Amherst Council increases borrowing for Jones Library project by $10M, some call it the ‘most trying’ vote they’ve had

Jones Library Director Sharon Sharry, left, leads a tour in  October for the UMass landscape architecture sophomore studio class. The Amherst Town Council on Monday  agreed to increase the borrowing authorization by $10 million for the expansion and renovation of the library. After the vote, which puts the project at an estimated  $46.1 million, there was extended applause from supporters, and hugs and well wishes for Sharry.

Jones Library Director Sharon Sharry, left, leads a tour in October for the UMass landscape architecture sophomore studio class. The Amherst Town Council on Monday agreed to increase the borrowing authorization by $10 million for the expansion and renovation of the library. After the vote, which puts the project at an estimated $46.1 million, there was extended applause from supporters, and hugs and well wishes for Sharry. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Jones Library Director Sharon Sharry, left, leads a tour in  October for the UMass landscape architecture sophomore studio class. The Amherst Town Council on Monday  agreed to increase the borrowing authorization by $10 million for the expansion and renovation of the library. After the vote, which puts the project at an estimated  $46.1 million, there was extended applause from supporters, and hugs and well wishes for Sharry.

Jones Library Director Sharon Sharry, left, leads a tour in October for the UMass landscape architecture sophomore studio class. The Amherst Town Council on Monday agreed to increase the borrowing authorization by $10 million for the expansion and renovation of the library. After the vote, which puts the project at an estimated $46.1 million, there was extended applause from supporters, and hugs and well wishes for Sharry. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

A rendering of the new Jones Library from the front, looking west.

A rendering of the new Jones Library from the front, looking west. FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

A rendering of the new Jones Library from the front, looking east.

A rendering of the new Jones Library from the front, looking east. FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

This image shows what a barrel-vaulted reading room would look like in the renovated and expanded Jones Library.

This image shows what a barrel-vaulted reading room would look like in the renovated and expanded Jones Library. FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

A rendering of the second floor in the renovated and expanded Jones Library.

A rendering of the second floor in the renovated and expanded Jones Library. FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

This image shows the circulation area in the renovated and expanded Jones Library.

This image shows the circulation area in the renovated and expanded Jones Library. FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

A rendering of the rear view of the new Jones Library.

A rendering of the rear view of the new Jones Library. FINEGOLD ALEXANDER ARCHITECTS

By SCOTT MERZBACH

Staff Writer

Published: 12-26-2023 6:12 PM

AMHERST — Calling it their hardest, most difficult and most trying vote, the Town Council is increasing the borrowing authorization for the expansion and renovation of the Jones Library to $46.1 million.

But before they voted on Monday to amend the supplemental appropriation from April 5, 2021, adding almost $10 million to the original $36.3 million appropriation, some councilors worried that the long-debated project may be too big for the town and could jeopardize other community needs. Councilors voted 12-0, with member Ellisha Walker abstaining, in favor of the amendment.

Despite the increase, the town’s commitment to the project remains unchanged at $15.8 million.

“Except for increased interest rates, this project is not costing the town any more than originally planned,” said Council President Lynn Grisemer, who spoke just before the final vote. Griesemer also restated a comment she made 2½ years earlier. “I said then to the library trustees, and I repeat it now: this is all you’re getting, as long as I have a say, and I’m only one vote,” she said.

But Griesemer said there has been significant fundraising from the capital campaign, support from the state, including about $15.6 million in two allotments from the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners — an initial $13.8 million grant and an additional $1.69 million “pandemic escalation” money. The project has also secured $1 million in grants from Amherst College and the National Endowment for the Humanities. She also observed that no Proposition 2½ debt-exclusion vote was needed for the project.

Town Room at Town Hall was filled for the vote, largely with supporters, as well as the team that has led the capital campaign, including campaign manager Ginny Hamilton, and those co-chairing the campaign, trustee Lee Edwards and Kent Faerber. Library Director Sharon Sharry was also in the room for the vote, with an extended applause for the Town Council’s action, and then Sharry receiving hugs and well wishes.

Following the vote, Trustees President Austin Sarat thanked the councilors for their thoughtful deliberations and support of the plan to enlarge the building from 48,000 square feet to 63,000 square feet. The building opened in 1928, with the last addition completed in 1993.

“If (Town) Council had not amended the borrowing cap, the project could not proceed, and we would have forfeited over $23 million in public and private funding commitments,” Sarat said. “The council’s action allows us to move to the next phase of the project, soliciting construction bids and then breaking ground.”

‘High risks’ in vote

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The vote came several weeks after Town Manager Paul Bockelman notified the Town Council about the need to increase the borrowing authorization. A revised memorandum of agreement, with the trustees pledging to cover any shortfalls, offers protections to the town.

Still, District 1 Councilor Cathy Schoen described the “high risks” associated with voting for or against the project, with a $7.4 million gap remaining and trustees potentially tapping the Jones Inc. endowment. But Schoen said there is no way to pivot to doing just building repairs and asbestos abatement.

“I must say I would have preferred a more affordable project than the one that’s proposed, but its origin was way before the council was elected,” Schoen said. “So this is the project we have before us.”

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam described supporters of the project as stiff-necked and unwilling to make trade offs, such as eliminating the book sorter machine that could spoil the director’s historic office. Still, Pam was resigned to the idea that there is no better option. “The main problem has been the lack of any give on the plan,” Pam said.

While Walker didn’t elaborate on her abstention, she said she was torn on which way to vote. “I’m apprehensive about the financial implications and the risk associated with moving forward under the current circumstances, but I also understand the challenges and concerns of a scaled-back version,” Walker said.

The scale and size was also troubling to District 4 Councilor Pamela Rooney, noting she envies people who don’t have a pile of antacids to consume thinking about their votes.

“It’s more than double the size of the new library in Greenfield,” Rooney said. “I hold the MBLC heavily responsible for this, especially after seeing so many other towns in the commonwealth having to give up their projects” because they recognized they couldn’t afford them.

District 3 Councilor Jennifer Taub, too, said she has misgivings about the project and its physical size, and that her “yes” vote was conflicted.

“It’s always felt a bit like a classic case of the dog wagging the tail, that in order to secure state funding, Amherst is being compelled to build a much larger library than it needs,” Taub said. She also criticized what she contends has been “demolition by neglect” of the building.

District 5 Councilor Ana Devlin Gauthier said that the project could unify the community, providing a community hub, a humanities center and a climate friendly building.

“The council is a significant steward of the future of our community,” Devlin Gauthier said. “I plan to support this project in the spirit of that responsibility.”

District 4 Councilor Anika Lopes said the project is a great opportunity to have a building where representation matters.

“I do think that acknowledging that this is a very expensive project, this will actually add avenues for those who otherwise couldn’t afford services that are going to be in the Jones Library,” Lopes said.

Community weighs in

Many from the community spoke about the pros and cons of the project.

Khama Ennis of Lincoln Avenue said the town has a well thought-out plan that was approved by majority of voters when brought to a vote in November 2021. Ennis said her family of color, including two teen daughters, appreciates the expansion and renovation.

“As they enter their teen years, in middle school and high school, having a dedicated space for them to go that is safe after school and spend time with their friends is essential,” Ennis said.

Her daughter, Lena, a seventh grader, told the councilors that she expects the new Jones Library to be an amazing space to build community and connections.

David Lithgow of Morgan Circle said nearly 100 years ago the Jones Library founders had a remarkable vision.

“Their vision was realized, and I urge you now, in their shoes, to be bold,” Lithgow said. “We have a vision in front of us which I feel strongly that you feel compelled to realize. I thank you in advance for voting to go forward with this project.”

“The library is a gem, but it’s a flawed gem, and it doesn’t adequately serve everyone in our town, and it’s not a building that’s prepared for the future,” said Erica Zekos of Hulst Road.

Others cautioned councilors.

Helena Donovan of Jeffrey Lane, a longtime user, said the Jones is already a beautiful building and suggested the project is too large and could compromise other building projects, such as a new South Amherst fire station, and roads and sidewalks.

“I’ve never found that it’s been too crowded, though, also I find that we have lots of other priorities in Amherst,” Donovan said.

Gabriel Davila of Chapel Road said the project could make Amherst a more expensive place to live.

“For many people, it contributes to the cost of living crisis that we see ravaging our nation and our community, as well,” Davila said.

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