With nearly $8 million in state library grant money riding on two votes this fall, Shrewsbury officials hope a public forum Thursday will educate residents on why they should vote in favor of a $23.2 million plan to renovate and expand the town’s public library.
While a different proposal was turned down at the ballot box in 2011, the current plan calls for fixing a laundry list of mechanical and building problems, while providing 38,600 square feet of space, said library director Ellen Dolan.
The project’s details will be laid out during the Library Building Committee’s meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday in Town Hall, including the proposed design and the failings of the current library building’s interior, exterior, and mechanical systems, and its lack of handicapped accessibility.
Officials say the plan is the best return on investment despite being the most expensive option. Another option that fell to the wayside involved only renovations for $11 million, and would have resulted in a working building, but an inferior one with less space than the existing library, said Dolan.
The current proposal includes provisions for a room for collections and programming, learning labs, technology centers, and community space, she said. Also, the children’s and young adult areas would be revamped, and more parking would be created.
“It would resolve the building problems and provide the building with a longer service life and much improvement,” Dolan said.
Of the $23.2 million cost, $7.96 million could be funded through a Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners grant, which is contingent on the project’s approval by Special Town Meeting next month and at a special election in November. The grant would expire at the end of the calendar year if a library plan is not approved.
In 2011, a library expansion plan gained Town Meeting approval, but was defeated in the townwide election by 153 votes out of the 6,178 cast, according to the town clerk’s records. The proposal would have cost $26.7 million; however, the vote involved a Proposition 2½ override seeking to increase property taxes by $11 million. It would also have been eligible for the $7.96 million state grant.
Shrewsbury resident Leo Froio, who said he considers himself a library “regular,” said the cost of the 2011 project is what may have stalled it. “People don’t want to pay for it,” he said. “If these people who voted against it came in here and had to work when the air conditioning isn’t working, they’d see.”
A failing and inefficient heating and cooling system is one of many problems facing the 25,000-square-foot library, according to committee documents. The original Howe Memorial Library building at 609 Main St. was completed in 1903, and the Artemas Ward Annex was added in 1923. The latest addition came in 1979.
“The real problem is the building itself is falling apart,” Froio said. “It needs to be replaced at any cost.”
Froio said the library has a community center feel with programs for all ages. The staff is friendly and helpful, and a library with more space and functioning equipment would be a boon for the town, he said.
Dolan, who sits on the Library Building Committee, said officials scaled back the 2011 design based on feedback following the vote.
Because the town can leverage the state library grant money, and because the building has been on the town’s capital repair list for more than a decade, it is time to act on a new library, Dolan said.
“The great benefit the state grant brings will benefit the community not only today, but years to come,” she said.
Drawbacks at the current library start in the lower-level children’s room, where low ceilings and tall book stacks make it hard for staff to monitor the area, she said. Public bathrooms are next to the children’s room, and lack supervision because of the layout, said Dolan.
The new children’s area, including expanded program space, is a highlight of the plan, Dolan said. In addition, the lower level would have gallery space for the Friends of the Library, office space, and storage. The restrooms would be moved up a level, solving what some see as a potential safety issue.
The plan would also update the security system and replace old carpeting and furniture, and resolve a list of mechanical issues that includes the inefficient water heater, cooling tower, and light fixtures; inadequate power and data sources; old fire alarms; and a water-damaged electrical panel.
Under the plan, the entry level would house adult fiction and periodicals, a young adult area, a multipurpose room, circulation, a group study room, restrooms, and a small kitchen.
The upper level would provide adult nonfiction, a quiet reading area, a group study area, a local history room, adult electronics, a learning center, and administrative offices.
The committee decided to place the adult nonfiction section on the upper level.
“The reading area for adults is on the third level, giving the adults the quiet they seek,” said Joan Barry, a Library Building Committee member, in a letter to the committee in lieu of her attendance at a June 20 meeting.
Outside the library, windows in the 1979 addition are deteriorating and a skylight is leaking, there are gaps in the 1923 brick veneer, and the north entry doors malfunction often. The masonry and windows in the 1903 section of the library, and the 1923 foundation, are also cracking, according to committee documents.
Another highlight of the renovation design, Dolan said, is the local history room planned for the upper level. Three years ago a mold outbreak meant historical archives had to be professionally cleaned and stored off site, she said. Under the plan, historical items would be stored on the upper level and residents would have access to them, she said.
Now, there is a young adult area on the upper level, which is not handicapped accessible, while young adult collections are on the lower level. The plan would put all teen-related material in one accessible place.
The parking lot is also insufficient for the 1,000 or so people who use the library daily, Dolan said. The new library would have 100 parking spots, versus 45 now. There would also be two outdoor seating areas.
The building also has accessibility and compliance issues that the plan would address.
Accessibility is important to Jennifer Metevia, who grew up in Shrewsbury and lives in Boylston. Her father-in-law, who lives in Virginia, is quadriplegic, and his motorized wheelchair can’t fit through all doors, she said.
Metevia said knowing what her father-in-law deals with, she is in favor of the increased accessibility under the proposed plan. “Even if it’s one person — I don’t care if it’s a child or a senior,” she said. “They miss out big time by not being able to use the library.”