Amherst Town Meeting Votes to Spend $50,000 on Architectural Study of North Amherst Library: Boards Criticized for Neglect of Building’s Problems

After decades of functioning without a public restroom, water fountain or a wheelchair-friendly entryway, the North Amherst Library will be studied for improvements.

Amherst’s tiny first public library, dating to 1893, is on the state and national registers of historic places. It longtime lack of adequate public facilities prompted a resident, Terry Johnson, to pay privately for a port-a-potty there last summer while a children’s reading program was underway.

A Town Meeting article which passed last night was brought by citizen petitioners, including Patricia Holland of Precinct 1, a former president of the Jones Library Board of Trustees. The petitioners convinced a majority that $50,000 should be spent on a design for improving the North Amherst Library, and renovating its attic and basement for public use.  After extensive discussion, the proposal passed with 100 Yes Votes, 73 No Votes, and five abstentions.

The Select Board unsuccessfully moved to refer the matter to itself and the Jones trustees, who govern Amherst’s public libraries. Select Board member Jim Wald said the North Amherst Library is “a beloved institution” but plans to improve it should go through regular channels. “Process exists for very specific reasons … there’s a long list of things that need to get done,” he said.

However, several Amherst residents countered that the North Amherst Library’s problems were known for decades, and town boards failed to act.

“For the 34 years I’ve lived in this town, I’ve been waiting for something to happen at this library,” said Alan Root of Precinct 5. Michael Greenebaum of Precinct 6 said he began wishing for improvements to the library in 1970, while principal of the former Mark’s Meadow Elementary School.

Questions also were raised about whether the Jones trustees, or the Town of Amherst itself, is responsible for the building.

Last July, the town bought the Village Auto Service parcel behind the North Amherst Library, amid plans to improve the Sunderland Road and Montague Road intersection. Town Manager Paul Bockelman said last night that “new opportunities are available” for the library because of that purchase. “This is something we can look at again,” he said.

However, Molly Turner of Precinct 1 argued that the citizen petition was legitimate. “This is something that we as citizens … have a right to do,” she said.

Jones Library Trustee Christopher Hoffman of Precinct 7 said action would be taken if the matter was turned over to his board. “This is not going to be thrown under the rug,” he said. Trustee Alexandra Lefebvre of Precinct 10  said the North Amherst Library has had accessibility issues for “far, far too long,” and she appreciated petitioners bringing the issue forward. However, Lefebvre said the specific design elements cited needed further consideration.

Once the project is put out to bid and a contract awarded, an architect will design a plan to:

  • Make all three floors accessible by elevator, while limiting impact on historic features and two adjacent large maple trees
  • Provide a fully accessible bathroom and water fountain
  • Develop a heating & cooling system which is climate conscious and smaller than the existing oil system
  • At least double the available public space
  • Add a rear sidewalk which could connect to a possible accessible ground-floor entryway
  • Provide two or more rooms for English as A Second Language study and conversation, each accommodating two people
  • Finish and furnish the unfinished attic space for use for public meetings and readings
  • Assume no change in the present routing of Sunderland Road

Holland said the library’s seven front steps are not accessible by wheelchair, and that librarians have brought books out to people who cannot get inside.  “The only way to have access for the disabled will be by an elevator,” she said.

The funds for the study will be taken from the town’s free cash fund, which now holds about $3.8 million.  Once a design is complete and an estimate established, funding would have to be approved for the renovation to take place.  Community Preservation Act funds could be tapped.

Records show that the North Amherst Library cost $2,095 when it was built, and that an architect who designed it was paid $25, Holland said.

The Spectator of Amherst welcomes your comments and clarifications, and submission of well-reasoned opinion columns. Marla Goldberg-Jamate is a Precinct 7 Town Meeting member, and voted in favor of the North Amherst Library improvements study.  This article may be updated with further information.

One thought on “Amherst Town Meeting Votes to Spend $50,000 on Architectural Study of North Amherst Library: Boards Criticized for Neglect of Building’s Problems

  1. Thanks, Marla, for this lucid account!

    As one of the petitioners, I’d have voted for this Article if a Town Meeting member. Yet I’d say that Town Meeting’s well-informed, thoughtful, multi-faceted deliberation about accessibility for the North Amherst Library, and about Amherst citizens’ right to bring the Article, show just as much as the vote why Amherst must keep our present Charter with our Town Meeting.

    Every member of the Select Board voted ‘no.’

    The proposed, new Charter would however jettison our 240-member Town Meeting and 5-member Select Board, and replace them with a single, all-powerful “Town Council” of just 13 members.

    Granted, last night’s vote was for the architect’s design only. Town Hall must still let the contract for that, and we still must come up with the project’s cost when we know it.

    If we’d had that all-powerful “Town Council” last night, however, I wonder how many more decades even the first step toward getting a public rest room in the public North Amherst Library might take.


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