Sunday, May 24, 2015

Tour de Jones (Library That Is)

Jones Library: Amherst's living room.  Strong House back left

Library Director Sharon Sharry gave the local media a guided tour of the flagship Jones Library last week in the hopes of dispelling rumors that have been circulating lately about the much anticipated renovation/expansion of the 57,000 square foot icon that anchors the downtown.  

The building was last renovated/expanded back in 1992 so it is now eligible for grant funding by the state that will cover roughly 50% of the entire project, preliminarily guesstimated at $10 million.

Library Director Sharon Sharry laments no staffed receiving area for incoming customers after first entering main door

Unlike the renovation of 23 years ago this time around the entire contents of the Jones Library -- 172,000 books, videos and CDs, the entire 28,000 items in Special Collections, and 20+ banker's boxes of financial records -- will be moved into an interim operating space.

The project could take up to two years but since an architect has not yet been chosen it's unknown how large the building expansion will be.

 Employee parking is cramped and results in "dings" from other vehicles looking for parking
Only 2 handicapped spaces are provided

Either way, parking is a major issue that needs addressing.  The formula the state uses is one parking space per 400 square feet of building.  Thus, just the current foot print of the building would require 143 spaces for patrons.  And at the moment the Jones Library has but 2 handicapped and 7 "employee only" parking spaces.

 CVS & town parking lot next door

The other major issue that could scuttle public support for the project (Town Meeting) is the fate of the greenery behind the Jones and the side garden currently owned by the Strong House, which could soon be sold to facilitate the expansion. 

Kinsey Memorial Gardens behind the Jones

Since neither the Library or Strong House are contemplating any construction in their front yards the only place left for an increase in footprint for the Jones is either directly behind or to the side of the Strong House, both of which are now occupied by greenery.

 Strong House garden to the rear of the Library

But Library Director Sharon Sharry was adamant that whichever garden requires eviction it will be replicated elsewhere on the property, something that is commonly approved by Conservation Commissions when a construction project endangers wetlands.

 Adult and Children's computers are in separate rooms
Children have 4 computers and 2 game stations

In this digital age it's tempting to think of libraries as antiquated as, say, newspapers.

But the Jones Library has kept pace with changing technology, offering audio and books on tape for a generation now, DVDs and of course in-house computers for the general public.

The current crop of 20 computers for adults and 4 for children is too few, and the space too limiting.

 Children's Room

The Children's Room is also too tiny, the shelving too tall and materials are spread out over three floors.   And like the rest of the Library, bad sight lines keep employees from being able to monitor the big picture. 

Cameras are more reactive than proactive

The Library added security cameras two years ago as a safety feature trying to keep down inappropriate sexual activity by teens and the occasional criminal act (drug use or stealing of library materials) but by and large have not been overly successful. 

The Jones offers a bevy of "non traditional" services found only in Amherst:  An English as a Second Language program that will someday seamlessly connect to The Literacy Project (assisting patrons to acquire a GED).

Hwei-Ling Greeey acts as a 'Social Worker in Residence' helping to deal with Amherst's homeless population.  While the 'Artists in Residence' program allows the general public to interact with artists to better understand the creative process.

 Special Collections and Burnett Gallery needs more space
Burnett Gallery

The Special Collections Department is world renowned for their priceless collection of Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost materials. And the Burnett Gallery offers space for local artists to display the fruits of their labor.

Archive materials stored under a sprinkler head

On average the Jones hosts 1,000 unique visitors per day and circulates as much material as the BIG city library in Springfield. Yet the only check out location is cramped and can be staffed by -- at most -- two employees.

Whether the expansion project is approved by the Mass Board of Library Commissioners and then Amherst Town Meeting or not, the aging infrastructure will still require extensive improvements -- especially the 30 year old Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning system.

The pretty glass atrium installed in the 1992 renovation never worked properly and continues to leak during a rainstorm or in the winter when snow accumulates.  Just these two items alone cost close to $1 million and would be entirely town money.

 Atrium is leaky and allows in too much sunlight

In addition to the Jones Library expansion three other major building projects are now in the pipeline: The Wildwood Elementary School project, the forever talked about new South Fire Station and a new Department of Public Works building.

Both the Library and School projects have the distinct advantage of state reimbursements. All the more reason town officials need to promote all four of these vital upcoming building projects as an all-or-nothing package.  

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Another Unattended Death

Hess Station in South Amherst was closed for almost four hours for "unattended death" investigation

If you are suspecting heroin overdose, it has not been ruled out.

Click to enlarge/read

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Fitting Final Resting Place

The Jones Library

The Jones Library Building & Facilities Committee this morning voted unanimously to request the Board of Trustees at their June 4th meeting adopt the town owned Civil War tablets and install them in the library as part of the upcoming renovation/expansion project.

Amherst Town Meeting approved $65,000 in Community Preservation Act money in 2009 to have the six large marble tablets professionally cleaned, lettering restored and then crated for safe storage and transport.

Originally the town wished to display them in Town Hall but found the flooring was not strong enough to support the weight of the tablets;  and building climate controlled weather proof cases for outside would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Assistant Town Manager Dave Ziomek attended the meeting this morning confirming the town was "still very committed to putting them on display, and using the Jones Library makes all the sense in the world."

He went on to say a simple Memo of Understanding could be drawn up maintaining town ownership of the tablets but giving the Jones Library "permanent loan."

The funding for installation could come from the state renovation grant, which would cover half the cost, or if that is not an allowable expense the town would apply for Community Preservation Act money.

The Jones Library is now in active discussion with the Strong House aka Amherst History Museum next door for purchase of land to facilitate their proposed expansion.   But this commitment to display the Civil War tablets is NOT dependent on that deal coming to fruition. 

Stirring news for this Memorial Day weekend.

"Sacred Dead" tablet with names of all 57 Amherst residents who gave their "last measure of devotion."


Living in the shadow of Kendrick Place

Attorney Jeff Brown, a prominent downtown property owner, paid a visit to the Public Works Committee last night concerned about upcoming Triangle Street construction somewhat related to the the new Kendrick Place 5-story mixed use building.  

In addition to the inconvenient major building project next door dwarfing his commercial buildings the utility companies are also busy at work burying above ground wires as part of a $1.5 million state grant funded endeavor.

And after that beautification project is completed the town will undertake reconstruction of the Triangle/East Pleasant Street intersection at the gateway to UMass.

Like any good landlord Mr. Brown said he's concerned with "making my tenants happy."  And losing any parking spaces directly in front of their storefronts would make them very unhappy.

 Jeff Brown (left) appears before PWC last night.  Guilford Mooring (top center)

Last year Town Meeting rejected a request for easements and possible buying/taking of property along the E Pleasant/Triangle Street intersection as part of the reconstruction project. That negative vote was the first of many Town Meeting actions taken since then as payback for the approval of Kendrick Place.

DPW Chief Guilford Mooring told the Public Works Committee last night that no additional private land would be required for a roundabout (thereby avoiding Town Meeting) if indeed that becomes the approved plan for the intersection.

And the bike lane along the east side of Triangle Street in front of Mr. Brown's buildings will now fit without requiring any of his property, so those convenient parking spots are not endangered.

The Public Works Committee will hold two meetings dedicated to reviewing the project, one in July and the other in August.  The Amherst Select Board has final authority and construction would commence next year.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Time, Time, Time For A Change

Amherst Town Meeting aka The Vince Show

The 257th annual Amherst Town Meeting concluded last night with pretty much a half-session compared to the previous seven nights that went the full three hours and change.

As usual we started late by about seven minutes, but still the earliest start time (by a minute or two) of all eight sessions.  In total an hour of time wasted for those who showed up on time.  And it was not because members needed to shower after walking, jogging or cycling to get the meeting.

Also, as usual, we concluded the night with an anti-business (non binding) vote to oppose the Kinder Morgan gas pipeline.  The original voice vote was so overwhelming I'm pretty sure only 2 or 3 No votes could be heard.  Still, someone from the floor "doubted it" so a standing or Tally vote could occur (137 yes to 7 no).

In all we had nine Tally Votes, each requiring a minimum of ten minutes or 1.5 hours total.  Throw in the standing votes, which also require about ten minutes, and you have the total time for an entire night's session.

Yes, electronic voting will do away with these time wasting inefficiencies.  And provide much better accountability.

But the real problem is the institution itself, which is non representative of our little college town that borders on being a city.

Amherst has the lowest median age in the entire state with over 50% of our population "college aged youth," almost all of them renters.

 See any college age youth?

While Town Meeting is on average retirement age homeowners.

Diversity of race, creed, color or sexual preference?  As my Italian friends would say, "Forget about it!"

Since Amherst has only a pathetic 10% commercial tax base the equally pathetic number of Town Meeting members with small business experience is probably not all that far off.   But still troubling.

Even my 8-year-old gets the simple formula of supply and demand (especially with candy around Halloween), which seems to stump Town Meeting time and time again.

Virtually all of the zoning articles (which require a two-thirds majority to pass) failed.   And in the future zoning tweaks will be required to bring about the positive smart growth this town so desperately needs to address our lack of housing and commercial enterprise. 

The BANANA/NIMBYs used to be an obstructionist fringe that could barely muster the one-third required to kill a zoning article.

Yet both their anti-business zoning articles, either of which would have detonated a dirty bomb in our town center business district, managed to muster a MAJORITY of Town Meeting support.

Paging Dr. Kevorkian!

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

College Town Decor

College Street

Yes, you can always tell when our institutes of higher education have finished up the their spring semesters.  Students returning to their hometowns for the summer leave behind over sized furniture that trash haulers do not pick up as part of their normal weekly routine.

 Gray Street

The DPW ends up retrieving four or five couches around this time every year.  Normally they are the ones left on town property in out-of-the-way places where the property owner cannot be identified.

Or in cases like these where the items are close by, the landlord must convince the town it doesn't belong to them or their tenants. (And without drone video it's hard to prove one way or the other.)

 Northampton Road (Rt 9)

Building Commissioner Rob Morra can issue $100 day non criminal fines, but these days pretty much all that is required is for his office to make initial contact. 

Phillips Street

Bite The Hand That Warms You

 Amherst Select Board:  Head of the class at Town Meeting

All Amherst Town Meeting members received an email last night from the supposedly non partisan Town Meeting Coordinating Committee begging us to show up for tonight's final meeting so the esteemed body would have a quorum and could then dispose of the last three citizen petition articles on the warrant. 

The cheerleader email was directed specifically at the final Article 30, a non-binding advisory ditty opposing construction of the Kinder Morgan/Tennessee Gas Pipeline through our neighboring counties to the north.

Apparently not "only in Amherst"

Since the pipeline is not scheduled to ram its way across the Town Common you might be tempted to thing it's not town business.  But it is.

Amherst businesses are already being hurt by the moratorium imposed by Berkshire Gas on any new hook ups in town due to supply constraints.

Last week Joe Bowman the owner/manager of Fratelli's Ristorante appeared before the Zoning Board of Appeals to secure permission to place a 1,000 gallon underground propane tank on site at 30 Boltwood Walk.

Not only an expensive capital construction project, but a more expensive routine supply cost as well.

Even the town -- a major customer of Berkshire Gas -- is being impacted as a renovation conversion project at East Street School from expensive, more environmentally harmful oil to natural gas is now in limbo because of the moratorium. 

One simple rule of, gasp, capitalism that Town Meeting never seems to get is the sacred law of supply and demand.  If you have high demand for housing and NIMBY/BANANAs constantly strangle the development of new housing, then the price goes up.

Or if you have a huge demand for clean, efficient, cheap energy and the pipeline is too small  to satisfy that demand, then you have a moratorium ... which is bad for business.

Thus Town Meeting should vote down the obstructionist article targeting the new pipeline.  IF we get a quorum.

 Select Board supports anti-pipeline petition, but dropped the ball on solar

About 20 years ago when an Annual Town Meeting stretched on forever and town officials were worried about a quorum on the final night they offered free coffee, hot chocolate, cookies & milk to entice members to perform their civic duty.

Maybe the Select Board should offer up fresh fruit tonight.  I'll spring for the BANANAs.