North Amherst Library: Needed Improvements Supersede Public Process

Mandi Jo Hanneke

The North Amherst Library needs improvements. I don’t think anyone in town would disagree.

But should those improvements be a top priority? Are they so dire that they need to jump to the head of the long list of capital projects? Are the improvements so critical that it’s necessary to skip the public input and planning process?

Town Meeting apparently thinks so, because that’s exactly what they approved last Monday. 

A group of residents who call themselves “Friends of the North Amherst Library” and headed by former Library Trustee Pat Holland brought a petition article to Town Meeting seeking $50,000 for design work for capital improvements.

By bringing this article to Town Meeting directly, they avoided the entire capital planning process. Yes, Amherst has a capital planning process. Elected and appointed officials evaluate proposals based on need, exigency, health and safety issues, and cost. Then they come up with a plan for the Town,  a plan that weighs the proposed projects against each other.

This is a process that the Charter Commission heard works very well and should be maintained (we did). The passage of the article not only avoided the process but caused one project to leapfrog all other projects, no matter how much more critical or necessary those other projects are.

The other process the Friends of the North Amherst Library skipped was public input.

The article specified exactly what the design work had to include: a publicly accessible bathroom, an elevator that would provide access to all three levels of the library, the doubling of publicly accessible space inside the existing building, an accessible ground floor entrance at the rear of the building, the finishing of the third floor into a meeting space, the preservation of trees at the back of the library, a sidewalk, and the ignoring of potential upgrades and redesign of the intersection the library sits on.1

Those are some very specific design criteria, some of which are obvious.

When asked what process the petitioners went through, Holland stated that Friends of the North Amherst Library “has been meeting together now for close to a year, maybe nine months, something like that. And sort of brainstorming what we would like to have in that library besides the most obvious thing, which is accessibility.” She did not identify any outreach to the Library Trustees, non-members of the “Friends,” the English as a Second Language program, or even patrons of the library, even though she had the chance to.

A forum on the North Amherst Intersection. The type of public input the North Amherst Library deserved but didn’t get.

This design is what the Friends of the North Amherst Library want. But no one knows who they are or how many of them there are.

The Friends didn’t consult the board the residents of Amherst elected to do this type of planning: the Library Trustees.  They didn’t allow time for any public input or feedback. As far as I know, they didn’t even consult the ESL program heads about the need for ESL conversation rooms in the library before they included them in the initial draft (they were removed later, maybe because the ESL program doesn’t want them).

Why is this a problem? Well, the article specifies that the third floor must be a meeting room. Maybe the first floor is a better location for a meeting room? Maybe the third floor would be better suited as a children’s area? The article doesn’t allow for that type of flexibility.

Don’t get me wrong. I support the petition process. The Friends did what they needed to do to bring this matter to the attention of the town officials. That’s exactly what they should do. But then, Town Meeting should have recognized that the process should be followed and all residents should have a chance at input before spending money on a design. The Select Board and the Trustees wanted it referred to them for this exact reason. Town Meeting should have supported that.

This article was drafted by a small number of people based upon what they want, not what the town’s residents want.  In some legislatures, the passage of this article by superseding the typical public process would be called pork — a pet project that avoids the traditional cycles, processes, and safeguards in order to reward particular constituencies with what they want, not what is necessarily in the best interests of the town.

The residents of Amherst, and especially all users of the North Amherst Library, deserve the chance to have input in what they want in their branch libraries. The petition article took that chance away from them by mandating specific things for the library, without actually holding any forums, listening sessions or calls for ideas. That’s neither what our residents expect nor what they deserve.


1The original petition also included a requirement that the design include two ESL tutoring rooms. That requirement was removed from the article when the motion was made.

Comments 10

  1. A petition article before the Town Meeting is democracy in action. When a plan has been developed, it will have to go through the approval process, and any pet peeves about the process can be aired then.

    The North Amherst Library was built in the 1880’s, back before indoor plumbing was common, except in high priced buildings. It has been there and served the townspeople for about 130 years, and some people think its time for it to have indoor plumbing, especially since the outdoor facilities have been removed.

    1. “Democracy in action” and then the adults on boards and committees can clean it up. A resolution from Town Meeting would have accomplished a lot. Instead, Town Meeting insisted on spending taxpayer dollars.

  2. Spending $50,000 for what is essentially a feasibility study would get valuable information to the town about actual design and construction costs. Such a study would not prioritize the construction it would just prioritize the gathering of input on design and costs. Sounds actually like the right first step.

    When a designer is given a preliminary design program, it is like giving a chef a recipe. To suggest that this preliminary program rules out input from the community is not accurate.

  3. When you give a chef a recipe, he/she will consider the cost of the meal, what is already in the refrigerator, the dietary restrictions of the diners, etc. etc. The chef will not tell you that you cannot eat anything else until you have eaten their concoction. That is the best analogy I can think of for why spending $50k on the preliminary design for the North Amherst library is reasonable and not superseding town processs.

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      You’re comparison isn’t quite accurate. If the NAL warrant article was for a feasibility study, I would agree with you. But it wasn’t. It was for spending $50,000 to pay an architect for a design/renovation of the building that includes specific things. When the Town Manager was asked what the bid documents would look like, he responded that the bid documents would ask for a design that meets the criteria in the article–no more, no less. The warrant article doesn’t include studying the library to see what it needs or asking the patrons or other interested parties to see what they want (that would be a feasibility study). The warrant article presumes we know all of that and now we need a design. That’s the problem with it–it skipped all of the typical “feasibility” items that precede drawing up a design, instead substituting the judgment of a group of people for what they “need” in the library.

  4. The language of the warrant article had flexibility. It did list a number of items to look at but said it “was not limited to” just those items. BTW: Laura Fitch is an architect. And Town Meeting actually is the only government body that can authorize the spending of tax dollars (for those that don’t realize that the committees and boards in our town government do not have this power.)

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      Yes, as Gerry also points out “not limited to” but must include that 3rd floor meeting room, even if the third floor is not the best location for it.

  5. I see many good points being discussed here. One point that needs underlining is that the North Amherst Library is not accessible for people with physical disabilities and never has been. Amherst has had many years to address this problem and hasn’t done so. This $50,000 study will finally kick start the process. Disability access is invisible to many; until I became involved with the Amherst Disability Access Advisory Board in 2004, I was quite ignorant about the every day needs of people with disabilities. …..doorways, weights of doors, no ramps but stairs (anyone notice the entrance to the new downtown information center?) sidewalks full of heaving bricks and broken cement, crosswalks that look like they were bombed, handicapped parking filled with snow in the winter, and I could go on. Disability access often gets the “we can’t afford that right now, but we agree it’s important” status. The result for disabled people is “entrance denied”. Town Meeting stood up for disability access. For me it was a living example of why we need to keep Town Meeting. The members of Town Meeting represent the wishes and values of everyone in town. Town Halls can and do become insulated from the residents as a whole.
    Yes, an architect will be bound to examine every detail listed in the warrant article. They will also have a free hand to explore any other aspects they feel should be explored. Mr. Bockelman actually misspoke, as do you, about the range of the contract. It is not limited to only what the warrant article lists specifically, not a “no more, no less” scenario you describe above Mandy. Here is the language of the article…………”, to include, but not be limited to, making the following significant improvements to the North Amherst Library, ” Any architect worth their weight will know what to do with that language. This study will move the process forward on what can be done to make the building accessible and how much it will cost to do so. Some aspects may have to be jettisoned. We won’t know until the study is completed. And awarding a contract to an architect in no way stops a public process from occurring. There will have to be a building committee and their will have to be a public process. Step 1 has finally been taken.

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      There is a “no less” issue, because the warrant article says it must include all that is listed, including that 3rd floor meeting room, whether or not that is the best location for a meeting room. If the article had only stated that the design shall include bring the building up to ADA code for entrance and accessibility and adding bathrooms, I would likely have been a proponent of it. But, it included locations of sidewalks, mandating a 3rd floor meeting room, etc., that went beyond making the building accessible. It’s that process, the inclusion of items that don’t just make the building an accessible building that are problematic and really circumvented the public process. A small group of people decided that a 3rd floor meeting space was necessary without consulting anyone else, including other users of the building. That’s a lack of public process that can’t be fixed because the article that was passed requires that the 3rd floor be used as a meeting space.

  6. I agree with the “no less” issue and I also agree it would have been better had the article not been as specific as it was. However, what I said above is not negated by these agreements or your comments. If you remember, in TM, Chris Riddle spoke of the article being a good start and his seeing no reason not to go forward. I contacted him after town meeting to ask him more about the specificity of the article. He wrote the following and said I could quote him:

    >” Yes, the architect does a lot more than address the specific programmatic requirements, like the ones in the warrant article. Often un-anticipated issues become evident during the process, as follows:
    > .
    > The architect would have to make a good faith effort to meet those programmatic requirements. Typically, she/he would then present, at an early point, a design or designs, meeting those requirements, likely with a ballpark construction figure for each. If Owner was happy with one or several of them and the budget cost figure, perhaps with some commentary, then the architect would adjust one of them to meet the commentary, and that would be the design, which the architect would develop further. If the Owner wasn’t happy within any of the designs or the budget, the architect would be sent back to the drawing board
    > And back and forth until a design and budget acceptable to the Owner settled to the top. This might or might not involve some relaxation or adjustment by the Owner of one or more of the programmatic requirements.
    > It’s not necessarily a perfectly linear process. There is often some moving one step forward and two steps back.
    > So, in answer to your question, the programmatic requirements are often informed by the design process and adjusted during the design process “

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