Edgartown weighs cost and design for library project


Following a contentious meeting Friday when selectman Michael Donaroma compared the current library design process to a “train wreck,” the Edgartown library design committee decided to go back to the drawing board. The committee agreed to ask its architect to significantly scale back preliminary expansion plans submitted just four days earlier.

On October 4, architect Celia Imrey presented preliminary design drawings for two sites: the current library on North Water Street site, which includes the adjacent Captain Warren House purchased for $3.5 million; and the brick building that once housed the Edgartown School on Edgartown-West Tisbury Road.

The committee intended to review a refinement of those plans with rough cost estimates at Friday’s meeting. But shortly after the meeting began, the discussion turned to money and scaling back.

“We need to start realistically looking at cost and where do we get the money from, and size,” selectman Donaroma said. He represents the selectmen on the design committee. “What do we really, really need, and what can we afford?”

As the discussion drifted back to the two designs, Mr. Donaroma, clearly frustrated, asked whether he was the only person in the room concerned about cost. He said rough estimates of $2 million to $3 million for either the current site, or the old school site, were probably too costly for selectmen or town voters to support.

“I’m afraid we’re getting into another train wreck,” Mr. Donaroma said. “This is the same train wreck that we were in last time. We’re trying to price something we can’t pull through town meeting.”

Design dollars

Objections to the preliminary North Water Street designs emerged, even apart from cost considerations. The committee agreed earlier that based on population, library usage, and state guidelines, Edgartown needs a library facility of 15,000 to 16,000 square feet. Preliminary design plans from the architect met that criterion.

“I look at what they’ve come up with for this site, bottom line is, it’s a very tight fit,” committee chairman Chris Scott said. “I don’t think it’s an appropriate scale, I don’t think the parking works.”

Ann Tyra called the discussion about reducing the size of the project a curve ball she didn’t expect. Ms. Tyra represents the library trustees on the committee.

“If it’s too expensive for the town, what should be done?” Ms. Tyra said. “Let’s get this to be a working session and stop spinning our wheels. What should be cut? Exactly what?”

“We’re looking for you to help us with that,” Mr. Donaroma said. “We all have open minds here, believe it or not. One thing we agree on is the town needs a better library than we have.”

“All of a sudden we’re having cold feet about money,” committee member Richard Knight said. “We’re doubting ourselves on no basis other than our sudden communal cold feet.”

“I don’t agree,” Mr. Scott said. “I’m basing it on my evolving position. That’s what happens.”

“I’m surprised that we are reacting quite the way we are,” Mr. Knight said. “I think we need to pick our site. The more time we spend going back and forth is a waste of good energy. Let’s pick our site, then devote our energy to come up with a good plan for that site.”

Near the end of the 90-minute session, a loose agreement emerged to return to the architect to ask her to come up with new drawings that reduce the size of the project considered for North Water Street. There was no definitive agreement on a percentage or number of square feet to cut. The committee hopes to review the downsized plans on October 19.

Warren House

Looming over the library financing is the Captain Warren House next door to the library, purchased for $3.5 million in 2005. Voters authorized the town to borrow money for the purchase and use the land for library expansion. But the building turned out to be structurally unsuited for supporting floors full of books. The town has secured permits to raze it and rebuild the outer part of the structure as a historically accurate replica.

During Friday’s meeting, committee member Larry Mercier estimated the market value of the Warren House property is now $2.5 million. “If we sell for $2.5 million, we would reduce the bond,” Mr. Mercier said. “We would in essence lose maybe a million.”

Mr. Donaroma said since the town voted to spend the money for library expansion, the town could pay off the bond with proceeds from a sale and issue another bond in the amount of the sale for a future library project.

All recent expansion plans for the North Water Street site incorporate the Warren House property into the design. Mr. Mercier and others advocate selling the property and using proceeds to fund library expansion at the old elementary school.

Ms. Tyra asked the committee to remember to compare all costs when considering the two sites. The 1903 deed of land granted by Caroline F. Warren stipulated that if the current library is no longer used as a library, the land would revert to Ms. Warren or her heirs. Ms. Tyra said if the town wants to keep the historic Carnegie library building, it would have to break the deed. She said that would likely involve legal costs and restitution to those heirs.

In a phone conversation yesterday, Mr. Donaroma called that issue a “scare tactic.” He said the selectmen have always envisioned some kind of libary use for the Carnegie building. He mentioned archives, summer library use, or library program meeting space.

“The Carnegie is a jewel that will always, in one way or another, be used by the town,” Mr. Donaroma said. “We don’t want to get into any kind of negotatiatons that mean we would forfeit that building. But that’s not a good enough reason to build a 15,000 square foot library that doesn’t fit.”

Best laid plans

The Edgartown library project has been a source of dissension among public officials and library trustees since shortly after a 1975 expansion of the library. That project quadrupled the size of the building. But eight years later, the trustees were already planning another expansion, according to library documents. Expansion plans sputtered through various committees, architectural firms, and funding difficulties for the next 20 years, with small scale improvements to the building completed along the way.

After the town purchased the Warren House in 2005, plans moved ahead for an $11 million, 17,000 square foot expansion project. When the Edgartown Library Foundation’s fundraising efforts fell far short of its goal, the town scrapped the plans and gave up a $4.6 million matching grant from the state.

While economic pressures hurt fundraising, a lack of consensus also hurt, according to library officials. “Some of the issues with raising money in the last round were that there were people who thought the town was divided,” Ms. Tyra said in a phone conversation with The Times on Monday. “I think prospective donors would just like the dissension to stop.”

Privately, some involved in the library design plans say the divisions within the design committee and among town boards is a sure death knell for the current project. Ms. Tyra is not among them, and neither is Gwynneth “Baba” Smith, chairman of the library foundation.

“I do believe people will give, to see that Edgartown gets the library it should have,” Ms. Tyra said. “You’re going to gain and you’re going to lose donations, no matter where the library is.”

“I have to be optimistic,” Ms. Smith said in a phone conversation Monday. “I’m happy to see it get smaller, but I don’t want to see it get so small that in 10 years we have to expand again. It seems, given the history, that people are going to regret that decision.”