Parking, Site Options Important When State Decides To Fund Library Projects

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Snow Library

Lauren Stara (center), library building specialist with the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, was greeted during a Dec. 10 tour of Snow Library by former director Mary Reuland (left). The tour was led by her successor, Tavi Prugno (right).  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS The state's expert on library building development had a perhaps surprising answer when asked about “deal-breakers” that could curtail funding for a project.

“Not enough parking is a big problem,” Lauren Stara, library building specialist with the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners, told the library's facilities advisory committee Dec. 10. “A lot of towns say, 'Everybody walks to our library.' Maybe that's true, but it's a fact that libraries with good parking get more people.”

Even collaborative parking, such as Brewster Ladies' Library lot-sharing with Brewster Baptist Church, “is taken into consideration, but not as good as designated,” Stara said.

Stara was in town to discuss the requirements of the MBLC planning and design and construction grant programs, which can provide a significant chunk of the costs for new buildings or thorough renovations. Her remarks about parking were thought-provoking given the current location's number of spaces.

And there was more. Stara said the commissioners prefer the efficiency of one-story buildings, two stories at the most, when reviewing competing applications for funds. Snow Library has three stories, including its fully-used basement. “With three stories,” said Stara of such buildings in general, “you're really looking for a lot of staff.”

Applications have to identify at least two sites that have been evaluated as part of the planning and design stage. “You usually won't determine what site to use until after you hire the architects,” she said. What about small towns that don't have other sites, Stara was asked. “You'd have to have a pretty compelling argument for not even identifying (an alternative),” she said, noting that it could be “an abandoned building you could take down or renovate.”

At first glance, thinking seriously about another site for the library runs counter to the longstanding interest in maintaining its strong role in the village center. With rezoning and the recent installation of sewer pipes there, the town hopes to attract housing development and more residents to enliven the center further.

In walking the committee through the process, Stara noted that no other state offers “a very well-supported construction grant program for public libraries. I moved here from British Columbia because of this program.”

The state legislature has funded rounds of planning and design grants and construction grants to help with the cost of library projects since 1987. The last construction round saw 33 grants awarded, with 11 projects now under construction or in final planning stages. “When we're retiring projects and there's some money left over, that's when we can start awarding new grants,” Stara said.

Over the last several years, the state has released $20 million annually for spending on library projects. If all the projects on the commission's waiting list go forward and that amount remains constant, there won't be another construction grant round until 2028. “We're asking the state Department of Administration and Finance to raise our annual capital budget to $25 million,” Stara said. “That would shave three years off of that. The best-case scenario is that we'll have our next planning and design grant round in 2021.”

The state provides between $50,000 and $75,000 in matching funds for planning and design grants (the library has asked that $75,000 be included in the town's capital plan). “That money is intended to help libraries do the activities they need to do to prepare themselves for the construction grant round,” Stara said, including “write a building program, get some geotechnical studies and surveys, maybe do a structural analysis, and have schematic drawings prepared by an architect. There isn't any need to do that kind of work prior to getting a planning and design grant.”

Such a grant “does not obligate you to apply for a construction grant,” said Stara, “and you don't need to have a planning and development grant in order to apply for a construction grant. We have six projects in the last construction grant round that did not have planning and development grants.”

Each town “has different needs,” Stara said. “We struggle with standards. People ask how big (their) library needs to be. There's no standard square foot per capita; it depends on what your town needs.” For example, if a community had a good supply of meeting rooms, a new library would not need to reserve as much space for such uses.

Stara, a former library director, doesn't recommend hiring an architect who has never designed a library. “I get to make fun of architects because I am one,” she said, adding, “I know that many architects are interested in how buildings look and photograph from outside rather than the functionality... My favorite question to ask librarians and front-line staff is, 'If you were building this again, what would you do differently?'... We were at a library (recently) where they put counter tops in as work surfaces and they were only 20 inches deep.”

In any event, “the building you present in your application is not the building that gets built,” Stara said. “It's often completely redesigned.” One thing you can't change after approval is the site, and you can't reduce the overall square footage. “You can make it larger,” said Stara, “but we don't give you any more money.”

Speaking of money, Stara said projects being built now are running between $600 and $800 per square foot for total costs, which include items such as landscaping, paving, furniture, and equipment, not just construction costs.