January 18, 2005

Another Try For The McAuliffe Branch Library Project

It's official: After winning approval to purchase land for a new branch library across from the current McAuliffe building, but falling just three votes short of approval to fund construction of a building, Library Trustees tonight voted to collect signatures to call a special Town Meeting to try again sometime before the spring annual Town Meeting.

I went to the Trustees meeting, and was happy to hear that they will consider a pedestrian walkway from Water Street to an existing side entrance to the building. I think this is important for the new building to add to a pedestrian-friendly streetscape in the business district. They also seemed receptive to my idea of creating a pedestrian walkway (as opposed to a sea of asphalt) from the new library parking lot to the Pinefield Shopping Center, so that center would be drawn into the business district instead of being set apart.

Here's what else I learned tonight.

Why not wait until annual TM? Because looming deadlines mean April might be too late to qualify for our already-approved $1.6 million grant in state funding for the project.

Trustees voted to try again only after in-depth discussions of many of the concerns brought up by Town Meeting members regarding the project (not all of which have to do with the library specifically; for example, the need for an updated list of other capital budget priorities).

Issue: The building as proposed is too expensive per square foot.

Explanations: Those concerns have been heard, and Library Director Tom Gilchrist is speaking to both the architect and the cost estimator to justify the estimates. The trustees also asked that the architect be present at the next special TM, so (s)he could answer questions.

Trustees asked Gilchrist to see if there are ways to trim any of the costs. Tom Gilchrist is compiling stats for other library construction projects in MetroWest and across Massachusetts. Trustees believe that the estimated costs are in line with other such projects in the area.

One reason the pricetag may appear "expensive" is because the amount requested is for everything, including "soft costs" such as furniture, which are not typically included in construction costs per square foot.

Another reason is that the Library Trustees were responsible enough to ask for anticipated construction costs based on likely prices next year -- material and construction costs do tend to rise each year. Comparing the cost of a project started 3 years ago (Framingham HS) with one scheduled to begin in 2006, is somewhat unfair unless you index for inflation. (My plea: Please don't penalize the Library Department because they tried to come up with an accurate estimate for 2006 construction costs!)

Issue: The building is too big.

Explanations: The size of the building was rigorously calculated based on "well-established national standards" for library service, Gilchrist said, factoring in community size and demand. The design followed specific guidelines for every desk, chair, etc. as well as for books and periodicals.

It's also important to note that if the town tries to scale back the building now, we'll lose the state grant money, because according to Gilchrist, terms of the grant are that we have to build what we presented in the very detailed application required to seek a grant; we can't significantly change the proposal and still keep the state funding. However, the trustees are trying to find ways to trim costs if at all possible.

Issue: There was no plot plan for the land purchase.

Explanation: From tonight's meeting, it sounded to me like the Trustees were trying to be fiscally prudent, and not spend thousands of dollars on surveyor work until they knew the Town Meeting was behind that specific site. (This is not an existing parcel, but a newly created parcel from a larger piece of property). They authorized spending no more than $18,000 from existing funds for surveying AND soil testing services, to draw up a specific plot plan and also to ensure there are no problems with soil contamination.

Gilchrist said that "We are not going to go out and buy this land" unless and until there's a favorable vote on construction funds. There was discussion as to whether drawing up a purchase & sale agreement with a contingency based on TM approval of construction funding would satisfy state deadline requirements for the grant.

Issue: Should the straightening out of the curve on Nicholas Road be part of the project?

Explanation: If this was part of the library project, it would mean significantly moving Nicholas Road so that the new building would be on the other side of the street (where the existing building is now). Gilchrist showed a drawing of how that would look. The conclusion was that it would create an s-curve on the street that's no better, and probably worse, than the existing situation, and there would be problems with sight lines. From what I could gather, separately, a town engineer examined the issue and concluded that because of all the underground utilities, it would be extraordinarily expensive to move them.

Issue: Town Meeting members wanted to see an updated list of town capital budget priorities before voting such a large investment as building a new branch library.

Explanation: Of course, everyone knows the Library Department can't come up with that. However, such a list ought to be forthcoming as part of the town budgeting process "within the month," Gilchrist said, and available before another vote on construction funds.

Issue: Based on the drawing of the new building, it's an impractical design because it's got a big glass roof.

Explanation: That's NOT a glass roof on the drawing. The building does not have a glass roof.

Issue: There should be a main library entrance on Water Street, so people can walk to the building from the nearby business district.

Explanation: If there were a second, prominent main entrance on Water Street, trustees were concerned it would create a traffic hazard because people driving on Water Street would be pulling over to drop people off, drop off books, etc. However, there was agreement that it might be possible to create a pedestrian walkway from Water Street to an already-planned entrance on the side of the building.

Issue: A building will block a view of the Pinefield shopping center from Water Street.

Explanation: This is my explanation, not the Trustees': I live in the Pinefield neighborhood and walk around there almost every day. The way the shopping center is sited now, you can't see any of the stores from Water Street. All you see is the sign for the shopping center. The presence of a library doesn't preclude the presence of a sign.

More importantly, though, I believe a pedestrian walkway from the library parking area to the shopping center will help draw people going to the library to patronize the shopping center. Apparently, the manager of the Ace Hardware thinks that library patrons and hardware store patrons are different people, but many trustees in attendance tonight say they regularly shop at Ace Hardware (so do my husband and I, and we both support the new branch).

I brought up the issue tonight of creating a pedestrian walkway from the new library parking lot to the Pinefield shopping center, and it seemed to be met favorably.

Issue: The new library should be sited close to the high school/in Nobscot/at the Danforth Farms PUD/at St. Jeremiah's Church if it closes.

Explanation: The issue of the site has been decided by last week's special Town Meeting vote approving that location. In addition, at this stage I don't think we can start changing location and still qualify for the $1.6 million state funding. To put things in perspective, I believe a few people were unhappy about the need to use helical piling construction instead of a plain slab foundation. If I understood tonight's discussion correctly, this would add about $100,000 to the building construction cost. Looking around now for a "better, more buildable" site would lose us more than a million and a half dollars in state funding, to possibly -- no guarantee -- save $100K in construction cost. And there's simply not a lot of open, easily buildable land left in the town of Framingham; we don't know if another suitable site exists that would be cheaper to build on. I'd bet there's not one that's more than $1.6 million cheaper to build on.

In fact, the trustees said they looked at land near the high school but it was unsuitable because it's wetlands. Obviously, at the time this project was being proposed, Nobscot was not an option because there was an operating grocery store in the shopping center and no available space. If we want to stop the project four years into it and start again from scratch to look at building a branch in Nobscot instead, we forfeit the $1.6 million grant.

Detailed applications for the next round of state grant financing are due in early February, which of course is not enough time to submit a substantially altered proposal in size or location (these are huge proposals that are extremely detailed. You can't simply say "I'd like to build a 12,000 square foot building on a lot in Nobscot" and get state funding.) Based on prior history of how these grants have worked before, Gilchrist estimated that it would be at least 7 to 8 years before we could try again with a different proposal and hope to get a state grant for another branch library project. And, of course, there's no guarantee that we'd win approval again, since funding of branch projects is pretty unusual.

In our current application, the state saw a clear need and made an exception to their general policy of not funding branch libraries, because they understood that a large segment of our community was not being adequately served despite the presence of a main library, considering Framingham's large size and strong demand for services. Hopefully, some of the questions raised at last week's Special Town Meeting have been or will be answered to members' satisfaction, and Town Meeting will agree. From what I gathered at tonight's meeting, Gilchrist and all the trustees are more than happy to answer additional questions.

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