Jones Library expansion plan on track, will head to state this month

  • Jones Library. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Jones Library trustees are moving ahead with plans to renovate the library. Those plans will be submitted to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners at the end of January. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2017

AMHERST — A proposal to expand and renovate the Jones Library will be submitted to the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners in less than three weeks, even as issues with preliminary plans continue to be addressed.

But Austin Sarat, president of the library trustees, said at the board’s meeting Jan. 5 that there is neither a flaw in the process nor inadequacies in the construction grant application that will go to the MBLC on Jan. 26.

“From the point of view of process, this is ordinary,” Sarat said.

A total of 18 problems were identified by Lauren Stara, a library building specialist for the MBLC, in the schematic drawings of the project submitted in October.

Library Director Sharon Sharry said these problems were easily solved, including ensuring the flow of patrons and staff through the library and having natural light in offices.

“These concerns have been fixed,” Sharry said.

Sarat added that the Jones is not being singled out and that these sort of critiques are a routine part of the process for the 30 communities pursuing projects.

Sharry explained that the plan, which includes adding 17,000 square feet to the 48,000-square-foot building, allows a program featuring a dedicated teen space, an enlarged youth area and a reading room for adults. These program features will be locked in.

“Once we submit this to MBLC, the program is not going to change,” Sharry said.

TM funding request

Trustees will then come to Town Meeting in May to obtain permission to apply for and receive grant funds from the MBLC.

If selected by the state agency in July, and funding is approved by Town Meeting in the fall, the project will move forward, and the only changes that can occur include the location of furnishings, the type of finishes used on the interior and exterior, and the landscaping.

Until now, the sketches of the addition, which would require demolishing the 1990s-era addition in its entirety, show a building with a modern appearance. This, though, could change.

“No one has talked about aesthetics,” Sharry said.

Tamson Ely, a trustee who serves on the building and facilities and feasibility and design committees, said Finegold Alexander Architects Inc. of Boston is not being asked to do any more refinements yet.

“Architects have already lost money on this project,” Ely said.

While critics of the plan have formed a group called Save Our Library, Sarat said a survey of more than 65 residents by Financial Development Agency Inc. shows that as people become more informed about the project, more will support it.

Meanwhile, Sharry said architects will work with both the Massachusetts Historical Commission and the Amherst Historical Commission over how much can be changed in the interior and exterior of the historic 1928 portion of the library.

Critics arguments

Critics have argued that selective demolition, such as changes to the library director’s office, which was used by founding director Charles Green and was a place that he met with and kept signed, hand-delivered first editions by poet Robert Frost, should be stopped.

Sarat said it’s a “difference of opinion” as to how much oversight the commissions have and what role they will play.

The state commission received the plans, but Brian McNiff, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office, said in an email that it has not yet acted.

“The commission sent a letter to the Library requesting more info, so that MHC has sufficient information with which to make a determination of effect,” McNiff said.

Those opposed to the project have also contended that the town failed to file a historic preservation restriction after the library received Community Preservation Act money in 2010 and 2011 to renovate the roof and chimneys.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said officials will rectify this. Such restrictions are put on non-municipal buildings receiving town money, but often aren’t applied to town buildings.

Both the Friends of the Jones Library and the committee that oversees the Burnett Gallery, where works of art are displayed, recently voted to endorse the project.

The Friends, in a memo to trustees, said the expansion will mean the Jones Library will have “services more inclusive and accessible, while preserving the building’s historical architectural features.”

Though current plans show that the Woodbury Room, part of the early 1990s addition, would be demolished in its entirety, the Friends wrote that the library should be “maintaining room names Woodbury Room and Goodwin Room in honor of special friends of the library.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.