Less than one year ago, 65% of voters decisively affirmed Council’s vote to proceed with the $36 million plan for the Jones Library expansion and renovation. The funding plan envisions that $15.8 million will come from taxpayers – with no increase in property taxes – with the rest of the funds coming from the state, fundraising, tax credits, and a CPA grant.
While recent estimates of the building cost are disconcertingly higher than expected, there is no need for panic, despair, or for Council to act prematurely to slow or halt the project. As far as I know, the library Trustees have not asked the Town to commit more than the $15.8 million already approved. The design work and the fundraising should both proceed, and when the construction bids are opened – by which time the broader economic picture should be clearer – then will be the moment of reckoning. Then may come the moment for Town Council to consider whether the taxpayers’ contribution should be increased or the project canceled, if a funding gap remains. But now is not that moment.
Some are arguing that proceeding with the library project now will endanger the upcoming debt exclusion vote for a new elementary school. I disagree. The ultimate decision about the library will happen months after the school vote, and certainly that debate will consider the burden on taxpayers.
In fact, I think that any effort by Council to halt the library project before construction bids are in hand will undercut the school effort. Why? Because Council will have chosen to ignore the will of the voters as expressed last November. Until Council faces a decision to appropriate more taxpayer money for the library, it should honor the outcome of the 2021 vote and give the library’s many supporters time to secure additional funds and commitments.
Please, do not repeat Town Meeting’s mistake. Do not discourage voters from going to the polls by showing, for yet a third time, that their votes do not matter to Amherst’s elected representatives. Do not reject another multimillion-dollar state grant for no good reason – that would do incalculable damage to the Town’s applications for future state grants.
Let the design work for both the school and library continue. As a town, we can say ”yes” to a new school in a few months, and then, when the bids for the library are unsealed, proceed with construction once we are satisfied that the additional fundraising will cap the town’s cost at the level approved by the voters.
You can email Town Council at email@example.com or send your thoughts via this link.
Today, I bring readers up to date on two projects that have been highlighted in this blog over the past few months.
What’s up with the Jones Library renovation and expansion project?
Town Manager Paul Bockelman confirmed during a recent Community Chat that all lawsuits have been resolved, no appeals were filed, and that there are no legal impediments to proceeding with the project. Austin Sarat, President of the Jones Library Board of Trustees and chair of the Jones Library Building Committee, expressed hope that the energy previously directed at debating the project will now be focused on making the improved library the best it can be for the town. The goal is to hold a ribbon-cutting in the spring of 2025. The Building Committee has begun to meet and its first order of business will be to review the schematics designed by Finegold Alexander Architects that were released and discussed last year. Ken Romeo of Colliers is the Owner’s Project Manager.
Two subcommittees have begun work (agendas, etc. can by found here). A Design Subcommittee will work closely with the architects and make recommendations back to the Building Committee and up the chain of authority. In addition, an Outreach Subcommittee will:
Keep the community informed via in-person gatherings as well as the Library/Town websites, Engage Amherst, Library/Town social media, and email blasts;
Hold listening sessions in order to gather community input;
Respond to questions or concerns raised by the Jones Library Building Committee;
Make design recommendations to the Design Subcommittee.
Various sectors of the community may be specifically targeted at certain points or for certain purposes. For example, middle and high school students may be invited to contribute ideas for the Teen Room.
The cost of the project is fixed, so increases in construction and borrowing costs will necessitate design changes as the project moves forward. As for fundraising, the Capital Campaign Committee is still progressing toward its original goal of $6.6 million, half of which is to come from the community. So far, it has secured $1.5 million in local pledges and $1 million in CPA funds. It has submitted applications to the Massachusetts Cultural Facilities Fund and the Beveridge Foundation for significant funding, and will continue to seek grant opportunities. Amherst College also recently donated $100,000 to the campaign.
The much-loved Kinsey Memorial Garden will need to be moved. The Jones Library Trustees and the Kestrel Trust, with the support of David Kinsey’s widow, Carol Pope, have agreed to move plantings and other items to Kestrel property on Bay Road, either this fall or next spring. Possibly, the Historical Commission will need to consent to this arrangement.
Finally, the Town Manager noted that, contrary to rumor, the Massachusetts Attorney General is not investigating the project’s contracts.
What’s up with the Elementary School Building Project?
The goal is to open the new school in the fall of 2026. A significant milestone was reached earlier this month when the Preliminary Design Program (PDP) document was submitted to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (the document is huge – you can download sections of it here).
Much of the PDP is documentation of existing conditions, both of the Fort River and Wildwood sites and of the two buildings. The PDP also includes the Education Program and the Space Summary, both of which incorporate feedback from the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC), community, faculty and staff, Town Council, and the Amherst School Committee. Submission of the PDP initiates a conversation with MSBA about the information therein. For example, the MSBA or the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education might want additional information about or request changes to aspects of the Educational Plan or Space Summary.
The PDP also indicates that only the combined school options (for 575 students) will be evaluated going forward, because the 165-student, Fort River-only options could not satisfy the goals of the Educational Program. Now that sixth graders will attend school at the Regional Middle School beginning in the fall of 2023, the combined school will house grades K-5. A total of four construction options will now be explored, namely 100 percent new construction or renovation plus addition at one site or the other.
Between now and June 27, the four options will be fleshed out, with schematic building and site designs, plans to satisfy the zero-energy building bylaw, and more detailed costs developed in a document called the Preferred Schematic Report (PSR). This process will culminate in a vote for proceeding with one of the four options. The MSBA will vote in August on the PSR. After that, the next phase continues to develop the schematic design, project cost, and MSBA reimbursement rate. Next winder, Town Council is expected to vote to put a debt exclusion (override) to the voters in early spring of 2023.
Clearly, development of the PSR will be the focus of tremendous public interest. Will we renovate an existing school at Fort River? Build entirely new at Wildwood? Choose another option? Which site is better from a geotechnical respect, such as depth of groundwater, ability of soils to support a large building, etc.? Where and how can increased traffic be best handled? What will be the balance between maximizing daylight with lots of windows and reducing heat loss through windows? What will be the tradeoffs between capital costs and operating costs of the various building systems? The ESBC will be refining a list of criteria by which the four construction options can be assessed, and also planning opportunities for public outreach.
Remember to visit our Elementary school building project page for links to more information.
By Kent W. Faerber, Co-Chair, Campaign Committee, Campaign for a 21st Century Library
The Town has received from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners the first installment of its $13.8 million grant for the Jones Library Building Project. This vote of confidence represents the MBLC’s judgment that the 65% “YES” vote on November 2, affirming the Town Council’s 10-2 authorization of Town borrowing for the project, is overwhelming evidence of the Town’s commitment. The Friends’ Campaign for a 21st Century Jones Library now intends to resume its fundraising for the portion of the financing for the project guaranteed by the Library Trustees.
The Jones Library, a highly regarded and much loved institution, is in desperate need of repair and renovation.
Only 45 percent of the cost of the library renovation/expansion project will be paid from local taxes, and a tax increase won’t be necessary.
If we turn down the $13.8 million state grant after rejecting the $34 million grant for a new school, our credibility with state funding sources will be further damaged.
If we vote “No,” taxpayers will probably have to pay for about $15 million in building improvements, with no help from the state.
If we vote “Yes,” the amount of state income tax and sales tax payments we pay will be channeled back into the infrastructure of our Town, and not sent off to some other community.
A “Yes” vote affirms the 10-2-1 vote of our democratically elected Town Councilors, who worked diligently for years, in numerous public meetings, to fully understand the proposed project, with the Town’s best interests and bottom line at heart.
The expansion and renovation project will dramatically reduce fossil fuel use in the building.
It will protect the valuable, historic, and at-risk Special Collections, which many people come to Amherst to see, and allow them to be housed securely and accessibly.
It will make all the library’s services accessible to people with physical limitations.
The Town’s debt payments have declined to near zero, meaning we have ample capacity to borrow funds as needed for this project.
Historic elements of the original building will be protected, restored, and some opened to the public for the first time in decades.
There will finally be ample bright, comfortable, and quiet areas in which patrons can sit and read.
The project will create more space for adult collections, including Blu-ray films, and eliminate bookshelves that are six feet from the floor or at foot level.
It will provide a safe, bright and supervised place where teenagers can hang out.
Visitors will be able to find meeting rooms and bathrooms on the first floor.
It will enable the children’s room to better serve the diverse ages of the hundreds of kids who come in every day.
It will help revitalize local businesses by bringing more people downtown.
It will show support for library employees, who shouldn’t have to work in a substandard building.
It will provide more space for English as a Second Language, where tutors now have to compete for space.
There will be spaces for public meetings for community groups to access directly from outside of the Library EVEN WHEN THE LIBRARY IS CLOSED.
As Chair of the Amherst Town Energy and Climate Action Committee since its formation in May of 2019, I feel l need to address Councilor Darcy Dumont’s statement in a letter in the Daily Hampshire Gazette earlier this week that Councilors Steinberg, Hanneke, and Ross worked to prevent a strong climate action committee or have somehow worked to weaken climate action.
First, we have been a very strong committee, developing robust climate goals and leading an inclusive planning process to develop the Climate Action Adaption and Resilience Plan (Plan de Acción Climática). We did this in a little over two years despite Covid disruptions and membership changes. I attended the council meeting where the charge was debated and then voted on, and I would not characterize any of that discussion as an attempt to weaken our committee’s charge. Councilor Ross was an active member of our committee for many months and was integral in helping us move forward with strong goals that everyone on the Council – including Councilors Hanneke and Steinberg – voted in favor of. I recall no situation where Hanneke attempted to slow or block the adoption of our goals. Further, many climate activists – myself included – were against the initial zero-energy building bylaw because it was written in a way that could have completely limited future town capital projects.
Amherst has much work to do to meet our climate goals. Most of this needs to be done outside the Council – town staff, the schools, community groups, residents, business owners, and the higher education institutions need to come together to implement our climate action plan. My biggest hope for the new Council is that they set a clear expectation that their role is to do what it takes to facilitate and help the implementers do their work, and avoid being a gatekeeper for action. I think this is true of many things that come before the Council, particularly from committees. I have faith that if reelected, Hanneke, Steinberg, and Ross will be open to that approach.
As for the candidates Darcy Dumont mentioned in her letter, I have no basis to make a determination as to how well these candidates will address our climate goals. I welcome them to reach out and join ECAC at a future meeting and learn from our committee and in particular, our fearless sustainability coordinator Stephanie Ciccarello.
However, I would urge strong caution in voting for someone who claims to have climate action at the heart of his/her campaign but who is also actively campaigning against the library project. The most important climate action we can take is getting off fossil fuels – and this project allows us to do that at no extra cost to the town thanks to the work of the library sustainability committee and Trustees. The library currently uses as much natural gas as 30 average homes. Climate justice is accepting these funds and supporting this project so we can fully dedicate other grants and funds to converting affordable housing and housing complexes away from fossil fuel heat and to healthier, safer, and less polluting heat pumps. Any talk about the waste this project creates is distracting from the actual value this project has – while differing opinions on the library project are welcome, stating that it is somehow a bad climate decision is unequivocally false.
[Laura speaks for herself in this post, not for the committee. Her letter was slightly edited.]
I confess that I used to be skeptical about the $35.3 million project to expand and renovate the Jones Library.
I have been a regular visitor to our beautiful library for 37 years, and have always thought that it met my needs very well. I rarely had a problem finding my way around its many rooms, and the children’s room seemed adequate to me.
After the pandemic made me unable to go inside the library for 15 months, I felt sad that the project would make the building inaccessible during construction. Since I know Carol Pope, the designer of the lovely garden behind the library, I sympathized with her desire not to have the expansion infringe on it.
But I will be voting “Yes” next Tuesday on the referendum to affirm the Town Council’s 10-2 vote in support of the project. As Councilor Alisa Brewer related one resident’s succinct message to her, “To refuse state funds in favor of a patchwork, piecemeal, and partial renovation makes no sense from a financial, environmental, educational, or social justice perspective.”
I’ll summarize these four perspectives, but truthfully, I have two other reasons why I’ll be voting “Yes” that pertain to the kind of town we want Amherst to be.
Finances. The library project is a great deal for taxpayers. The Town’s $15.8 million share of the cost (only 39 percent) is being borrowed and will not cause a tax increase. A “No” vote would mean spending about the same amount on the repairs that are needed because of 30 years of deferred maintenance – with no state money! After a minority at Amherst Town Meeting rejected $34 million in state money to help finance a new elementary school, which will now be much more expensive, it makes no sense to now reject $13.8 million in state money for an improved library. Re-establishing credibility with state funding sources is critical. A campaign to support the project has pledged to raise $6.6 million. And if a “no” vote wins, approximately the same amount of taxpayer money will have to be spent on repairs to the building — without any state aid and without all the benefits. The library project is not an unnecessary expense; it’s an opportunity to buy something we need at a bargain price.
Climate. The library project will represent a major step toward meeting the Town’s climate goals by moving away from the use of natural gas. It will result in a significant reduction in energy use even though the amount of floor space will increase. I don’t understand the reasoning of some climate activists who maintain that the project will result in a net increase in energy use because of the new materials to be used and the old ones to be discarded. Several local energy experts have said unambiguously that this project as a whole represents a big win for climate action.
Education. The Jones Library has a responsibility to the many visitors who come to Amherst to see the archival materials related to Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and others in Special Collections. There have been at least four water leaks that resulted in damage to rare books in the past five years, due to a malfunctioning heating and cooling system. In addition, the Jones Library provides 16,000 hours a year of English as a Second Language instruction, and the space provided for this important service is inadequate.
Social justice. As I transitioned from skeptic to supporter, I realized that my own needs for the library could not be my most important consideration. I had to think about the physically disabled people who can’t fully use the building, the residents who rely on the library for computer use, and the newcomers who can’t find the bathrooms or meeting rooms. Most of all, I had to consider the needs of the hundreds of thousands of people who will be using the Jones Library in the coming decades.
All of these are important factors. But for me, there are also two overriding issues. The first one relates to the reason why we’re having this referendum in the first place. It’s all about democracy.
The library Trustees who were elected to their posts worked out the details of this project. Voters favored Trustee candidates who supported the project over those who didn’t. Many Town Councilors backed the library project in their campaigns three years ago and were then elected in a high-turnout, competitive election. Opponents of the project have had ample opportunity to state their case. Council President Lynn Griesemer was, like me, skeptical before she fully considered all the reasons to proceed with the project. The vote on the Council to support the project was overwhelming.
But that was not enough for the determined opponents. They circulated a petition calling for a referendum on the library project, and were not deterred when they failed to collect enough certified signatures. Even though some who signed the petition said they misunderstood its purpose and asked for their signatures to be removed, the opponents went to court. They forced taxpayers to pay for much legal consultation, and then the Town Council scheduled Tuesday’s referendum, which is what opponents were seeking. I hope a “Yes” vote will put an end to the debate.
I was a member of the Charter Commission, and I remember saying that the “voter veto” provision that’s been invoked by library opponents should make overturning a Council action “difficult but not impossible.” I now regret that the commission did not restrict this “voter veto” to Council votes that were closer.
When you lose a political battle, as the library opponents did, instead of continuing the fight, it’s better to accept defeat. The “voter veto” provision of the charter should be used only when the Council vote was close and there’s good reason to believe it does not reflect public sentiment, or when there’s been new information or some change of circumstances.
One of the key principles of democracy is that sometimes you have to live with results you don’t like.
The other overriding issue for me is the willingness of library opponents to use deception in their campaign. Many of us received a postcard last weekend with a manipulated image of a wrecking ball about to strike the Jones Library building. The facade of the library will not be demolished during the renovation project, but the opponents apparently believe that some voters will be influenced by this false image. (This postcard shows why referendums are risky; residents who haven’t paid attention to an issue are more vulnerable to this kind of deception than a town council.) I don’t want to see this brand of smash-mouth politics become standard practice in Amherst’s political campaigns.
Library opponents have also been spreading false rumors. No, the project will not cause a tax increase, and no, it will not mean the closure of the branch libraries. We have debunked all of those rumors here and here. I don’t mind disagreement about important local issues — that’s inherent in a democracy — but I support the old-fashioned notion that facts matter.
It’s OK to be skeptical of proposals made by Town officials, but it’s important to look at the facts. By voting “Yes” on Tuesday, we’ll be doing more than just voting for an expanded, energy-efficient, accessible library. We’ll be casting a vote of confidence that Amherst can move forward in updating our public infrastructure in a fiscally responsible manner.
Before you vote on the ballot question regarding the Jones Library expansion and renovation project, you might want to check your understanding of some of the issues that have been swirling this fall. Early voting begins on Monday, Oct. 25. Vote “Yes” if you want the library project to proceed, or vote “No” if you want to cancel the project.
#1 The Jones Library expansion and renovation project will increase our taxes. True or False? Click for the answer.
#14 It looks like the cost has already changed from $35 to $36 million. True or False? Click for the answer.
How did you do? Well, we hope. Ignore the dark rumors and wild predictions. If you haven’t yet read our Town Councilors’ reasons for voting as they did, you can read excerpts of their remarks or their complete statements. You can find key resources about the library building project under the Town Government 101 page in our menu.
This week, the Trustees unanimously passed a policy meant to guide the Building Committee as it undertakes its work (pending approval on Nov. 2). Here is the text:
MOTION – The Trustees of the Jones Library publicly announce their intention that the renovated and expanded Library be developed in such a way to assure all members of the Amherst community are and feel welcome, and that all members of the community feel that the Library belongs to them. Such intention would be realized in the first instance through the work of the Building Committee, which work should be guided by a commitment to antiracism and include the perspectives of marginalized groups. That Committee’s work must involve an examination of the way different communities in our town use and experience Library spaces and the iconography and representations contained in the Library. Approved as amended, 6-0-0.
A few weeks ago, Library Director Sharon Sharry discussed, during the recent Cuppa’ Joe meeting focusing on the project, the painful realization that some members of our community do not feel welcome in the existing library spaces. She mentioned that, for example, encountering a large, formal portrait of a white benefactor in the front entry seemed to announce the space as white.
Amherst residents who supported the creation of a new form of government may be disappointed that three of the five voting districts have no contested races for Town Council this year.
One argument for the new charter was that voters would finally be able to choose all the officials who would make decisions on their behalf. And in the first Town Council election three years ago, that was indeed the case.
But the job of Town Councilor turned out to be much more difficult and time-consuming than expected. The four- and five-hour meetings, the occasional abuse from citizens, and the mounds of materials to master may have deterred some citizens from running this year.
So six of the 13 candidates for Town Council are running unopposed in the Nov. 2 election. On Sunday, the League of Women Voters hosted a forum for these six candidates who are guaranteed a seat on the Town Council. It also featured four of the six candidates for Jones Library trustee, who also face no opposition for the six seats.
Newcomers Michele Miller and Ana Devlin-Gauthier, who will significantly lower the average age of the Town Council, presented their views at the forum.
Miller, of District 1, is co-chair of the African Heritage Reparations Assembly. She said she has become aware of the leadership role that Amherst can play in “the big conversation to reconcile 400 years of harm to people of African descent.” She said that “we have the power to change history,” and “I will bring that lens to everything I do as a councilor.”
Miller also said that although the Town Council has not lived up to all the values expressed in the new charter, “in the early stages of its life it needs time to be nurtured.” She added that the Council needs to better define its role vis a vis the town manager.
Devlin Gauthier, of District 5, said that the first Town Council has been “building an airplane while it’s launching it, and we’re still in the Kitty Hawk era,” but has laid the groundwork well. She said that despite the fact that she is certain to be elected, she wants to meet people and “show I’m there to listen to you.” She has been holding office hours on the South Amherst common.
Cathy Schoen, of District 1, said that she tried to recruit people to run for the Council, but many cited the long hours and the need for more substantive and strategic discussions. She said the Council needs to allow for focused discussion well before a vote.
Schoen said her main goals over the next year are to shepherd the proposal for a new elementary school and to use her skills as an economist to address the Town’s fiscal challenges with minimal taxpayer impact.
Lynn Griesemer, of District 2, said that as president of the Council, she has responded to between 4,000 and 6,000 emails over the past three years. It’s time to start planning for the use of an empty elementary school building, perhaps as a Senior Center and/or early education center, she said.
Griesemer will deliver the State of the Town statement on Dec. 6. “Government is clunky, but the structures allow every issue to have a body that looks at it,” she said.
Pat DeAngelis, also of District 2, said that she voted against the charter but has come to believe that a council/manager form of government has been beneficial to Amherst. She highlighted the Council’s response to national issues such as racism and climate change.
Shalini Bahl-Milne, of District 5, said that as an immigrant, she has “a unique perspective and I know firsthand what it’s like to be ignored because I look and sound different.” She supported the creation of a BIPOC youth center, and said the Town needs “leadership that’s comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
The library trustee forum featured four of the six candidates: Austin Sarat, Lee Edwards, Farah Ameen and Tamson Ely. The other two candidates, Robert Pam and Alex Lefebvre, submitted statements that moderator Nancy Eddy read.
All six candidates support a “Yes” vote on the ballot question affirming the Town Council’s 10-2 vote in favor of the Jones Library’s expansion and renovation project.
Sarat said he is grateful for the work that prior trustees have done, and is “moved by the spirit of love for the Town and the library.” He called libraries “places of remembrance that preserve our history and help keep that history alive, places where communities are forged, where rich and poor, English Language Learners and native speakers, come together as equals.”
Edwards said that the Friends of the Jones Library has increased its annual fundraising from $80,000 three years ago to $150,000 for the year ending June 30, and a new goal of $170,000 is attainable. She called the Jones “iconic,” and said the renovation project will enable the library to “truly serve the entire community.”
Ely, a retired librarian, said that the question on the ballot represents a “stark choice.” “We either spend money for a new and expanded library” or it continues to waste fossil fuels and provide “no new space to serve our growing community.”
Ameen called the library “an economic anchor of the town.” She said it’s “most crucial for the diverse and less-represented populations in town: single-parent, single- and/or low-income families who rent and don’t have additional resources for books or computers; teens who don’t have extra cash to hang out at coffee shops; immigrants, who are relieved to find their communities so far from home.”
This first statement is from Todd Holland, an Amherst resident with four decades of construction experience who served on the Jones Library Sustainability Committee.
I want to be sure our new library is a financially responsible investment, a step toward sustainability, and a key to honoring our carbon commitment.
Choosing building materials is one of the largest variables in the carbon equation. The baseline design used concrete and steel. But the massive energy inputs required to make and move those materials would have created a huge carbon footprint, one that even a highly efficient building would take decades to erase.
With wood timber construction, the embodied carbon will be less than one-third of the baseline. While far-out solutions to climate change imagine massive machines to capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it underground, this project will take advantage of an existing solution: trees. Trees pull carbon from our atmosphere, and building with wood sequesters that carbon, potentially for centuries.
I know this because my house and garage were built from timbers salvaged from structures built in the 1800’s. The carbon in those timbers was pulled from the atmosphere some 200 years ago and is still sequestered today.
If the library went with the earlier design, it would take 30+ years to offset the embodied carbon with operational savings. The lifetime carbon savings would be 4,500 metric tons. That’s not insignificant, but the project before the voters will do far better.
The proposed Jones Library will save 7,500 metric tons of carbon over its lifetime. Its impressive energy efficiency will enable its low-carbon construction – and the relatively tiny footprint of demolition – to be offset in just over eight years. And from then on it will pay a carbon dividend, year after year.
This second statement is from Sara Draper, director of the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College, a net-zero energy building.
I am glad so many people in Amherst are thinking critically about building sustainability and about how the town should spend its energy and carbon “budget” to best fulfill our climate goals. The energy efficient, low-carbon Jones Library project is exactly where we should be spending those resources.
As a historic preservationist by training and a sustainable design advocate by trade, I was glad to be a part of the Jones Library Sustainability Committee. My litmus test for the Jones Library project was threefold: Does the proposed design improve the energy efficiency of the building without compromising the historic portion? Do the energy efficiency improvements of the new addition outweigh the carbon “cost” of demolition? And does the design help the Town of Amherst meet its sustainability goals? The answer to all these questions is yes.
By replacing the existing (leaky, inefficient) addition with a new high-performance structure, the overall energy efficiency of the Jones Library will improve by 60 percent. The new Library will have an EUI (Energy Use Intensity, a measure of energy use per square foot) of just 29 kBtu/sf/year, compared to the average 71.6 kBtu/sf/year for libraries nationwide. If we wanted to see comparable energy use improvements in the existing building, we’d need to undertake major work, like covering the existing stone walls with exterior insulation. This would drastically compromise the historic integrity of the original Library building, an outcome no one wants.
While these efficiency improvements are attractive, the Sustainability Committee wanted to make sure that the overall carbon impact of the project was positive — in other words, that the demolition and construction project would save more carbon than it emitted. The Sustainability Report put together by Finegold Alexander Architects shows that the overall carbon impact of the new Library would amount to 10,800 tonnes CO 2 eq over a projected 60-year span; this includes the carbon emissions associated with demolition and construction, and the carbon emitted during building operation (heating, cooling, electricity use, etc.). If left as it is, the current Jones Library will emit 18,300 tonnes CO 2 eq over that same 60 years — without the improvements in service and community space the proposed project will bring.
Critics of the project say that the “greenest” thing is to do nothing, to leave the building as it is. But we can’t do nothing. The Library heating and ventilation systems are at the end of their useful life and need to be replaced. Without substantial energy efficiency work to the current structure, the only feasible option would be to replace them with another gas boiler system, a course of action that directly contradicts the town’s goal to reduce fossil fuel use. We indeed cannot “kick the can down the road.” The project will reduce the town’s dependence on fossil fuels, lower the energy costs of the Library, and better provide for the needs of all the town’s residents. That in itself would be enough for me, but I am excited that this project can also provide a valuable example of sustainable historic preservation, an essential component of successful climate action over the next 50 years.
At this point in the climate crisis, there is nothing worse than a missed opportunity. We need to reduce our energy use and associated operational carbon NOW. We need to lead the way in showing how to reduce the embodied carbon of our buildings. The Jones Library renovation and expansion project is the way to do that for the Town of Amherst, today.
Rumors about the referendum on the Jones Library project were smacked down Friday by Library Director Sharon Sharry and other town officials.
One persistent rumor is that if voters affirm the Town Council’s 10-2 vote (with one abstention) to support the project, the library’s trustees plan close the two branches. “Absolutely not,” Sharry said. “The branches are not going anywhere. The trustees are committed to maintaining them. Both buildings are owned by the Town, and the deeds require that libraries be maintained there.”
Town Manager Paul Bockelman added that the rumor makes no sense, because an expansion of the North Amherst Library is already in the planning stages. It will provide a meeting room, accessible bathrooms and a lift, all paid for by an anonymous donor.
Another rumor is that current library staffers will be laid off because the project includes an automatic book handling system. “This will help staff manage increased usage and will perform tasks staff don’t need to do,” Sharry said. “They can then focus on patrons. No staff member is going to lose their job.” She added that this book-sorting system is typical for renovated libraries.
Opponents of the project have speculated that the library project would put approval of funding for a new elementary school in jeopardy. “Our goal is to not pit projects against each other,” Bockelman said.
The $36.3 million library project is funded by a $13.87 million state grant, $15.75 million in borrowed funds approved by the Town Council, $5.6 million in private fundraising and $1 million from the Community Preservation Act. Unlike the school project, it will not require a tax increase.
The debt payments on the borrowed money will not be burdensome because the Town’s indebtedness will drop to near zero in three years, “which is unheard of for an enterprise the size of Amherst,” Bockelman said. He added that interest rates are low and the Town’s bond rating is high.
The library rumors came up at “Cuppa’ Joe,” a program in which Bockleman meets regularly with residents and answers their questions.
The advocates of a “no” vote Nov. 2 have signs that read “Start Over Smart.” Sharry was asked Friday if the library could seek another state grant if voters insist that the current one be rejected and the entire project is reconsidered.
“The mechanical systems are all at the end of their lives, and it’s time for them to be replaced,” she said. The next round of grants would be in eight to 10 years, and Bockelman said that with construction costs rising at 4 percent a year and the possibility of 6 percent interest rates then, the scope of the project would be greatly diminished.
Town Council President Lynn Griesemer said she “struggled” with her position on the library project. But after two years of considering the facts, she was convinced to support it because without the state grant, the Town would have to spend almost as much money on library improvements, without getting an improved building.
“The real choice is ‘Do you want the existing library with the same facade and building, or do you want a modern library?’ Either one has the same cost,” she said.
Another rumor is that demolition of parts of the library would create more greenhouse gases than greatly improved energy efficiency in a renovated building would save. This assertion has been refuted by one energy expert on this blog, and another expert will be writing a post on this topic soon.
Town Council candidate Michele Miller asked how the library was advancing the goal of racial equity. Sharry said that last summer she received a comment that the Jones Library is not welcoming to people of color and is seen by some as a “white space.” “The library’s mission is to provide buildings that provide services that are open to everyone,” she said. “If someone is not comfortable, we are not meeting our mission. The library has never had this conversation, and it’s time we did.”
This equity initiative includes book displays, programming and even art on the walls. The library removed “a big painting of a wealthy white man so it is no longer the first thing people see” when they enter the building, she said.
The library’s endowment is now near $10 million, and trustees spent 4 percent a year to help cover operating expenses, Sharry said.
In other news at Friday’s webinar:
Ken Rosenthal urged that the Town officially celebrate the 200th anniversary of the founding of Amherst College and Hampshire College’s 50th anniversary, both this year;
Bockelman said that the University’s Covid testing program has been extended to the Bangs Community Center, where residents can pick up tests, take them home, drop them in a box and get results in 24 hours;
Asked about participatory budgeting, Bockelman said, “Given the budget restraints, to set aside a significant amount of money is not possible.” He urged residents to submit capital requests on the Town’s web site and come to a forum that will take place before budget priorities are set.
On November 2, Amherst voters will be asked whether they affirm the vote taken by our Town Council on April 5, 2021 to proceed with the Jones Library expansion and renovation project by appropriating and authorizing borrowing of the necessary funds.
In preparation, all voters would do well to read or listen to the remarks that Councilors made immediately before their important April vote, because they lay out the important considerations that were worked through in extensive meetings of the Council, the Finance Committee, the Library Board of Trustees, and public forums. To that end, we are adding a new page, “Councilors’ statements on the Jones Library project,” on which each Councilor’s remarks are fully presented. In the rest of today’s post, we give excerpts in the order in which Councilors spoke at the public meeting.
[Part] of it is an interest-free loan that will be repaid by the Trustees if they can get the pledges. So we have to hope that that will happen, and we have an Memorandum of Understanding [with the Trustees of the Jones Library] that we can tap into the endowment fund or potentially put a lien on the building but really we don’t have this secured. . . What has always concerned me – I love the Library and want it to be renovated. I think it needs repairs but I think it is a high cost risk and no matter how many questions I ask I still have uncertainty that we will actually keep our share to what is. . .
Mandi Jo Hanneke
A yes vote helps us meet the Climate Action Goals we adopted in 2019 by getting rid of the fossil-fuel heating system and dramatically improving the energy efficiency in one of our largest public buildings. A yes vote helps our future economic health and well-being by bringing more visitors to town. A yes vote addresses social justice in our society . . .A yes vote is financially prudent . . . a yes vote ensures that the building will serve our residents over the next 50 years. . .
The fact that our own Finance Committee didn’t make an affirmative recommendation was concerning to me. . . To me, the library expansion is not a need, it’s a want. I am afraid that a vote to fund this major project will convince folks to vote against the school project when the school override vote comes up. . . we need to be factoring in our new goals of racial equity and climate action. . . Additionally, I agree with the suggestion that we should try to design any library expansion or any municipal building so that it also gives our town a climate resilience hub. . .
But climate action goals and a climate action plan are only valuable if they are followed by action. So approving this project would be the most significant action this Council will take on climate. . .This project helps us take a tangible step towards our climate action goals and sends a strong message to our community that we are serious about achieving those goals, whereas forfeiting this opportunity now will only make it more difficult down the road to achieve those adopted goals. . . if you are someone who says “the library works fine as is,” if you are someone who sees this project as a want and not a need, consider that is in part because of your privilege and that maybe this project isn’t for you.
I feel very proud of the work that many people on this Council have done in making us come up with a better plan or helping us to encourage changes in design, and I think that we have come to a place now where it is prudent to go forward. . .[After the pandemic} we are hoping to come together as a civil, social, intellectual, political body again and the library is going to be, I think, the place where we are going to do it. . .So we have this library right in the heart of downtown and we are hoping for a reawakening of our town, of our society and at this moment having gone through the budgets at some point you just have to take things on faith, and I am going to make the leap of faith and trust that the work and the numbers that we have been shown are accurate. . .
One comment was made that the Finance Committee did not make recommendations and something should be read into that, and I want to make it clear that that is absolutely not the case. We were asked not to make a recommendation. . . The reality is that the repair costs are going to be pretty much the same as the cost the town will ultimately have to bear. And . . . I also wanted to respond to the assertion made earlier that we are taking on a huge risk. I don’t think we are taking on a huge risk. . .
Pat De Angelis
I acknowledge that voting yes is taking risks . . .But not doing this project poses risks as well: piecemeal repairs that will cost almost as much as renovation/expansion, losing state funding and losing credibility with state funders, ongoing impacts to English Language Learners, low income residents . . .
Libraries are the most democratic buildings; town commons are also democratic; but libraries literally the most democratic institution invented in this country. . . I want to address one tenet: the greenest building is the one that is already built. Another tenet is – Cash for Clunkers. . . I see this [library project] as a Cash for Clunkers on steroids. It’s something that serves the entire community, it’s all about the social capital as opposed to electric vehicles which are all about the individual. . .
I guess I’m going to go out of this Council speaking for the middle class, which I don’t think anybody has addressed. We’ve heard from people that there are young rich families who would like to settle here and they can pay these taxes and this is what they want. . . So for me, we are looking at these projects and I have to say it seems like we are taking a very expensive one first . . . I am concerned about people being able to stay in town, and I do not believe that middle class people in five years will be able to, and I’m going to vote against the project, much as I love the library. . .
A library today is so much more than a place to house books. It is a key community resource that serves us in so many ways. Much like the Amherst of Samuel Minot Jones’s day, we too are emerging from a global pandemic. Like them, we need now more than ever, as Dorothy suggested, to believe in the future and the possibilities of our town. We cannot be afraid. We need to provide those who come after us the tools they will need to ensure that this town continues to prosper and to flourish. Like Samuel Minot Jones, now is the time for vision and for courage. . .
Two things I want to add to the conversation. One is something that Todd Holland, an engineer, stated earlier – that most of the arguing can lead to inaction and inaction is the only wrong move today. . . Something that Sarah talked about, and we are hearing from a lot of residents, is the high property taxes and the burden this would put. As George has mentioned, we have a plan, and yes it could go off, but we do have one plan. And the other part is the library is part of that vision, it is part of the solution, it is not going to increase our property taxes. We need to solve that problem of high property taxes but not by saying no to the library. . .
While this may come as a surprise to many of you, I began the process of reviewing the Jones Library proposal to the Mass. Board of Library Commissioners as a skeptic. However, after two years of helping to manage the process of bringing this vote to the Town Council, I have become supportive of accepting the MBLC grant, allowing the Jones Library to do a much-needed renovation and expansion. . . I want you to make sure you hear this message loud and clear, let me state it without equivocation, that as long as I have anything to say about it, there will be no more money than what we are voting tonight. This is all you get. And, we will not favor you in future operating budgets. The Town will not allow cost overruns. . .
[I want to share a] direct quote from one of the many emails we have received which I thought summarized things extremely well from my point of view. Which was that to refuse state funds in favor of a patchwork, piecemeal, and partial renovation makes no sense from a financial, environmental, educational, or social justice perspective. . . We are not expecting Friends of the elementary school, Friends of the DPW, or Friends of the fire station to raise a single penny towards any of those facilities. Yet the Friends of the Jones Library has made a large commitment, has already seen quite a bit of results with that commitment even without our vote . . .
What is the Town’s plan for paying for the Jones Library expansion and renovation, a new or renovated elementary school, a new fire station, and a new DPW facility, all to be constructed over the next 10 years? Are we in for huge increases in our property tax bills? How can Amherst afford this infrastructure push? [Answers: Read on, No, and Read on.]
If you are nervous about undertaking so many significant projects, and worried about the Town Council’s appropriation of $35.3 million for just the Jones Library, or if you wonder whether we can build a school if we pursue the library expansion, please read to the end, because you should have a clear understanding of the ballot question you will see on Nov. 2.
First, a quick explanation of the Council’s April 2021 vote to appropriate $35.3 million for the Jones Library renovation and expansion project, which we will be asked to affirm on Nov. 2. Much erroneous information has circulated about that vote, so it is time to set the record straight. Council’s “appropriation” amounts to authorization for the Town to borrow up to that amount of money. The “appropriation and borrowing authorization” language is standard for large construction projects – Town Meeting voted on such matters in the past. In addition, appropriated money is not limited to tax revenue but can include grants, donations, and other funds.
But why would the Town need to borrow $35.3 million, when the ultimate cost to Amherst will be $15.8 million? First, Amherst will probably not borrow that much, but the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), which has granted almost $14 million to the project, asked Town Council to authorize borrowing for the total project cost. Second, because some funding may arrive after the bills are paid (for example, private donations and receipts from the sale of historic tax credits), the Town may need to borrow some money for which it will later be reimbursed. The Town will not be on the hook for a $35.3 million library project. Here is the table showing who will pay what, in the end:
Appropriation & Borrowing Authorization Order FY21-06C
MBLC Grant Contribution $13,871,314
Jones Library Inc. Trustees $ 5,656,576
Town’s share $15,751,810
It is this set of numbers that you will see on the ballot.
But what about the Town’s share, $15.8 million? How will that be paid for? Will it prevent us from undertaking other projects?
Here it is useful to have a basic understanding of the plan developed by the Town’s Finance Department and presented to the Finance Committee and Council in February 2021. Town Council requested that Town staff develop a plan for financing all four major projects in a timely fashion, specifically to learn whether it is feasible for us to undertake them all in a way that voters are likely to support.
The ensuing financing plan (which indeed makes many assumptions) shows that the Town can afford to build the four projects without severely constraining our public services or ability to fund smaller capital projects such as sidewalk repairs and snowplow purchases, or by unreasonably burdening taxpayers. Basically, the plan is to borrow funds for three of the projects (Jones Library, Fire/EMS station, and a DPW facility) and to pay off the debt over time from our existing revenue streams, including grants and donations; only for a school project will taxes be raised for a limited time. We may have a couple of years of tight budgets, to be sure, as the projects begin, but several factors will work in our favor:
Low interest rates for loans overall,
The Town’s strong bond rating and financial record, which let us borrow at advantageous rates,
The Town’s strong cash reserves (i.e., savings), which can ease some of the early spikes in debt payments and, if necessary, contribute towards annual operating budgets,
Very low levels of Town debt currently, which will be entirely paid off within a few years,
Continued new growth in taxable real estate, which raises annual revenue and spreads excluded debt over more taxpayers,
Imposition of cost caps on each project, so that we know in advance what our total payments of principal will be,
Disciplined policy of directing a portion of property tax revenue to capital expenditures,
Conservative annual budgeting, which means that the Town typically has cash on hand at the end of the fiscal year that can be placed in reserve.
For a new elementary school, the financing plan envisions a debt exclusion override for the Town’s contribution (approximately half of the total cost will be contributed by the Massachusetts School Building Authority). This type of override raises property taxes only for the period while the debt is paid off; it does not permanently raise property taxes. Why an override for the school borrowing? Because voters approved an override for an elementary school project in 2016, and a majority of voters (but not the required 2/3) again supported the override after Town Meeting would not agree to the necessary borrowing, planners feel they are likely to support an override in the next year or so.
Delaying projects any further is likely to cost us more in the end, or give us less for the same price. The Finance Director, Sean Mangano, noted that an elementary school project, when it finally begins, will cost us substantially more than the project that was rejected several years ago. He also noted that continued delays require us to spend large sums on repairs to buildings that are at the end of their useful lives. The Town also should get the present projects completed and paid off before other parts of its infrastructure need to be significantly renovated or rebuilt several decades from now.
From a fiscal standpoint alone then, prudence demands that we voters stop arguing over design details, agree to compromise, and step up to our civic responsibility to maintain our public infrastructure, parts of which have deteriorated to dangerous and shameful degree. We need to say “Yes” on Nov. 2 to affirm Council’s vote to proceed with the Jones Library project and “Yes” in a year or so when a debt exclusion for the elementary school is put on the ballot. Financially, there is no better time to undertake this work.
[Note: You can find more information about the plan by clicking on the “Overview of the Four Major Capital Projects” page on the “Town Government 101” drop-down menu on this website.]
[Editors’ note: Laura presented these comments at a public forum on the Jones Library expansion and renovation project in March; they are reprinted here with permission, in advance of the Nov. 2 election when we will be asked to affirm Town Council’s vote to approve the project. We have edited the comments lightly. Laura is chair of the Energy and Climate Action Committee but spoke on her own behalf, not for ECAC.]
The combustion of fossil fuels to create energy is the main cause of climate change and pollution that severely impacts human health and our environment. In Massachusetts, a third of our energy-related climate change-causing emissions are due to burning fossil fuels (primarily natural gas) in buildings. In fact, Massachusetts is one of ten states that account for more than 50% of climate emissions from buildings nation-wide (RMI, 2020). If we are going to be successful in reducing our contributions to climate change, we need to work quickly and efficiently to get fossil fuels out of our buildings. It will not be easy.
So, with all due respect to the author of the often-quoted “the most sustainable building is the one that already exists,” this is not true when the existing building relies on fossil fuel. Our town libraries account for nearly 20% of the natural gas used by our municipal buildings (Amherst 2016 GHG Inventory, Figure 20). This is natural gas that not only emits carbon pollution in our town when used, but that leaks even more potent methane emissions as it is piped across the country. Natural gas extraction has ruined water supplies, landscapes, and lives.
The good news is that right now we have an opportunity to vote “yes” to state funding that will allow us to move the Jones Library away from natural gas. Not only that, but this funding will allow us to create a library more conducive to public use, with better temperature control, healthier air, and improved plumbing. Furthermore, we will be able to create a library that will finally be accessible and functional for a larger portion of our community. This feels like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the town to tick off so many boxes.
Just moving away from natural gas is a huge climate win in my book. But in addition to moving from natural gas and significantly reducing the energy use of the Jones Library (even with the larger size), the design for renovation and expansion of this building also considers the climate impacts of the building materials and construction. This is in recognition of the fact that new materials do have an environmental impact, and we need to make sure the new design has a lower climate footprint than the current library. It will.
Could this design go further in addressing climate concerns? Sure, and this is true of any design aiming to solve many problems and please as many people as possible. Perhaps the current design could save even more energy with a different approach to day lighting, or maybe some of the operational savings due to a more efficient building could be reserved to fund another climate action in town. These are all things that can be discussed and debated after voting yes and accepting the state funding. Do not throw away this opportunity by letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Each year we continue to operate the Jones Library as-is, we emit more pollution and saddle the future generation of Amherst with a more expensive problem. I feel strongly that voting “no” on this project is a vote against climate action and will negatively impact our town’s ability to meet our climate action goals, going against the needs and desires of many in town.
Last night, Town Council voted to put the Jones Library project on the Nov. 2 ballot. The ballot question will be, in essence, do you affirm Town Council’s vote of Apr. 5 to proceed with the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library? The exact language, including the approved summary, appears below. And remember that you can learn about the project at the Jones Library page under Town Government 101 in our menu.
The following referendum question will appear on the November 2, 2021 Ballot.
QUESTION: Shall the following measure authorizing a borrowing for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library, as voted by the Town Council on April 5, 2021, be affirmed?
BE IT ORDERED by the Town Council of the Town of Amherst that: The Town appropriate $35,279,700 for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library, and to meet this appropriation, authorize the Treasurer, with the approval of the Town Manager, to borrow said amount, under and pursuant to M.G.L. Chapter 44, Section 7, 8, or pursuant to any other enabling authority, and to issue bonds or notes of the Town therefore, which borrowing shall be reduced to the extent of any grants received from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, funds received from The Jones Library, Incorporated in an amount no less than $5,656,576 which, in addition to the $1,000,000 previously appropriated under the Community Preservation Act, represents the Library’s share of the total project cost, and/or any other source to pay costs of this project; and, further, any premium received by the Town upon the sale of any bonds or notes approved by this vote, less any such premium applied to costs of issuance of such bonds or notes, may be applied to project costs approved by this vote with a reduction of borrowing authority therefore by a like amount in accordance with M.G.L. Chapter 44, Section 20.
SUMMARY: On April 5, 2021, the Town Council voted with 10 in favor, 2 opposed, and 1 abstention, to authorize a borrowing for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has awarded the Town a grant of approximately $13.8 million for this project with payments starting this year; approximately $5.7 million will be provided through private donations as set forth in an agreement with the Jones Library Board of Trustees; and $1.0 million was appropriated from the Community Preservation Act funds. With these funds secured, the Town’s share of the total project costs will be approximately $15.8 million. A “yes” vote on this question means that you affirm the Council’s vote to fund the Library expansion and renovation project and want the project to continue. A “no” vote means that you reject the Council’s vote to fund the Library expansion and renovation project and do not want the project to continue.
The sad state of the main Jones Library facility and its inability to meet the needs of the 227,000 people who visit it each year have been apparent for more than a decade.
On April 5, 2021, members of the Town Council, empowered by Amherst’s new Charter and chosen in contested elections, overwhelmingly (10-2) approved a solution that would meet those needs at a cost to the Town of $15.8 million. Most of those voting for the project were elected on a platform that included support for it.
This solution was proposed by the Library Trustees, also elected by the voters of Amherst, including in two contested elections where slates of candidates who opposed it were defeated.
This decision came after a decade of planning, listening, revising, and innumerable presentations to those Trustees, their Feasibility Committee, their Sustainability Committee (charged with recommending features to make the building environmentally friendly), Town Meeting, the Historical Commission, the Community Preservation Act Committee, the Finance Committee, and the Town Council.
Everyone had an opportunity to be heard during this long process, and those who commented to the Town Council overwhelmingly voiced their support.
It is difficult to imagine an outcome arrived at with more legitimacy in a representative democracy.
The Council made its decision because the project, in a fiscally responsible way, solves a daunting problem of a central component of the Town’s civic infrastructure that has been neglected for too long.
The project will provide the spaces needed each year for the: * 16,000 hours of ESL tutoring that take place in the Library, serving the 22% of Amherst’s residents in whose home a language other than English is spoken; * 25,000 times the library computer workstations are used by those who do not have access to one, serving the 27% of Amherst’s residents in poverty; * 1,000 times a library meeting room is requested to support the Town’s unique civic life; * Programs for the 7,200 children and 5,000 adults who come to the library because it is the center of Amherst’s community; especially programs for teens who have no space of their own to attract them to the library; * All in addition to the lending of 450,000 books, CDs, DVDs, magazines, musical instruments, eReaders, puppets, kits, etc.
The project will make one of the most used Town facilities accessible to those with physical limitations. It will also welcome those who are new to its library culture and are mystified by the present building’s rabbit warren of confusingly hard-to-find spaces, some of which feel uncomfortably unsafe.
It will preserve and restore one of the Town’s historic landmarks (including spaces in the original 1928 building not now accessible to the public), and provide secure protection for all of the holdings of the internationally recognized Special Collections – presently at risk from the building’s ancient HVAC system.
It will make the entire building one of the most climate-friendly in Town.
The cost to the Town is NOT $35.3 million. The state Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners has committed $13.8 million to the project and the Library Trustees have pledged to raise $6.6 million (guaranteed by their $9 million endowment).
The net $15.8 million cost to the Town is approximately the same as a detailed, professional estimate of the cost to do only basic repairs required by almost 30 years of deferred maintenance, including bringing the building into required compliance with accessibility codes. Doing nothing is not an option. The Town must spend this amount if it wants to use the building for its library, and such amount, then, is not available for other purposes. For the same cost, the benefits of the proposed project could hardly stand in greater contrast.
The MBLC is ready to send the Town the first $2.7 of its $13.8 million grant; 100 early donors are ready to send the first payments on their pledges which total almost $1 million; $1 million in CPA funds are waiting to be used, and a Capital Campaign Committee is ready to resume its fundraising for the $6.6 million portion of the cost of the project. And, of course, the cost of the project continues to escalate as more time is wasted.
The Jones Library project should be allowed to proceed as soon as possible.