The Boston Public Library (BPL) trustees voted March 13 to request $125,000 for “improvements” to the JP Branch on Sedgwick Street in this year’s capital fund instead of a long-stalled $8 million renovation plan recently pushed for again by the Friends of the Jamaica Plain Branch Library.
“What they have proposed is what the city proposed 10 years ago—a band-aid approach that is piecemeal and wholly inadequate,” Friends co-chair Don Haber said.
“The JP Branch has been one of the busiest in the city for many years,” Friends co-chair Gretchen Grozier said. “It can continue to serve its neighborhood, it just needs to join the 21st century.”
“It’s challenging to predict the likelihood” of getting renovation money from the city, BPL spokesperson Gina Perille said. “The library is one of many City of Boston departments that submit requests for capital funding each year, which means that the requests the City receives are greater than the dollars available in any one year.”
BPL will soon review branches for possible upgrades next fiscal year, Perille added.
“The audit will cost $465,000, take at least two years to complete…and is a complete waste of taxpayer money,” Haber told the Gazette. “The [near] half-a-million dollars will produce a report that will be the justification used to close branches in the future.”
BPL President Amy Ryan said in a March 2 letter to the Friends of the JP Branch that “discussions have already started” on how to spend a $19,000 bequest on other “improvements” to the JP Branch.
The Mayor’s Office stated that “it’s a bit too early for our involvement” in this issue, and directed further questions to BPL.
The JP Branch was built in 1911, the first neighborhood branch building in the BPL system. While it has been renovated in that time, the building remains largely unchanged from its original state. It is notably not accessible to users with mobility issues, as has been nationally required since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990.
“It’s amazing that it’s been almost 22 years and we’re still waiting,” Grozier said.
During a recent Gazette visit, Friends members showed various ADA non-compliances, like the restrooms—too small to accommodate a wheelchair and accessible only by stairs—and the disused spaces in the lower level. The library’s meeting and function space is also downstairs and accessible only by stairs, which limits its possible uses, Friends member Peg Moloney explained.
According to the Friends group, the JP Branch has 10,200 gross square feet of space, almost half of which is in the lower level of the building and not available for programming.
In 2006, an expansion study was completed and a renovation plan proposed. The recommended plan would increase gross square feet by 3,570 and usable public space from near 5,000 square feet to 13,900 square feet. According to the study, “a typical newer branch library in the BPL system is about 20,000 gross square feet.”
That renovation plan would cost $8.5 million. It would create a new entrance facing South Street, add elevators, accessible restrooms and a Young Adult room, and move the children’s room to the lower level. It would also divert major traffic patterns away from reading and technology areas. Currently, the main entrance opens to the children’s room.
“You can’t have a major traffic path right through the children’s room,” Haber said.
The 2006 renovation plan has been shelved since its completion. About 20 BPL capital projects have been approved by the library and are waiting sufficient funds from the city to break ground. The JP Branch renovation is one of these projects.
“It’s a great time to borrow money, to put people to work and for cheap construction costs,” Haber said.
“It’s not like the city doesn’t know it needs to happen,” Grozier said.
The March 2 letter written by Ryan states her support for “improvements,” including a “redesign of the circulation area, new book drops…an AV system” and other improvements, to be financed from a $19,000 bequest.
She also states that “the BPL will recommend funding in our capital plan for improvements to JP Library that will be informed by a general facility review of public service accommodations, the electrical and lighting systems, accessibility and other items.”
She did not mention the 2006 plan or any other major renovation plan.
“It’s up to the mayor,” Moloney said.
“If the City Council puts their foot down,” Grozier said, the renovation will happen.
JP City Councilor Matt O’Malley did not return a Gazette phone call. At the “State of the Neighborhood” forum last month, he stated that securing the funds for the library’s renovation would be one of his main goals this year.
BPL’s capital budget covers major construction projects while its operating budget covers expenditures related to actually running BPL, like payroll and material acquisition. BPL capital budget funds are submitted by the mayor and approved by the city council, not the BPL board of directors.
Before the 2006 plan is shovel-ready, BPL would need to meet with the community and check for updates or changes. It would also need to coordinate with other City departments in planning, design and construction process, Perille said.
According to a BPL letter provided to the Gazette by Haber, half of BPL branches do not meet BPL’s own definition of “accessible,” the JP Branch among them.
BPL standards of accessibility include an accessible interior—which may include elevators or lifts—accessible public restrooms and push-button-activated doors. ADA requirements do not require push-button-activated doors in all cases.
Haber mentioned the Philadelphia and Seattle library systems, both of which raised funds and made major renovations, system-wide, in less than 10 years.
“It shows how Boston citizentry has low expectations of its libraries,” Haber said.
A BPL Board of Trustees meeting to discuss the BPL Fiscal Year 2013 budget was scheduled for Tues., March 13, after the Gazette’s deadline.
The 2006 report is available at bit.ly/BPLreport.