Edgartown considers demolition of old school for new library

Edgartown officials Tuesday took a giant step toward razing the old Edgartown School and building a new library in its place.

Selectmen voted unanimously to endorse the library design committee’s recommendation to, literally, go back to the drawing board, a month before the deadline to apply for state funding.

The design committee and its architect are now racing the clock toward January 23, when they must submit their grant application.

The change in gears was prompted by an informal review with the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC) last week. State officials raised numerous objections to the latest expansion plans for the current library on North Water Street.

That plan included only six parking spaces, while preserving the Carnegie library building, and the historic Capt. Warren House. It also included a number of architectural compromises to fit the library programs onto the North Water Street site, and meet some of the state guidelines for library construction.

“Our assessment when we got back,” design committee member Carl Watt told selectmen, “was we got, at best, a lukewarm assessment of what we thought was a pretty nice project, with some serious negatives.”

In his notes to the design committee, project manager Rick Pomroy outlined the MBLC discussion, and the objections raised. They included the layout of the interior, the lack of a kitchenette in the program room, the layout of the children’s room, the lack of future expansion space, the design of a large program room that does not meet state guidelines, and especially, the parking scheme.

“Parking is a big issue with them,” Mr. Pomroy wrote to design committee members. “It was very clear to me, that they did not value the historic significance of the Carnegie or the current library location as high as seeing an efficiently designed facility with appropriate access and parking.”

The indifference of state officials to preserving the Carnegie library building surprised several design committee members.

“We got no points at all,” Mr. Watt told selectmen at Tuesday’ meeting. “Somewhere between half and three-quarters of all Carnegie libraries built in Massachusetts have passed out of the public domain.”

Tear down, build up

Representing the committee, Mr. Watt made the case for demolishing the old Edgartown School, to start new library construction from the ground up.

On October 29, the design committee voted to abandon consideration of the school site, after learning that it would need extensive reinforcement to meet new building codes, and the extra requirements for library use.

“It would amount to having to completely gut the school,” Mr. Watt said. “If we demolish the school, which seems kind of shocking, we start with a clean slate. We can meet any parking requirements.”

Mr. Watt said preliminary estimates of construction at the school site, including demolition of the building, are a relatively small cost increase over the current plan.

Town boards and voters may have a say in whether to demolish the old Edgartown School. Selectmen agreed to ask town counsel for an opinion on the legal issues surrounding demolition, and what role town regulatory boards and voters will play.

Design committee member Larry Mercier, who has favored the site from the beginning of the committee’s work, sees a clear advantage to demolishing the old school. “We’ve had five different projects look at it, and everybody has walked away from it,” Mr. Mercier said at the selectmen’s meeting. “It’s not a historic building, it’s not in a historic district. I don’t think there would be a lot of objection to tearing it down if we were going to have a new library there, a state of the art library.”

Cost consideration

The design committee has already instructed Imrey Culbert, its architectural firm, to begin work on a design for the school site. The firm has said it will bill the town for additional fees above its original $60,000 contract, because of the cost of working holidays and overtime to complete the design plans before the deadline for the grant application. The firm’s fee could double because the design process is essentially starting over. Mr. Watt said the design committee is still well within the $300,000 budget appropriated by Edgartown voters for the design project.

But the cost will be an issue. The design committee estimates the total cost of the new library project will be more than $10 million. Committee members estimate taxpayers will pay $4 million to $5 million of that amount.

“Last year, during budget time, we felt that $5 million was too much for the town at the time,” selectman Margaret Serpa said. “It’s almost sounding like that’s what we’re going to be looking at again. So, have we made any progress?”

Design committee member Chris Scott said shifting to the old school site would require a complex series of related articles on the spring town meeting warrant. Voters may have to decide what to do with the Warren House, what to do with the Carnegie library, whether to demolish the old school, whether to fund the cost of a new library, and whether to accept a state grant.

“It is going to be a very complicated discussion,” Mr. Scott said. “We have exhausted the possibilities of trying to fit the program the library has determined we need onto North Water Street. That’s just not doable. If we vote to accept the grant, the only place we can go is the old school site. Eventually, the voters are going to be looking at probably a $4 million plus appropriation to do that.”

Among other factors complicating the process is a strong signal from the Edgartown Historic District Commission that the Capt. Warren House must be preserved, and whether that will affect the value of the property to a private buyer. The town still carries a large debt on the vacant and deteriorating building, purchased by authorization of town voters in 2004 for $3.5 million.

“I think the Warren House is an embarrassment to the town,” Ms. Serpa said. Town officials estimate the market value of the property is less than the debt, and expect the town to take a loss if a private buyer purchases the property

Another factor is a provision of the deed signed by Caroline F. Warren, who donated land for the library in 1903. That deed says “in the event of discontinuance of said library after its erection,” the land will revert to Ms. Warren’s heirs.

Private fund-raising is also a question. The Edgartown Library Foundation has approximately $500,000 in hand, and $500,000 in pledges from a campaign to build a library that began in 2004, according to the design committee. Town officials scrapped the previous plan after the foundation fell far short of its fund-raising goal. In the past, through its public relations agency and at public meetings, foundation members hinted that donors who pledged money toward a project at the North Water Street site, may not make those donations to another site. Courtney Brady, formerly the clerk of the foundation, raised that issue again Tuesday.

“This is not something to be rushed,” Ms. Brady said. “To switch gears on December 21 and have the plan by January 27 is pushing it. There is a sentimental factor in your contributions that may not be forthcoming for the school site, which would be forthcoming for the Carnegie site.”

That prompted a sharp reply from Mr. Mercier. “When we started this, we bought the Warren House for $3.5 million,” he said. “The agreement was with the trustees at the time, that if the town did that, they would find the rest of the money to build this. It didn’t happen. They came to us last year looking for $4.8 million. Do you want a library or don’t you want a library? For Courtney to sit there and sort of threaten the trustees, or the foundation may not come up with the money? I think that was the insinuation. Do you want a library, or does it have to be a Carnegie library on North Water Street?”

The next step for the design committee is to review preliminary plans for a library on the school site. The committee has not yet scheduled that review.