The problems of Amherst’s elementary school buildings are widely known, and town officials have been trying to locate a fire station in South Amherst for at least 35 years. But the physical problems of two other public buildings have been less publicized. In this blog post, Nick Grabbe addresses the problems at the Department of Public Works building, and Kent Faerber looks at the Jones Library’s issues.
There is a public building that is twice as old as the elementary schools, and its employees – whose work touches every Amherst resident, every day – are also affected by poor conditions.
It’s the Department of Public Works building off South Pleasant Street. The 45 employees handle many vital public services: water, roads, sidewalks, sewers, snowplowing, trees, parks, trash, recycling and more.
A new DPW building is estimated to cost $38 million. Over the next few months, the Town Council will be working on a plan to prioritize its replacement, along with a new elementary school and fire station and Jones Library improvements, and how to pay the costs without unduly burdening taxpayers.
“You can’t walk into the DPW building – a 100-year-old converted trolley barn – without seeing that it does not meet the needs of a modern Department of Public Works,” says Town Manager Paul Bockelman. “More importantly, our DPW employees – all Town and School employees – should have a safe, healthy, and decent workplace.”
Like Fort River School, the roof at the DPW leaks when it rains. The building doesn’t have a fire alarm, sprinkler system or carbon monoxide detector, says Superintendent Guilford Mooring. The truck maintenance areas have no ventilation, and employees who have to breathe the exhaust have been found to have high iron levels in their blood, he said.
The building itself, which dates from 1916 and has had only additions since then, has structural cracks and needs repointing. It’s not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The building is “obsolete,” Mooring says.
The DPW uses and maintains about 50 vehicles, many of which have to be stored outside, which cuts their life span, Mooring says. The goal is to have every vehicle covered.
Some vehicles and employees are based in a building across from the high school track. The vehicles are “subject to vandalism,” Mooring says, and the goal is to have all the operations at one site.
Finding a new home for the DPW is important to town officials for another reason. Its site on South Pleasant Street is seen as ideal for a new fire station in the southern part of town. Town officials have been trying to solve this problem for at least 35 years.
Because the Town owns the DPW site, there are no expensive land acquisition costs for a fire station. It’s on a major north-south road, and fire trucks and ambulances could greatly reduce the amount of time it takes to get to emergencies in the southernmost part of town. It’s also just a few minutes from downtown.
The site of a new DPW building isn’t as important as it is for a new fire station or school building. It could go anywhere, though it would help if the site is town-owned and if it doesn’t increase the amount of driving that the trucks have to do. Numerous sites have been proposed, including the Ruxton gravel pit in North Amherst, the old landfill off Belchertown Road, and land on Henry and Strong Streets, Mooring said.
And, also unlike a school, a new DPW building could be built in stages, and could even survive with some temporary structures, Mooring said.
An old TV commercial featured an auto mechanic who was giving bad news to a customer. “You can pay me now, or you can pay me later,” he said. As with the school buildings, inaction with DPW comes at a heavy cost, in terms of repairs and the escalating costs of their eventual replacement.
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While much attention has been paid to the condition of the Wildwood and Fort River Schools, the Jones Library is just as desperately in need of work. It suffers from a litany of problems that require immediate attention just to keep it operational. A professional estimate indicates that it will cost $10 million to remedy these. Substantial additional amounts would then have to be expended to comply with disability access requirements that would be triggered by such repairs. The Town can expect no support from other sources to cover these costs.
Alternatively, the Trustees of the Library have proposed a renovation/expansion plan that will address all of these problems, and give Amherst the 21st-century library it deserves. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts is willing to contribute close to $14 million toward the cost of this project, and the Trustees believe they can raise an additional $6 million from private sources.
That leaves the Town’s remaining contribution at $16 million, not much more than the costs incurred with basic repairs. For the extra several million dollars over what the Town must spend, whether the project goes forward or not, it will get a state-of-the art library that will last it far longer than a repaired present building – surely one of the most cost-effective investments the Town has ever made.
The basic repairs required:
* The skylight in the atrium has leaked since construction and is hugely energy-inefficient – hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It cannot be repaired and must be redesigned;
* The south elevator must be replaced. Those who have enjoyed its groaning complaints can appreciate why;
* The HVAC systems are at the end of their life-cycle and inefficient. This is particularly true for the separate system for Special Collections, which attempts to protect the Town’s uniquely valuable heritage. And the area where the staff member works who receives, sorts, and dispatches, daily, the hundreds of inter-library loan materials is neither heated nor cooled;
* The sprinkler, fire alert, and burglar alarm systems need to be replaced;
* The exterior of both the original 1928 building and the 1993 addition need repair – pointing, painting, trim and window replacement, replacement of rotting wood on the original structure, etc. It was last repainted approximately nine years ago. All of these must be accomplished to preserve the historic appearance of the original building;
* The roof of the entire building needs extensive repair, with many instances of falling slate. The roof over the main entrance regularly dumps snow on entering patrons, necessitating the closing of that entrance;
* Replacement of the carpeting throughout the building is but one part of the major interior repairs needed, including painting and carpentry, in part because of water damage. Except for the Woodbury Room, significant upgrades have not been made for 25 years, which was the projected life of the last addition in 1993. The building’s electrical systems – both power and telecommunications – were designed for 1993, not 2019.
The 2017 estimate for these repairs did not include the cost of making the library fully accessible for patrons with disabilities; it currently is not. The expenditure of such a large sum would trigger the application of laws requiring such accessibility, significantly increasing the total required. And the estimate also did not include the typical design and overhead costs for such a project.
Nor did the estimate include provision for correcting many of the other shortcomings of the Jones as a library for today’s Amherst, such as:
* There are not enough spaces for its ESL program, and tutors are regularly forced to use the stacks areas for their sessions. Twenty-five percent of the children in Amherst’s schools come from families whose first language is not English;
* Spaces for the dozens of children’s activities are insufficient and are awkwardly located. There is no space set aside for the many teen activities scheduled. These are major opportunities to get Amherst’s youngsters off on the right foot to appreciate the Town’s unique identity;
* The many nooks and crannies of the building’s layout are a forbidding deterrent to Amherst’s increasingly diverse residents for whom its library culture is new, foreign, different. And they create security problems in today’s Amherst;
* The Special Collections are one of the Town’s unique assets, but are hidden in a difficult-to-find place in the building, and the space provided is not large enough to hold them. The Department regularly mounts important exhibits of Amherst’s history that are invisible to its residents behind locked doors in the back and beyond of the building;
* The space allocated to the Jones’ public computers is insufficient for the number required to satisfy the demand of those who do not have their own (33 percent of Amherst’s residents live below the poverty level).
Regularly shared by the widest diversity of a community’s residents, libraries are now commonly acknowledged as one of the most effective institutions at bridging the divisions that now plague us. This was the original vision of Amherst’s library – to be the center of its community around which all of its residents might gather – much more than just a place to borrow books. While other libraries around the country have adopted this vision, Amherst’s facility has slowly become unable to fulfill it.