City Unveils ‘Test Fits’ for Modernized West End Branch Library

The city unveiled several “test fits” that envision a revitalized West End Branch of the Boston Public Library with a new affordable housing component during a virtual meeting on Tuesday, May 11.

The city’s Public Facilities Department, working in concert with the Boston Public Library and Boston-based Ann Beha Architects, is now wrapping up an approximately 12-month study to evaluate the existing conditions of the library branch that opened in the 1960s, and to plan for its future over the next half-century. The latest meeting was the second of several that the city intends to hold on the proposal, with the first taking place in January when the planning team solicited input from the public on programming for the site.

“This is really going to be a library for all ages,” said Philip Chen, principal and president of Ann Beha Architects, who besides pointing to the current need for both a senior center and a youth center in the West End, added that space should continue to provided for the food pantry that current operates out of the library in the new facility.

The library take’s up one-third of the site, which, said Steve Gerrard, architect, is obscured by trees and “a bit hidden from the street.”

Regarding the existing building, Gerrard described its hexagonal reading room as “desirable” and said it’s something that could be incorporated into the new building design.

Besides updating and expanding the adult, teen and children’s reading areas, a new library would also include ample new community space, said Gerrard, including a new community room that could accommodate as many as 100 guests; a dedicated classroom for up to 20 people with space for the storage of food pantry supplies; and two small meeting rooms for four to six people each.

Outside the library, room for reading areas and teaching spaces for children would be incorporated into the landscape design, said Gerrard, and outdoor furniture (and bike racks) would be placed throughout to encourage guests to spend time there.

Taylor Cain, director of the city’s Housing Innovation Lab, said the building design for the new library is still a ways off, and that the planning team is now exploring different options for the site regarding building heights and other variables.

Options the planning team is now exploring for the site include, she said, five-story and 10-story buildings, both of which could accommodate either a single-story library or one that would occupy the first two floors instead.

The five-story option could accommodate 34 housing units (or 35 units with a two-story library), while the 10-story plan makes room for 79 units (or 85 units with a two-story library), added Cain, and while the size of the proposed units has yet to be determined, the planning team is now looking at a mix of studio, as well as one-, two- and three-bedroom dwellings.

The residential tower would also be “pulled away” from Cambridge Street and the adjacent library, she said, to not only minimize the shadow impact on Cambridge Street, but also to potentially create a rooftop terrace atop the library for the use of residents.

The entrance for the library would also be moved to the side, said Cain, to create separate entrances for it and the residences.

Several neighbors expressed their concerns about potential impact of undertaking this project at a time when other major development projects are already proposed for the area, including Mass General Hospital’s expansion plans and the redevelopment of the Charles F. Hurley Building, as well as the long-awaited MBTA Red-Blue line connector project.

City Councilor Kenzie Bok said she and Rep. Jay Livingstone had made MGH aware of the “overlapping” proposed projects, but assured those in attendance that the Hurley Building redevelopment (as well as the Red-Blue line connector) is still “a while off.”

Additionally, Councilor Bok commended the planning team on working so effectively to balance the “needs and desires” of what she described as “the only public owned building in Beacon Hill.”

But she cautioned, “There are only so many uses we can look at on this site and have it really work, and have financing for it really work.”

Carissa Demore of Historic New England said she’s concerned that items in the collection of the nearby Otis House Museum could be damaged during construction and asked whether the project could get underway before 2023.

Maureen Anderson, a project manager with the city’s Public Facilities Department, said while none of timelines for the project “were set in stone,” but it would likely be a two- to three-year process before construction could even begin, and that process is expected to take between 20 to 36 months to complete.

Meanwhile, the planning team is scheduled to submit its Final Report for the project next month, she said.

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