WOBURN – After some five years of compromise over the proposal, the City Council this week sanctioned a $31.5 million bond authorization for a significant renovation and expansion of the Woburn Public Library.
On the eve before some $10 million in state grants could have been yanked from the city, the aldermen during a special meeting in City Hall voted 8-1 in favor of funding the project, which will entail the construction of a new 2.5-story wing onto the historic H.H. Richardson building.
The Pleasant Street library, which dates back to 1879 and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is considered by many to be the centerpiece of Woburn’s downtown area.
“We’ve gotten to the point where we all know something needs to be done with that library. I truly think it was a good vote by the council. We have a good building that I think will serve as an anchor for and help revitalize the downtown,“ said Mayor Scott Galvin.
Because the City of Woburn is in the almost unheard of position of having space under the Proposition 2 1/2 cap to fund the project within existing tax levy limits, Galvin and other local leaders will not seek a debt exclusion to cover the municipality’s $13.5 million share of the undertaking.
However, as the mayor re-emphasized during a phone interview on Tuesday morning, residents should expect to see a small increase in their tax bills as a result of the library renovation and expansion.
Though the exact amount of the increase will not be known until the city actually goes out to borrow the money, City Hall’s financial gurus have predicted the average residential homeowner will see their bill climb by roughly $35 as a result of the $31.5 million project.
“We’ve looked at our debt service and our ability to handle the debt payments, and we’re comfortable with that,” explained the mayor. “We have room under the 2.5 cap, but when you’re taking on a lot of debt service, there will be an impact on people’s tax bills. We don’t have a lot of debt [coming off the rolls] and we have other expenses that aren’t going away.”
Based on initial design plans prepared by Boston’s CBT Architects, the new addition and renovations to the existing building will involve some 49,903 square feet of space.
The new wing, to include two full floors topped by a mezzanine, will be situated at the rear of the property — a design element meant to ensure the view of the main building from Pleasant Street is not impeded or drastically altered.
Though there is less glass than in a previous iteration of the project — rejected in 2011 by city officials due to its high cost — the new building addition is peppered with large glass windows that face towards the original library in an attempt to give visitors a sprawling view of the 135-year-old H.H. Richardson edifice.
Inside the addition, which will be fully equipped by elevators and other handicapped-accessible features, a new children’s library will be situated on the first floor. On the second floor, library officials plan to locate a young adult book section, as well as a reference materials and a circulation desk.
The upper mezzanine section will be dedicated towards non-fiction materials.
The new spaces will enable librarians to create an art gallery, as well as viewing areas for other historical artifacts that had previously been stashed away in the old building’s attic. Library officials also say the project will result in the establishment of new community meeting rooms, as well as private study areas.
In budget documents prepared by Hingham-based construction estimator A.M. Fogarty & Associates, the renovations to the existing 1879 building will cost roughly $7.3 million, while erecting a new wing on the rear of the library site carries an approximate $12.1 million price tag.
Site work, bonding insurance, the acquisition of new technology and furnishings, and contingency accounts established to cover inflation and unforeseen expenditures raise the estimate to $28.5 million, while payments to contractors and other miscellaneous expenses round out the project’s overall $31.5 million budget.
Including the city’s $13.5 million contribution, as well as the $10 million in grant money from the Mass. Board of Library Commissioners (MBLC), the remainder of the project’s funding will come a donation from the Frizzell trust, fundraising by the Woburn Public Library’s Board of Trustees, and a fee for the naming rights.
Leaving no chance for second guesses
Monday night’s approval of the bond authorization was almost instantaneous, as the aldermen passed the appropriation without discussion — the entire gathering lasted no longer than five minutes.
Ward 2 Alderman Richard Gately, who last week questioned whether the undertaking can stay within budget given the age of the existing building, was the lone dissenter in the City Council action. Though Gately did not elaborate on the reasons for his opposition, he had during another special meeting last week challenged whether the construction budget was sufficient to cover unanticipated structural repairs or remediation work that might be required once portions of the 135-year-old library are opened up to tack on the new addition.
In fact, a draft project budget circulated to the City Council this week lists a HAZMAT abatement line-item, which would reportedly cover the cost of asbestos and other hazardous material remediation, as to-be-determined.
However, when Gately last week referred to that budget detail and suggested beams in older buildings were commonly treated with chemicals like arsenic, CBT Architects representative Chris Coios responded he had “never encountered anything like that in a Richardson building.”
Presumably because any further delay would jeopardize Woburn’s receipt of a $9.9 million grant from MBLC, Ward 7 Alderman Raymond Drapeau took the unusual step of reconsidering his vote on the bond authorization just moments after the City Council approved it on Monday night.
That parliamentary procedure essentially killed the opportunity for anyone to second-guess their vote and file a request to reconsider with City Clerk William Campbell’s office.
Under that process, any member of the City Council, who is among those on the prevailing side of a vote, could have sought to revisit the matter by notifying the city clerk within 24 hours of Monday night’s meeting in City Hall.
By asking to reconsider and then re-approving the $31.5 million bond authorization, the City Council ensured the finality of its funding approval, thereby guaranteeing the aldermen met the MBLC’s Sept. 15 deadline for okaying the library project appropriation.
According to Woburn library officials, the need to expand the building was first mentioned by city leaders back in 1908, and during the tenures of the past four mayoral administrations, the project was considered on various occasions.
A variation of the present-day proposal hit Galvin’s desk in 2010, when the mayor was asked by Woburn’s Library Board of Trustees to contribute some $17 million towards a similar addition and renovation project with a $24 million budget.
At the time, Galvin balked at that figure, suggesting library proponents were asking too much from taxpayers by seeking to have them foot nearly 70 percent of the undertaking. At the time, the MBLC was offering a $4.7 million grant.
In a counter-offer to the Library Board of Trustees in December of 2010, Galvin pledged some $5.5 million in city money for an expansion, but only if the trustees considered downsizing the project or finding alternative funding mechanisms.
For the past five years, library proponents and city leaders have met repeatedly to find an amenable compromise. Besides implementing design changes, such as reducing the amount of glass in the new wing, the Board of Trustees also garnered permission from the City Council in 2011 to pursue a larger construction grant.
At the time considered a long shot, that gamble paid huge dividends in August of 2014, when state library officials announced the project had been awarded $9.9 million. Advocates for the expansion have also managed to save millions of dollars for the project through private fundraising efforts.
This week, Galvin explained that after years of compromising and methodical planning, those lobbying for the library expansion convinced him that the time had come to act. Notably, though the overall budget for the project has climbed by some $7 million since 2010, the city is being asked to contribute nearly $3.5 million less towards the undertaking.
“I think what’s changed is we’ve gone through the process and worked with the MBLC to make sure we’re at the level where we need to be. It’s time to do something,” said the mayor of his change-of-heart.