Mayor: Some libraries, community centers must close

John Ruch

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Mayor Thomas Menino announced yesterday that some branch libraries need to be shut down, despite a Boston Public Library (BPL) budget review and a master planning process that are supposedly still under way.

Menino did not specify particular facilities for closure, but local library friends groups fear at least one Jamaica Plain branch will be on the list. The city is reportedly arranging a meeting in JP for later this month about the libraries, with its agenda unclear, according to Friends of the Jamaica Plain Branch Library.

And some community centers run by the Boston Center for Youth & Families (BCYF) will shut down, too, Menino said in a speech at a Boston Municipal Research Bureau lunch. The general idea is that surviving libraries and community centers will be improved with the newly focused resources.

BYCF Executive Director Daphne Griffin, in her first interview about the plan, confirmed to the Gazette that some community centers will be closed and consolidated. But, she said, that will happen only after community meetings this month that will examine the city’s 46 centers in “not just quantitative, but qualitative” terms.

Griffin is a JP resident who knows the local community centers well. She declined to make general comments about them, except to note that the Curtis Hall and Agassiz centers are close to each other: “You could basically throw a rock” from one to the other, she said.

“We need to close some buildings that are not offering the highest quality service to the residents of Boston,” Menino said of the BPL branches in the March 4 speech, according to the Boston Globe. “I know this can feel heartbreaking to neighbors who identify with these places. But buildings don’t define us—our connections to each other do.”

As for community centers, “We will have a community center in every neighborhood,” Menino reportedly said. “But as we look ahead, we may have to consolidate some under-utilized facilities so we can deploy more people in direct service positions and mentoring roles to our children.”

BPL branches in Jamaica Plain include the Connolly in Hyde Square and the Jamaica Plain Branch in central JP. JP has four BCYF community centers: one at Curtis Hill right next to the JP Branch Library, and three more in the Agassiz, Hennigan and English High public schools.

Branch libraries

The BPL says it is facing state budget cuts that are forcing either closures or severe service cuts at the 26 branch libraries. The Jamaica Plain Neighborhood Council and the Jamaica Pond Association have both opposed any JP branch closures. Local friends groups are circulating at least two save-the-library petitions, among other advocacy efforts.

BPL President Amy Ryan is scheduled to present some sort of updated information on these proposals at a March 9 BPL trustees meeting.

Despite Menino’s definitive statements that closures are needed, “No decisions have yet been made,” BPL spokesperson Gina Perille told the Gazette. “We are continuing to go forward with all options on the table.”

The BPL trustees won’t be making any budget-related decisions before next week at the earliest. And the BPL Compass master planning process for the entire library system is ongoing and intended to wrap up in May.

But the Mayor’s Office reportedly has been preparing a branch closure plan for at least six days. Mary Ann Nelson, president of Mission Hill’s Friends of the Parker Hill Branch Library, told the Gazette that a city official at a Feb. 27 friends meeting said that community meetings about “closures” were being planned.

City Hall documents obtained by the Gazette show that the Mayor’s Office is determined on a closure plan.

“Our current [library] system is over-bricked and over-mortared…” wrote Molly Dunsford, Menino’s liaison to the Boston City Council, in a March 4 e-mail to all of the councilors previewing Menino’s speech.

It is unclear what information Menino used to form his opinion that branch libraries need to close, especially because the BPL’s own reviews are supposedly still under way. “That’s an interesting question,” said Mayor’s Office spokesperson Christopher Loh, who could not immediately provide an answer.

Menino’s judgment that certain branches are “not offering the highest quality service” would seem to require having specific buildings in mind. Loh could not immediately say which branches the mayor was referring to.

There have been suggestions for at least four years that Menino and the BPL were seeking to kill some branches, probably including the heavily used JP Branch, which is in a small, aging building.

In 2006, someone leaked an internal BPL study to the Boston Globe that reportedly suggested closing some branch libraries. Former BPL President Bernard Margolis later told the Gazette that the study was flawed and had been leaked by someone at City Hall for unknown reasons.

The Globe also editorialized in favor of eliminating some branches, particularly questioning JP’s need for two branches. The editorial called branch libraries in general “expensive tokens” of “political clout.”

That same year, a design for a renovation and expansion of the JP Branch was completed. But Margolis dramatically showed up at a design unveiling meeting in person to kill the plan. He later told the Gazette that controversial Menino aide Michael Kineavy ordered him to kill the plan. The Mayor’s Office later told the Gazette that Margolis had permitted a design with too much “grandeur.” An earlier plan, also rejected by the city, suggested physically connecting the Curtis Hall community center and the JP Branch Library.

Margolis was soon forced out of his job, while calling Menino an “anti-intellectual” bent on killing branch libraries. But since then, Menino also has presided over the opening of some new or renovated branches.

The BPL has held various planning processes that affect JP’s branches, all of them draped in secrecy. The JP Branch expansion plan was conducted in entirely secret meetings, a process the Mayor’s Office defended strongly to the Gazette at the time.

In 2008, the BPL completed a master plan for its branch libraries that recommended expansions and renovations, among other things. That little-known plan had virtually no public input and reportedly was not even published until library friends groups asked about it.

Now another master plan, BPL Compass, is in the works. Three public meetings were held about that plan—announced just before the December holidays and held in early January.

Library advocates have noted that the BPL did not advertise anything about its budget problems and possible branch closures in the libraries. The main forum for information and discussion is the BPL trustees meetings, most of which are held during the day on weekdays at the main Copley Square library.

Community centers

Dunsford’s e-mail to the City Council included a letter to the councilors from BCYF’s Griffin. Griffin wrote that BCYF has “identified opportunities to…eliminate duplication and under-utilization….”

“Our staffing remains thin across our network of sites and many sites are under utilized [sic] as a result,” Griffin wrote.

That means that some centers don’t have the proper staff to meet minimum management requirements, Griffin said in a Gazette interview today. Also, some centers are Boston Public Schools that are served by non-profit agencies with similar programs, she said.

While BCYF is planning a community process about its centers, “some are” definitely going to close and be consolidated with other centers, Griffin confirmed to the Gazette.

Asked by the Gazette which centers are under-utilized, Griffin said, “I can’t answer that right now. We’re pulling the criteria together.”

But, she explained, BCYF does know which centers appear to be under-utilized on paper, in terms of visitor numbers. She said BYCF will provide the Gazette with a full list of recent visitor numbers for all community centers.

Griffin added that visitor numbers will not be the only critierion for deciding on closures. Three public meetings will be held on March 18, 24 and 31, at locations to be announced, to gather input on programming priorities. There will be other forms of outreach, including the BCYF web site.

Griffin said BYCF will ask residents, “What works well, what doesn’t work well, and what do we need to add?”

She indicated that the meetings will not include specific closure proposals, instead being focused on “shar[ing] criteria” for making decisions. “We do have [a record of] numbers of visitations,” she said, but it is unclear whether those would be presented.

Geography likely will be another criterion. She noted that BYCF currently has about one community center per square mile, in terms of abstract numbers. “We have some neighborhoods that are oversaturated,” she said.

Asked whether three community meetings will be enough to address the needs of 46 community centers, Griffin said, “Certainly, if we need to schedule more [meetings], we will.”

Closure and consolidation of some community centers “could be reflected in the budget for next fiscal year,” wrote Jordan Ablon, an attorney for the city’s Office of Labor Relations, in a letter to the BCYF’s employees union. The letter, which was included in Dunsford’s e-mail to the City Council, also described a “multi-year process” for reviewing BYCF’s programming.

BYCF’s process will include coordination with Boston Public Schools planning, and possibly with the BPL branch planning as well, Griffin said. The Curtis Hall community center is right next to the JP Branch Library. BYCF’s headquarters is in Mission Hill’s Tobin Community Center and school, which is also next door to a branch library.

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