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Closing the Book: The New Cambridge Library

By Imtiyaz H. Delawala and Andrew S. Holbrook, Crimson Staff Writerss

When Cambridge first began discussing a new public library, George Bush--the elder--was in the White House.

Eight years after initial discussions began, the City Council is finally ready to select the site of the city's library for the 21st century.

And in what has become one of its most anticipated decisions, the council is poised to choose between two sites at a Dec. 11 special meeting.

The city currently has a library located on Broadway Street directly behind Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS). The Romanesque building was constructed in 1889, with its most recent additions made in 1967.

But the building has grown dreadfully out of date, with the Cambridge community agreeing a new library has to be built.

"There are very few people in this town that would look at our library and say it does not need some work," says library trustee Janet Axelrod.

Axelrod gives a detailed description of the problems with the current facility.

"It's mostly about what we don't have," she says. "We don't have any really good civic meeting area. We don't have enough room in a reading room for people to come and read and have quiet to do research. Our stacks are a disgrace. I wouldn't be surprised if they're not totally safe."

Councillor Jim Braude provides a more terse description.

"It is antiquated, on a good day," he says.

So since 1992, Cambridge has slowly been struggling to create a new library for the city. In 1996, after public opposition derailed approval of the expansion of the current site, the city manager appointed a committee of residents and city officials to study the need for a new public library.

After 18 months and 23 public meetings, the group, known as Library 21, presented its findings, saying the city needed a large main library of about 100,000 square feet for expanded services and larger collections.

The committee did not, however, make recommendations on a site, saying the city should hire consultants to perform a site study following guidelines of the committee.

In March 1998, the city hired Sasaki Associates, an architectural and urban planning firm, to investigate possible sites for the new library.

In August 1998, the firm presented the council with five new sites as well as the current site for consideration.

And in the last year, through numerous community and public council meetings, the choices have been narrowed down to two, with the council split on which they will choose next month.

Broadway Bound

The two sites currently under consideration are an expansion of the current Broadway site, and a completely new site on Prospect Street near Central Square.

All the library trustees as well as several members of the council support expansion of the current site on Broadway as the best option.

Proponents of the site say the current location is logical because it has served as the site for so long.

"The city owns the site already," says Councillor David P. Maher. " It's a prestigious building in a serene setting."

Trustee James Roosevelt Õ68 says the library makes a "civic statement" on how Cantabrigians value learning and knowledge.

The current location has "a park-like setting that provides a dignity and a repose for knowledge that people consider appropriate for a major library," he says.

Other supporters add that having a library next to the high school is in keeping with the vision of Frederick H. Rindge, who donated the land where the current library stands and who is the namesake of CRLS.

"The original idea of the construction was as an educational campus with the school and the library," says Vincent L. Dixon, a supporter of the Broadway site.

The site is also located in the geographic center of the city, with major neighborhood areas nearby.

"If you look at a map, it's at the center of the city, not Central Square," Maher says.

Good Prospects?

But supporters of the Central Square site at Prospect Street decry several problems with expanding the location at Broadway. They say the current location is inconvenient, served by only two city bus lines. By contrast, six lines and the Red Line serve Central Square.

"What's the point of building a library no one can get to?" questions Karen Carmean, a former member of the Library 21 committee, who supports the Central Square site.

For many people, there is no other reason to go along Broadway Street, says Sara Mae Berman. Berman supports the Prospect Street site, in part because Central Square is more central to most people's lives.

"You can do other things there, it doesn't have to be a dedicated trip. You can go to the bank, go to the supermarket or pay your bills at City Hall," she says.

Opponents of the Broadway site say that while it is the geographic center of the city, Central Square is the heart of the city.

"The purpose of a library is for education and research and learning, but it's also a center of activity for community," Councillor Braude says. "That's why it should be in what is really the center of the community and not just the geographic center, which is accessible to far too few people."

And at the center of four major Cambridge neighborhoods, proponents say a Central Square site will simply draw larger crowds.

"[The Central Square site] is going to be open to a lot more people," says Councillor Marjorie C. Decker.

Central Square's proponents say that creating a new facility from scratch would be better than simply adding on to an outdated building.

But this accessibility and creativity would come at a cost. The Central Square site is projected to cost nearly $11 million more than expanding the Broadway site. The current price tag for the Broadway site is $30 million.

But Braude says that the cost is negligible.

"When spread out over the hundred year life span of the building, a few million dollars is a reasonable price to pay for doing the right thing," he says.

Building Tension

Concerns about each of the sites have grown beyond more than merely the locations.

In the last two months, as the council tries to fulfill promises to select a library site before the end of the year, tempers have flared and meetings have become heated.

Temperatures rose at a joint meeting the City Council held last Thursday with school committee members and school district administrators.

In three-and-a-half feisty hours of spirited back and forth debate, school officials raised concerns about the disruption that construction so close to CRLS would cause.

The library would take two or three years to build and would involve heavy construction that could distract students in classrooms with noise and obstructions on the campus grounds.

"Construction is going to be difficult on teachers and on students," Decker says. "Those concerns are real."

But city officials have committed to consult school committee members and high school administrators throughout the planning process and pledged to minimize construction noise.

"We would time the bid so that the heaviest and most disruptive work would be done during non-school time," City Manager Robert W. Healy said.

They also worried that expansion at the Broadway site would cramp the high school.

"When you have so little open space, every little bit counts," says school committee member Alice L. Turkel. "We will never get back an inch of open space."

CRLS is also in the middle of a major restructuring effort to change its teaching curriculum, which Principal Paula M. Evans said was stressful enough without disruption from the construction project.

"I worry about this putting people over the edge," she said.

Last week's meeting became very pointed at times, with Councillor Timothy J. Toomey Jr. calling the leadership of Superintendent of Schools Bobbie J. D'Alessandro and other school officials "disappointing" and saying that they were focusing too much on "me, me, me."

D'Alessandro told councillors she was displeased with the reception school officials received.

"If you ask for honest input, you'll get it," D'Alessandro said. "We did the best we could. We didn't paint a rosy picture. We vary in our opinions."

Councillor Braude harshly criticized his fellow councillors for their attacks on school committee members.

"For the woman who runs the high school to be treated so dismissively, as if we know better what's best for the kids who go to school there, is arrogant at best," Braude says. "I'm not saying what she believes is what we have to believe, but there was almost no consideration of her thoughts."

December Decision

Despite continuing disagreement, a self-imposed vote deadline still looms. But discussion of the library during Monday's regular council meeting quickly degenerated into bickering over whether the scheduled Dec. 11 meeting about the library required a final vote.

"We all want to get this done as soon as possible, but I want to be clear that the meeting is a special meeting on site selection, where we hope to have closure and make a decision," Braude said.

Several councillors quickly spoke up, saying that they did expect a vote at the meeting.

"There has to come a point when it's time to make a decision," said Councillor Michael A. Sullivan.

While Mayor Anthony D. Galluccio said the meeting was originally scheduled for the purpose of a vote, he said a decision could not be made unless five councillors decide to support a vote.

"Unless there are enough members who want to vote on a library, it won't get voted on," Galluccio said. "As usual, it's up to the democratic will of this body. The chair can't mandate a vote."

The discussion was only a microcosm of the debate that has been a constant throughout the entire library selection process, with pressure to make a final decision colliding with a desire to make the most informed decision.

"I know that we're all very anxious to fulfill the promises we made in our campaigns," said Councillor Kathleen L. Born. "And we think that we will choose a site for the library and we'll get the project underway by the start of the holiday season."

"But I think that each of us want to be sure that the decision we make is as informed as it possibly can be," Born added. "I want to insure everyone that there is a difference between delaying, and waiting for the most informed decision."

Prolonged wrangling over library construction is not unprecedented--similar discussions took 20 years in Newton and nearly half a century in Boston.

But while the council continues to make site visits to formulize opinions, several councillors say that a site should be determined on Dec. 11.

"Quite frankly this has been talked to death," Maher says. "And I think it's time for action. All of us have constituencies. All of us have supporters on both sides. But I think it's time the council stands up and lets its position be known."

--Staff writer Imtiyaz H. Delawala can be reached at delawala@fas.harvard.edu. Staff writer Andrew S. Holbrook can be reached at holbr@fas.harvard.edu.

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