Photo: Belmont Public Library
When the Belmont Board of Library Trustees comes before the Select Board on Monday, Oct. 4 at 7 p.m., it will with a simple request concerning the building on Concord Avenue that has for more than a half century housed the books, services and collections that is the Belmont Public Library: What’s the next step?
For more than 25 years, the trustees and volunteers have pointed to the aging building – opened in 1965 – with increasing concern that one of the most popular libraries in its population group in Massachusetts was falling into a condition of disrepair of its infrastructure and the lack of space to meet the library’s programming needs.
Since then, the deterioration of the building has accelerated to the point where the options facing the town going forward has dwindled to a stark pair in the view of the trustees: be a town without a library or commit to a new future.
”We are at the end of the road,” said Kathleen Keohane, the Trustee’s vice chair. “We have kicked this can down the road so many times. And unfortunately, we are about to hit the wall. It’s that dire.”
Trustee Chair Elaine Alligood ran down the list of structural failings: when it rains, there are leaks that pop up everywhere, a fire alarm system is out-of-code since 1992, heating and electrical systems whose useful life ended 20 years ago and are chronically in disrepair, a roof that is so fragile it can’t accept a modern HVAC system while the elevator has to checked at the end of each day to see if anyone is stuck inside because the alarm doesn’t work.
Any significant and needed repair in any part of the building will almost certainly create a cascade of required alterations which would accelerate the cost past the point of reasonable expenditures.
“We’ve deferred those big ticket items because if you repair one system, it pulls a thread that requires another expensive repair,” said Keohane, who said if one or two repairs exceeds a certain amount, it activates a trigger that requires the entire building to meet millions of dollars of American Disabilities Act-mandated improvements “which would be fiscally irresponsible for the trustees to ask the town to meet.”
The trustees said the time has come for a clear eyed decision on the future of a centerpiece of the Belmont community.
“It is a challenging time and if there were any other time to do it don’t you know we would do it then,” said Ellen Schreiber, a member of the non-profit Belmont Library Foundation that promotes and fundraisers in behalf of the library. “But we have no choice. The library is an urgent situation.”
Despite its popularity – during the pandemic the library’s circulation remained steady at 474,000 items – the trustees attempts to spur the construction of a building that would meet the needs a modern library failed to garner town and community support or the cooperation of the school committee in the latest attempt nearly a decade ago.
On Oct. 4, the trustees will present to the Select Board with the facts.
The latest Library Building Committee – authorized by Town Meeting in 2017 – spent two years holding meetings with the community and focus groups using a 2016 feasibility study to determine the best way forward on the future of the library building. In November 2019, the committee presented a final schematic design created by Oudens Ello Architecture that took into account public and stakeholders feedback that revealed a plan of a modern library that would meet its patrons and the community’s needs.
“The new building design is focused on giving us more space [25 percent increase in square footage], will be ADA compliant and address all the failing infrastructure and business systems that are decades in the making,” said Keohane.
The trustees and the foundation will present what has been raised for a new library, a community fundraising initiative that will take place this month and an estimated cost for a new building. The last price tag was in the $34 million range.
Now nearing two years since the report’s release, the trustees say the building’s decline can not be halted with stop gaps or unrealistic hopes that renovations can add years to the building’s lifespan.
“So it’s up to the Select Board with our assistance to decide what is the next step,” said Keohane.