteed that we taxpayers won’t be able to save money with a prudent alternative.

Although Amherst’s “One Town, One Plan” scheme asserts that we can afford to spend $90 million for all four capital projects needed in town, this is magical thinking. The original estimates for the fire station and Department of Public Works facility were recently cut in half through “creative accounting” to make the cost of the Jones’ project seem reasonable. And, we don’t yet know the outcome of the upcoming debt exclusion vote for the new school.

If, as it seems likely, these projects run over budget, do we really want to sacrifice other, more basic necessities such as road and sidewalk maintenance, the upkeep of our athletic fields or a Crocker Farm School renovation? Are we comfortable scrimping on our fire department and schools? This year’s school operating budgets were cut over a million dollars.

We can have a right-sized building that will cost us less and be much less wasteful.

Most importantly, by genuinely including voices from all residents who make up our diverse community, we can have a library designed around real needs whether it be it more materials in other languages, more laptops to check out or perhaps even that tried-and-true standby, a book mobile.

We can have a intelligently redesigned, accessible, net-zero ready building, with improved sight lines and designated teen and children’s spaces by taking Max Page’s advice to heart “ ... saving historic places and reusing them must be a cornerstone of environmental sustainability.”

Please join us on Oct. 25-29 during early voting or on Election Day on Nov. 2, to Vote “No” and to “start over smart” for our beloved library.

Terry S. Johnson is chair of “Vote NO — Start Over Smart” ballot committee.