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Somerville in line for $18m state grant to build new central library

Posted by Matt Byrne  July 31, 2012 04:30 PM

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Somerville Library_West.jpg

A view of the new $45 million Somerville Central Library slated for Union Square on Washington Street. The state has agreed to fund part of the project.

The City of Somerville said Tuesday it is in line to receive $18 million in state grants to build an expansive, three-story library facility in Union Square that would replace the aging central location on Highland Avenue.

Though the project is years away, the three-story 69,338-square-foot structure would nestle between Somerville Avenue and Washington Street near the city's public safety building. It would feature modern construction with glass facade elements, a roof deck, expanded meeting and reading spaces, and full accessibility for people with disabilities.

Plans also call for outdoor terrace space, a cafe and retail location, expanded child play and reading areas, a bigger teen section, and a 200-seat auditorium with after-hours access for community use.

"This is a rare opportunity that Somerville has been given -- to come together and build an iconic civic building-- a new Main Library for all residents where they can meet, explore, learn, and dream," said Maria Carpenter, director of Somerville libraries, in a statement.

But the disbursement of funds and construction on the facility could be at least two years away, according to Robert Maier, director of the state Board of Library Commissioners, which distributes the capital funds. Somerville is 15th on a waiting list of 19 communities statewide that have received the preliminary grant approval for libraries. At it's current funding level, Maier said his department has enough cash to fund the first eight on the list. Another state bond would be needed to fund the remaining 11 proposals, including Somerville's.

The $18 million promised by the state would cover less than half of the estimated $45 million total project cost. The balance -- as much as $27 million -- would have to be raised locally through contributions, city borrowing, or a combination of both.

In a statement, Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said the $18 million is $10 million more than any other city or town approved in this round of funding, calling the amount a vote of confidence in the city's plan.

"We've seen especially as economic times become tougher since 2008 the library attendance and activity has increased dramatically," Curtatone said in a Tuesday phone interview.

A larger, modern library would be a boon to the city, he said, and would help to activate the square's business district, which has been rezoned ahead of the planned arrival of the Green Line extension and a station stop expected there.

"Libraries have become so much more than facilities where you take out reading materials," Curtatone said. "They're really social centers."

With a sky-lit central stairwell, quiet rooms, and fully modern audio-visual capabilities, the new building is in sharp contrast to the aging central library location on Highland Avenue that was built in 1913 and last renovated in 1973, according to the city.

Curtatone said his administration is still evaluating the best way to raise the city's substantial portion of the cost, but said it could come through a combination of borrowing, fund-raising, or a public-private partnership that would defray costs. He said he expects to make public long-term plans for the future of Union Square within the next 60 days.

"We want to maximize our tax dollars," the mayor said.

Matt Byrne can be reached at mbyrne.globe@gmail.com.

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