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The Boston Globe

West

Belmont

Committee nixes latest library bid

If Belmont Public Library officials know one feeling well, it’s disappointment.

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

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On Tuesday night, library officials again tasted the familiar bitterness of seeing their proposal fail. 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, currently used for playing fields, to the library as the site of a new, state-of-the-art facility.

“The whole thing is very unfortunate,” said Maureen Conners, the library’s 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 board’s members felt uncomfortable with not having a viable replacement for the sports fields, and noted the high school is being considered for expansion and renovation in the near future.

However, their decision was made with deep regret that the board could not help the library’s 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.”

‘It was a difficult decision for the School Committee to make. . . But also it’s a small town with very little extra land.’

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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 that were earmarked for the $18.5 million building project.

The grants are awarded once 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 for a new library in the current grant cycle, officials said.

Board of Selectmen member Andy Rojas said his board and the School Committee have supported the library and tried to look for playing fields to make the land transfer work, but pointed out that library officials had applied for the state funding without consulting with 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 Project Overview Committee will work to set priorities for the town’s construction needs this summer, and officials will see where the library ranks deciding whether to move forward with it.

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

Library officials have been vying for a new building since 2000, when a feasibility study reported that renovating and adding to the current facility would cost more and be less beneficial than starting from scratch.

And although the current building is failing mechanically and structurally, library officials say the space could be considered functional for other uses, such as a police station or senior center — projects the town has weighed over the years, but never resolved.

“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 property, Conners said, “we went with their wishes.”

Now the library will have to discuss with town officials again where to place a 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, would be about 35 percent larger than the current building, and would cooffer 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.

Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com.
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