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Belmont School Committee vote Tuesday blocks new town library plans

Posted by Jaclyn Reiss  May 8, 2013 03:40 PM

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If Belmont library officials know one feeling well, it's disappointment.

For the past 13 years, plan after plan to construct a new library building to replace the nearly 50-year-old library in Belmont has been thrown in the trash, blocked inadvertently by town committees, lack of funding, and logistical obstacles.

And on Tuesday night, library officials again tasted the familiar bitterness of seeing their new library plans fail. Belmont School Committee members effectively put the brakes on the latest construction plans as they voted unanimously - with one abstention - not to transfer high school land, which currently hosts playing fields, to the library to host a proposed state-of-the-art libarary building there.

"The whole thing is very unfortunate," said Maureen Conners, library director. "Life as a library has changed, and this current building is not working as a library of the 21st century."

Laurie Graham, chairwoman of the School Committee, said the decision came as members felt uncomfortable with not having viable replacement fields, and as the high school is being considered for state grants to expand and renovate its own building in the near future.

However, the School Committee vote was laced with bitter emotion and regret that they were not able to help the decade-plus library plans come to fruition, Graham said.

"It was a difficult decision for the School Committee to make, because we all love libraries and think it's a terrific thing to have in our community," she said. "But also it’s a small town with very little extra land. And as we're in the process of getting the high school renovated, we're not sure what other parts of the high school itself would then move into other parts of the school campus."

The vote that effectively killed the plans for the library also means the town might have to give back $7.5 million in state grants to build the $18.5 million building. The grants only come about every five-plus years, and although the town has been granted an extension through the end of this year, there is probably not enough time to rework plans to build a new library in the current grant cycle.

Board of Selectmen member Andy Rojas said although the board and School Committee have supported the library and tried to look for fields to make the transfer work, he also said that library officials applied for the grant funding without consulting the town first.

“We tried really hard to make this happen… but quite frankly, the library jumped the gun,” Rojas said. “They saw a grant round and went for it. Now, this grant round seems over, and this doesn’t seem like it’s going anywhere.”

Rojas said selectmen and the capital projects committee will work to prioritize town projects this summer, and officials will see where the library ranks before moving forward with the proposal.

“I think there are higher pressing needs, like the high school and Underwood Pool and the Department of Public Works,” Rojas said, noting that he would be open to considering other site locations for the library.

Library officials have been vying for a new building since 2000, when a feasibility study showed that renovating and adding to the current library would cost more and proved less beneficial than constructing anew.

And although the current library building is failing mechanically and structurally, library officials say the space could be considered functional for other uses, like as a police department or senior center - options the town has weighed over the years, but have always failed.

"Because of recommendations from the Capital Project Overview Committee and selectmen thinking it was a good idea to move across the street [to the high school], we went with their wishes," Conners said.

Moving forward, the library will have to discuss with town officials again where to place their new building.

"There aren't many options in terms of land," Conners said. "We’ll just continue to work on what we’ve been doing and hopefully come up with some solution in time for another grant round."

The proposed new library, at 45,000 square feet, is about 35 percent larger than the current building, and would come with additional reading rooms, computer labs, and more areas for youths to study, Conners said.

"The new library would have all the things this current one doesn’t," she said.

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Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter: @jaclynreiss

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