Abutters want to slash Children’s Room hours over parking, traffic.

Looks like we’ve got a summertime fire drill here in our Town of Homes, courtesy of NIMBY (Not In My Backyard.)

While we were all at the beach, a group of abutters to the Benton Branch library is up in arms that the nearly century old library will again be used as a library. In response, they’ve been pressuring our town’s Select Board to cut the planned operating hours for the temporary Children’s Room by more than half, from 50 hours to just 20, because of complaints about (you guessed it) traffic and parking.

Needless to say, slashing Belmont’s children’s access to our public library because some residents are opposed to residents parking cars on public streets to use a nearly century old library is…what’s the word…nuts? Yeah. That’s it. It’s nuts.

But as crazy as it sounds, there’s more than a passing chance that the Select Board will cave to abutters and vote to restrict the children’s room hours to 20 hours a week – one third the number of hours each week that the children’s room at the main branch of the library is open.

In response, and to try to head off a terrible decision, Belmont’s own Matt Taylor has created a Change.org petition asking the Select Board to preserve the current plan to have the Children’s room operate for 50 hours per week at the Benton Branch. Use the button below to sign Matt’s petition.

You should also plan to attend the Select Board meeting on Monday evening, August 7 at 7:00 PM and make sure that the Select Board hears that you support keeping the Children’s Room open for the 50 hours per week that the library staff has planned. The discussion of the Benton Branch is slated to begin at 7:20, but plan on attending early. Use the button below to join virtually via Zoom.

Use this library as a library? That’s outrageous!

While it is certain that many (though not all) children who visit the temporary Children’s Room will arrive by car with their parent or guardian, this is kids we’re talking about and the streets around the Benton Branch are public streets designed to accommodate parked cars.

After all – the Benton Branch was a fully staffed and regularly operating branch library for nearly 80 years – from 1930 until 2009. Since 2011 it’s operated as an independent community library run by Friends of the Benton Library.

In other words, it’s not like Belmont’s blindsiding the neighbors by opening a restaurant, liquor store or night club in their quiet little neighborhood. This building has operated as a library for nearly a century!

Cutting kids’ library time has big costs for Belmont

As Matt points out in his petition, the costs to the community of cutting library hours for the Children’s Room are big. As you may know, Belmont’s library is one of the most visited in the state – and sits alongside much larger communities (like Cambridge) in terms of daily visitors. And the Children’s Room is one of the most used services at the library.

As Matt points out: 20 hours a week is a two thirds reduction in hours from the status quo, with the Children’s Room currently open to kids and families about 60 hours a week. As it stands, the library staff has already proposed a slightly reduced Children’s Room schedule with about 50 hours a week during the 2-year demolition and construction period.

An economic analysis of the Library’s benefit around the time of the override found the Children’s Room provides at least $4.5 million in economic benefit every year — nearly half of the more than $10 million in annual value our Belmont Public Library provides to the whole community.

Among other things, it offers morning and afternoon hours that are critical community resources for Pre-K and younger children, and their families. Morning and afternoon hours are essential for all children during the hot summer months, when many kids (and parents) are looking for things to do outside of the home, and a place to beat the heat. During the school year, the Children’s Room offers after school and weekend hours that are vital for elementary aged school children – especially since Belmont has de-funded its elementary school libraries over the past decade. And, as Matt points out with a total budget under $300k, our school libraries lack the resources to serve the community, are inaccessible to non-students, and are closed over the summer.

As Matt notes: if adopted, the reduced hours will severely reduce access, limit educational opportunity, and remove a vital asset of our entire community — as our students continue to work on academic recovery following the pandemic.

Besides, as Matt notes, the Benton Library (not to mention the streets and sidewalks around it) are taxpayer-owned public assets. As we look to temporarily relocate library functions during construction, it we should use town resources available to us for the benefit of the whole community. Spending scarce budget and staff resources to rent and convert other space into a temporary Children’s Room to appease the reflexive opposition of the “Not In My Back Yard” crowd makes no sense.

Shared sacrifice to build the new library

As the Town works to keep BPL operating while the new building is under construction, everyone is making sacrifices. While the Children’s Room will be hosted at the Benton Branch, other library services will be hosted by the Council on Aging, while library staff will work out of the Chenery Middle School for the estimated 2 years that construction will take.

Don’t want traffic? Expand hours – don’t reduce them!

At a practical level, if the goal of neighbors is to reduce the street traffic and parking linked to use of the Benton Branch, constraining the operating hours will likely have the opposite effect: consolidating visits and resulting in more traffic and activity across during the limited hours of operation.

I hope you’ll join other supporters of the library to help make sure our kids have as much access to the temporary Children’s Room at the Benton Branch during the two year construction as possible. Please sign the petition and attend the Select Board meeting on Monday evening.