Trustees Want Residents To Take A Tour Sunday Through Belmont’s ‘Failing’ Library [Video]

Photo: Deteriorating infrastructure at the Belmont Public Library

On Oct. 4, the Belmont Select Board and Board of Library Trustees agreed a solution is needed for the failing library building. The constant failures – big and small – in critical library building systems are urgent, according to the Trustees; floods, leaks, electrical issues, an antiquated fire alarm system, and unreliable heating, air conditioning and elevators have put the building in a dire situation.

On Sunday, Oct. 17, 1 p.m. to 3 p.m., Belmont residents can take one of two tours of the inner workings of the library and see the condition of the building.

INDOOR OPTION: Take a small group guided tour to see the failing parts of the library building.

OUTDOOR OPTION: The committee has recreated the tour experience outdoors, using posters, video, and knowledgeable guides to walk through.

The tours are led by members of the Board of Library Trustees, Library Building Committee, and Library staff.

For more information, visit www.NewLibraryFund.org

Trustees Presents ‘Dire’ Status Of Library Building To Select Board Monday

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.

Selectmen Back Library Trustees’ Move To Create Building Committee

Photo: Library Trustees’ Chair Kathleen Keohane (left) speaking to the Belmont Selectmen

In a significant step on the future of the Belmont Public Library, the town’s Board of Selectmen agreed Monday night, Sept. 18, to add an article in the Special Town Meeting warrant in November to create a building committee to construct a new library.

In a 3-0 vote, the selectmen backed a decision by the Belmont Board of Library Trustees made earlier to move forward with the recommendations of a 2017 feasibility study calling for a structure placed on the library’s current site on Concord Avenue.

“It is the right time for the library,” Trustees’ Chair Kathleen Keohane told the Selectmen. She said the establishment of a building committee would allow the trustees to commission a schematic design of the new structure which will enable private fundraising to begin.

The library article will include both language creating the building committee and an amount to fund the schematic drawings. It will then be brought before Town Meeting which votes on whether to support the Trustees’ vision or reject it.

“We live in a representative form of government and I think it’s time for Town Meeting to weigh in on this issue,” said Selectmen Chair Jim Williams.

Keohane said the trustees would be seeking from the town half of the estimated $300,000 needed to draw up the schematic designs, with $150,000 donated by the Belmont Public Library Foundation.

“It is a town asset so it is important that the town shows its support and share the cost,” said Keohane.

The successful petition for a building committee article comes five months after the trustees agreed to withdraw its initial article they had prepared for May Town Meeting at the request of the Selectmen and the then recently formed Major Capital Projects Working Group.

The Working Group told the Trustees it required time to analyze the town’s major capital projects – High School, Library, DPW, Police Station and Incinerator Site – in order to define a sound plan for building, sequencing and possible financing. Keohane and Selectmen Adam Dash said for the delay, a promise was agreed to between the parties to reintroduce the building committee article before the Special Town Meeting in the fall.

Keohane and Selectmen Adam Dash said for the delay, a promise was agreed to between the parties to reintroduce the building committee article before the Special Town Meeting in the fall.

Dash said while the selectmen are supporting the article, “this is not a commitment to build [the library] or even create a building committee. This just means putting it on the docket for Town Meeting to have a say.”

“We told [Town Meeting] that this is for fundraising and it’s hard to say, ‘go out there and fundraise without the tools to do that’,” said Dash, who added that by having a building committee doesn’t mean the library will “jump the line” in front of the other projects.

While supportive of the building committee, Selectman Mark Paolillo – who is the selectmen’s representative on the Major Capital Projects group – said it didn’t make sense for the trustees to move forward on the library before the Working Group has presented its plan.

“How do Town Meeting members debate an article for a building committee when they haven’t yet heard a report from the Working Group?” quired Paolillo.

But both Williams and Dash said at the November Town Meeting, the Working Group will give its report, the Town Moderator will open the meeting for debate and then move on the building committee article.

Keohane interjected, telling the selectmen “there is a clear need for us to take action.”

“As an elected official and steward of the library … we need to move forward in a methodical, purposeful way to make changes to the library,” she said.

Planning Board Member Blasts ‘Big Idea’, Calls For Chair’s Resignation

Photo: Pointed exchange; Charles Clark (left) calls for Chair Liz Allison’s resignation as Raffi Manjikian looks on.

In a fiery and personal rebuke, Planning Board member Chuck Clark called for the immediate removal of board’s chair, Liz Allison, for what he alleged has been the abuse of power in presenting a controversial proposal dubbed the “Big Idea” that would move the Belmont Public Library from Concord Avenue to Waverley Square as part of a public/private revitalization of the business center.

What was supposed to be a short recap by Allison of her observation of an Aug. 23 meeting of the Library Board of Library Trustees she attended quickly ignited where Clark made a series of Zola-esque accusations at the chair.

Raising his voice and pointing his finger at both Allison and fellow member Raffi Manjikian, Clark said the controversial proposal was being presented as a board plan when, in fact, it was the invention of the pair he charges of offering to the public a false narrative. 

“It’s not a ‘Big Idea.’ It’s a big lie,” said Clark, adding “I also think as a result [of] the actions that you’ve taken, you should resign as chair of the Planning Board and remove yourself from this process because I think you violated your responsibilities.” 

Clark’s declaration, which came as a surprise to everyone in the room – a quick poll of those in the room and via instant message by the Belmontonian found that no one could remember a similar outburst and call for a chair to vacate their position in Belmont in more than two decades – came shortly after he questioned Allison’s alleged overreach of the board’s mandate and jurisdiction in determining the library’s future.

“I didn’t think the Planning Board had any authority over the library. It has elected trustees. It’s their fiduciary responsibility to take care of the library. It’s not ours. It’s also not our place to post things and push something forward without thinking about it,” said Clark. 

After being accused of abuse of power and asked to resign, Allison matter-in-factly responded by noting that “[i]t does make it a little bit harder to move along to item 2b” on the agenda.

“Well, you can stay or go. It’s up to you,” Clark shot back. 

Just as it appeared that Clark and Allison would be continuing their tête-à-tête, Manjikian interjected by scolding his male colleague for infering that the bringing forward ideas such as public/private partnerships would lead to “your vigorous finger pointing is not the way to go.”

Clark then alleged Allison was “hijacking of the agenda” as an attempt not to discuss the issues at hand. 

“We’ll talk about this on the [Sept. 19],” said Clark. 

Clark would not speak after the meeting, only to say that he will continue to call for Allison to recuse herself as chair.

After completing work on the two scheduled agenda items, Allison circled back to the library, allowing Manjikian to say he hoped that future meeting could move from “affec-laden attacks” to “some point we can talk about the idea,” referring to the private/public development at the heart of the debate.

Allison said she would seek to make the Sept. 19 meeting “the most constructive discussion” on the proposal. 

Clark suggested that rather than focus on the “Big Idea” “we talk seriously about how do we begin to look at planning Waverley Square” noting there are a number of developments moving forward including a major commercial/residential project by developer (and former Planning Board member) Joseph DeStefano adjacent to the commuter rail bridge along Trapelo Road.

The Planning Board’s Karl Haglund said the small working group discussions – which produced the “Big Idea” – which have been popular for many government boards “have gotten off the rails.”

“I want to get back to where any two members of the Planning Board are meeting with anyone else that the full board be notified, so we are not surprised when a major proposal comes out,” he said.

Tuesday’s meeting was by far the most emotional associated with the suggested move of the library to Waverley Square since the so called “Big Idea” was first presented in July. Almost from the start, residents have questioned the Planning Board’s authority to submit this proposal. The opposition has been led by the Board of Library Trustees, the elected council that runs the library for the benefit of the town. 

At Tuesday’s night, Trustee Chair Kathleen Keohane made public a letter, dated Aug. 31, which requests the Planning Board to “dismiss” the Waverley Square proposal saying it “would not be in the Town’s or its citizen’s best interests.”

Keohane – who has led the charge against the proposal – reiterated points she made to the Planning Board and the public, that a suggested transfer of the library to Waverley Square (which Allison admitted comments her board has received on the move were running 90 to 10 in opposition) “is a distraction.” 

The Board of Library Trustees approved a new building after a feasibility study was completed on the present site.

“We prefer not to wait (until Sept. 19),” said Keohane. Despite favorable votes by Town Meeting and the Board of Selectmen endorsing the current site for a new library, Keohane said having a competing proposal as well as agreeing to present an article for the creation of a new library building committee to the fall Special Town Meeting rather than in May has been damaging future private fundraising critical to the construction of the new structure.

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.

Library Trustee Blasts Planning Board On New Library Placement

Photo: (from left) Raffi Manjikian and Liz Allison on the Planning Board speaking to Kathleen Keohane of the Library Trustees (foreground)

Kathleen Keohane was more than a bit perturbed outside of the Planning Board meeting on Tuesday night, July 18.

It wasn’t because she had a busy day at work and that she was missing dinner to attend the scheduled meeting at Town Hall. Just a few days previous, Keohane, the chair of the Board of Trustees of the Belmont Public Library, was told by a resident that the Planning Board had presented an ambitious plan last week to construct a new town library as part of a public/private partnership to be located at  the Belmont Car Wash in Waverley Square.

Just one problem with the proposal in Keohane view: no one told her or any other trustee about the project. And she wanted everyone in town to know that was unacceptable.

 “I am astonished and dismayed that there has been no outreach to the Library Director (or the trustees of substance to discuss this,” Keohane told the Belmontonian Tuesday. She said the Planning Board’s release of the proposal came after the Trustees spent 14 months and $40,000 of Town Meeting approved funds to conduct a far-ranging feasibility study for the construction of a new library.

Keohane said the study revealed that patrons and residents want the library to stay put at its current location on Concord Avenue near the Underwood Pool. And with 1,000 unique visits, the library attracts vehicle traffic which could hamper its use in the highly traveled Waverley Square.

“We have heard pretty clearly what residents want,” said Keohane.

Keohane said the only time she spoke to the Planning Board on anything close to a new library was when she “ran into [Allison] in the hallway” at the Chenery Middle School during the Belmont League of Women Voters’ candidates’ debate in March. 

“She said she left me a message on my home phone to introduced this idea, but since then there has been absolutely no outreach. I don’t even know what the concept is,” she said.

What makes the entire scenario difficult for the trustees is because they are on the cusp of moving forward with a major fundraising effort to pay for the $23 million building. But that effort has been delayed until the fall after the trustees agreed to a request to hold back its plans by the Capital Budget Committee at this year’s Town Meeting as it studied the major capital projects around town. 

“We have been open and transparent in trying to move things forward, and the courtesy of outreach would have been much appreciated,” said Keohane.

Keohane said she has not attempted to reach out to the Planning Board “because honestly, I thought someone would have the courtesy to reach out.” She was at the meeting “to learn as much information as I can.”

And 75 minutes after arriving, Keohane strode to the cable television microphone to express how awestruck she was about the proposal.

“We are eager to learn more because we have been put in a tough spot because we have been receiving a lot of calls from folks for more information,” Keohane told the board.

Allison responded by reminding Keohane of the “brief and even more informal conversation” they had in March.

“We had a hallway conversation … where you raised this issue to me and I said I was not speaking for the trustees and I expressed my concern that it was not the right site for a library,” said Keohane, calling the meeting “out of the blue.”

Keohane noted that the trustees had met multiple times with all the town’s major stakeholders on its path towards the construction of a new library “so we want to be in on the conversation and not feel like we’re left out on the side(lines). We were just caught off guard.”

Allison responded that the board’s feeling is it’s happy to have any conversation in any form.

“It’s an idea,” said the Planning Board’s Raffi Manjikian of the Waverley Square proposal. “It’s one to throw out on the table for consideration, and there are a lot of stakeholders that will need to be engaged and get their support and express their support.”

“We will have a better idea by the end of the month whether this has any reality to it,” Allison said.

Olmsted Selected to Fill Library Trustee Post

Photo: Corinne McCue Olmsted

Corinne McCue Olmsted joins the Belmont Board of Library Trustees at a time when the library, once again, is moving forward with a vision for a new building and its place as a resource for town residents.

Appointed unanimously by a joint committee of the Board of Selectmen and the Library Trustees on May 21, the Stone Road resident joins the “team” as it moves forward with its important feasibility study for the renovation or construction of a new library, ready to help in the development of programs and using the new physical space efficiently.

“I think that libraries are moving towards … places where people can gather,” she told the joint boards, moving away from being a quiet spot to “becoming more noisy, frankly, and that will be a good thing.” 

“I want to see it become more vibrant community space so where more people like me would come in,” McCue Olmsted said, and increasing the percentage of residents with library cards from the current 65 percent. 

Growing up on Long Island and matriculating at Skidmore, McCue Olmsted earned her Master’s and Ph.D. in Economics at UConn. She worked in research before moving to Nexus Associates and then seven years as a transfer pricing economist at Ernst & Young. She and her husband, who is also an economist, are parents of a six-year-old and nearly three-year-old twins.

McCue Olmsted joins the six-member board to finish the single year left of the term and will be up for election in April 2017 and then will need to run again for election in April 2018.

Her favorite book is “Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris” by Lauren Shockey, a book on cooking, travel, and life.

The Belmontonian: As a trustee, you’ll be bringing the prospectus of a young woman with children, which is a considerable percentage of library users. Do you see yourself being the point person for that important constituency?

McCue Olmsted: Yes, and I would like to be that person. When enrollment in schools increases, the uses of the children’s area of the library does so also. I will be an advocate for expanding programs for both adults and children. For children, I’d like to see similar space changes to the children’s room because it’s small and a little dark. While the librarians do a wonderful job with the arrangement of books and material, we can do more with this room.

Q: What would you like to see in a new or renovated building?

A: While the building shape is still the same [since its opening in 1967] … I would like to see this become more of a communal social space so that people just don’t come to take out books but to socialize. We should also commit in a new building to more energy efficient practices, more natural light and recycling, the same concepts used at the Wellington [Elementary].

Q: Does digital media have a role in your plans?

A: I see the library evolving into more of a space where people can come together and use the digital resources. The types of media products the library provides will continue to expand and [the library] can become the place where information literacy is taught in the community including the schools. But I still have an affinity for physical books. That’s the reason people continue to go to bookstores. Children get interested in things by looking at them physically, and that’s why the Children’s Room is so important to the community. 

Q: What is the first item that you’re interested in tackling as a Trustee?

A: I would like to take a look at the programs. To see if there are places that can be expanded or filled in. I also want to talk to Peter [Struzziero, Belmont Public Library Director] how he is increasing space. While other challenges are facing the town such as the construction of a renovated Belmont High School that will likely take precedence, the library still faces urgent problems such as the boiler issue [which will need to be replaced], the type of non-exciting things that need to be resolved to keep the building running. 

Finalist for Belmont Top Librarian Spot Had Short Stay in Arlington

Photo: Peter Struzziero, the finalist to become director of the Belmont Public Library director. (LinkedIn)

He was an on-line movie reviewer, a performer at Disney World, portrayed Obi-Wan Kenobi for a workshop he created to inspire other librarians to promoting reading and was Mr. August 2013 in the Tattooed Youth Librarians of Massachusetts calendar.

And now Peter Struzziero can add (pending) director of the Belmont’s Public Library as the Board of Library Trustees named the 31-year-old its finalist to lead the town’s library services, in a press release dated Monday, March 23. He will replace Maureen Connors, who retired after two decades on the job in October 2014.

Struzziero’s resume also indicates an extremely short tenure as Arlington’s library director, serving less than two months on the job before agreeing with town officials that he should leave his position on Feb. 18.

Media reports from last month suggested Arlington Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine told Struzziero he should pursue other opportunities. There is no other public information or comment suggesting what prompted Arlington town officials to take their action.

“Yes, Mr. Struzziero has left the employment of the Town of Arlington,” Chapdelaine told the Belmontonian on Tuesday.

When asked about Struzziero’s quick departure from the Arlington top spot, Belmont Trustee Elaine Alligood told the Belmontonian, “Great question – come and ask it,” referring to the public “meet and greet” with Struzziero on Thursday, March 26, at 6:30pm in the library’s Assembly Room, led by Alligood.

Struzziero’s sudden move out of Arlington apparently did not hurt his chances taking over in Belmont, according to Alligood.

“The trustees have interviewed him twice in both recruitments and are fully vetting his credentials, references and experience,” Alligood told the Belmontonian.

Alligood’s response indicates that Struzziero was considered with a slew of applicants in the first attempt by the trustees to find a director. That initial effort was ended in November 2014 without anyone being named at the time. 

Not that Struzziero’s quick move to Belmont would be without precedence; current Belmont High School Principal Dr. Dan Richards returned to Belmont after a year as Melrose High’s principal when the top job opened up at the high school where he was a long-time assistant principal.

Struzziero previously worked as the director of the Arlington Public Library, and the Winthrop Public Library. Struzziero also served as the Teen Librarian for Scituate Public Library. Prior to Scituate, Struzziero was the Nevins Memorial Library Young Adult and Readers’ Services Librarian in Methuen.

Struzziero is a graduate of the New England Library Leadership Symposium NELLS, a six state sponsored training program, and Simmons College.

For further information, please call the Belmont Public Library 617-489-2000.