Library Supporters Tell Planning Board Its ‘Big Idea’ Is Not So Grand

Photo: Kathleen Keohane speaking before the Planning Board. Selectman Mark Paolillo stands next to Keohane.

In a possible preview of the anticipated encounter before the Library Board of Trustees tentatively scheduled for Aug. 24, the Belmont Planning Board heard at its Tuesday, Aug. 1 meeting a less than enthusiastic response to its ‘Big Idea’ of placing a new town library in a private development in Waverley Square.

In fact, the overwhelming sentiment of library supporters Tuesday and in emails and letters sent to the Planning Board since it announced the preliminary proposal last month, have been far from affirming, according to Board Chair Liz Allison.

“The overall tone … is negative,” said Allison, so much so that the numerous unfavorable responses the Planning Board received could be placed into four broad categories (process, substance, misunderstanding and global reactions) with their own subsets. Some responses, noted Allison, included language that best not be used over the cable network broadcasting the meeting.

The proposal dubbed the “big idea” by the Planning Board’s Raffi Manjikian who suggested the scheme, would place a new library at the present location of the Belmont Car Wash combined with a senior housing center in a multi-use development. The library would be built by a private developer who would then lease back the facility to the town.

“[Waverley Square] is a center that has languished for more than 50 years,” said Manjikian, who said the proposal was part of an “exercise” to revitalize an important “community center” that has more people in Belmont than any other section of town. The Planning Board’s Barbara Fiacco said it was an opportunity for the town to be proactive in creating a new vibrant neighborhood rather than playing catch up to future development.

But for library supporters, the big idea is a big fail in more than just where the library would be located but also how it was presented to the community in July. 

“I think we got off on the wrong foot,” said Kathleen Keohane, the chair of the Library Trustees who has been leading the charge in questioning both the idea and the process in which it was presented to the public.

“When you read this concept, this ‘big idea’ that’s characterized as the ‘library proposal’ … when there is no discussion with the key stakeholders who are in charge of managing the building, I think we had a process [breakdown],” said Keohane.

“I think publishing [the proposal] with pictures was off putting to me personally and to many folks,” she said. 

She said the library has recently finished an extensive a year-and-a-half long feasibility study that showed “great engagement from the community” for keeping the library at its current location on Concord Avenue within walking distance to five of six public schools and close by to Belmont Center, the town’s business hub.

“You need to respect the input that we got,” Keohane told the Planning Board.

Those who spoke at the meeting voiced a myriad of concerns with moving the library to the heart of Waverley Square. Azra Nelson of Vincent Avenue expressed “alarm” on adding library traffic and the associated parking demands to an area that is already congested with vehicles while Jessica Bennett of Thornbridge Road said it was “really unsettled” that something as important to the public as the library would not be in the town’s possession. Following in Bennett’s lead, Mary Lewis from Precinct 1 that it “insanity” for the town not to build a new library with interest rates at such low levels. She joined others who questioned the roll out of the plan in the summer when residents are away and not following the news. 

In response, the Planning Board’s Manjikian said the impetus for the proposal was not in response to one of the three owners of the land stretching along South Pleasant Street from the car wash to just north of the Cityside Subaru location who are contemplating developing their properties (“Yes, it’s going to happen,” said Manjikian).

Rather, the “idea” is just that, said Manjikian, giving the Planning Board and the town the opportunity to revitalize the area while also seeking a creative way to assist in solving the town’s challenge of renovating or building four critical capital projects; the high school, police station, library and Department of Public Works.

With a total cost of $262 million to “fix” the outstanding capital projects, Board of Selectman Mark Paolillo said it would be difficult to find the votes at Town Meeting or among voters to approve four debt exclusions and a possible town operating override over a short period.

“We will need creative solutions to solve all these issues,” he told the Belmontonian after the meeting.

Keohane did leave the door open for the library trustees to join the Planning Board and other stakeholders to assist in solving the major capital building. 

“I think we are at an early stage and this is the time to brainstorm and get ideas from people, pros, and cons of what they are looking for, and I think that’s starting tonight with public input and follow up … to share their comments, whatever that might be,” she said.

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