WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- Williams College asked on Tuesday for public comment about ideas for a $65-million, 102,000-square-foot art museum at the corner of Southworth and Main Streets – and got earfuls of criticism about the proposal -- as well as appreciation for holding the meeting.
“You tell us what we have to do to convince you to pick another site,” pleaded Wendy Martin, who lives one street adjacent to the parcel.
At least 130 people showed up for two, hour-long listening sessions called by the college art department and museum program and space planning committee. By the end of the second gathering in Griffin Hall, committee members were acknowledging they had told architectural advisors to get back to their drawing boards and consider smaller ideas for the parcel in the order of 60,000 square feet.
“We’re really at a phase where we can use input and suggestions,” said committee co-chair William Dudley, who, as provost, is a top Williams’ academic officer. Consultants Steven Holl Architects have been told “to see if they can come up with a way to still make this a viable possibility.”
Criticism of Williams went beyond the museum location to encompass general concern about the colleges lack of planning – or at least lack of public-facing planning – concerning building projects that affect town roads, traffic and environment. “When will the college share plans for the overall expansion that’s in the works,” asked one commentator.
The panel heard neighbors of the plot – most of whom disclosed affiliations of one sort or another with Williams – encourage consideration of other locations, particularly the site of the current Williams Inn, as well as the town-own dirt parking lot on Water Street which used to be the site of the municipal-equipment garage.
The former town-garage site was neither identified by nor suggested to architects who prepared a site analyses, said the other committee co-chair, Dean of Faculty Denise Buell. By far the loudest applause at either of the two meetings took place when Williams Prof. Richard Deveaux, whose home is nearly across Southworth Street from the considered site, said:
“It doesn’t seem to be a way of making this into something that the whole community could be joyful about which would be to develop a site that needs to be [developed.]. Like the Williams Inn site where we have a building we don’t know what to do with, or the town garage. You guys are a smart, clever group. Can’t you think of a creative way to make that whole part between Water Street and Spring Street an integrated, semi-urban environment that would connect all these things in a way that would make the town happy.”
In the evening session, when the town-garage site was mentioned again, Dudley commented: “The challenge to that town garage site is the programmatic challenge.”
On the town garage site, “you could build an arbitrarily large building and nobody would much object,” predicted Williams Math Prof. Duane Bailey. “We could build a nice and large space . . . you have an opportunity to build a community that will draw more people.”
Points made by college officials
College officials made these points:
- There is, as yet, no donor backing the new art and art history building project. Once and if a definite site is and building plans drawn, the college will seek “new money” from a donor or donors for at least 50 percent of the cost, according to committee co-chair and college Provost Will Dudley said.
- While the committee itself in meetings so far over 15 months, reached consensus that the Southworth site was its peference over at least four other choices, and while architects did concept drawings and cost estimates for a museum at that site, deliberations are not at the point where that site is a definitive choice.
- At the moment, the architects are only re-designing their thinking about the Southworth site, rather than being asked to look elsewhere. The committee members described this as a reasonable planning strategy – follow a path until it appears to have hit a roadblock, and then drop back and take another route – rather than try to pursue multiple routes simultaneously.
- To the college committee, what’s appealing about the Southworth site its relative proximity to the humanities and social-science quad, while still a short walk across Main Street from the Spencer Studio Art Building and a short walk from Lawrence Hall, where WCMA is now based. The runner-up location – the Williams Inn parcel already owned by Williams College at Field Park, is seen by the committee as distant from the rest of the art and art-history facilities, thus elongating walking time for students in the scheduled 10-minute breaks between class periods. “I had that tough time getting from class to class and figured it out,” responded Williams alum Kevin J. Ellingwood, who grew up on Moreland Street, next to Southworth.
- Over 20 years, the number of objects in the Williams College Museum of Art College has grown to 14,000 from 6,000, including an apparently recent gift of thousands of objects from one donor. The vast majority are in storage for lack of exhibition space.
Some comments summarized
Among comments from declared opponents, or mere commentators, on the Southworth were the following:
- Considering the college’s academic programming needs for faculty and students without regard for their impact on the town’s changing character risks may make Williamstown a less attractive place for families.
- It’s difficult for the larger community to envision the impact of the college’s sustaining building binge given that there is no evidence – at least in public -- of a coherent long-term plan For example, when will the college relocate it’s Buildings & Grounds facilities to less prime real-estate? “I don’t think anybody likes B&G where it is,” noted Dudley, the provost.
- When will the college announced to the community at large plans to relocate Water Street Books, which it owns, from Water to a new building to be built on Spring Street, and the likely relocation of The College retail store, both in the old Grundy’s Garage building on Water Street next to the fire station? What, then will happen in Grundy’s Garage?
Specific comments during the two sessions:
“I think the college is showing a tendency to be very tunnel vision and not taking into consideration the needs of the community,” argued Elizabeth Williams who said she and her husband had recently moved from the house directly across from the Southworth site. “There is also considerable concern about the type of buildings the college has been constructing,” she added.
“I don’t see this site here as the right choice,” said Selectwoman Anne O’Connor, saying she was speaking as an individual. “We risk losing that thing that makes this town so appealing for families with children to move here,” she said, adding: “The town needs its residential neighborhoods and it seems like the college just keeps picking away at them.”
Nancy J. McIntire, retired executive assistant to several Williams presidents, said in remarks read aloud by a friend, that she hoped “an alternative location can be found.” She said she as worried about traffic-safety issues.
Patrick J. Quinn, who grew up in Williamstown said the Southworth site might be good for art teaching but, “In terms of the town, it’s really not.” By contrast, he said, the Williams Inn site “would be great and has plenty of room for parking.”
At the earlier of the two meetings, Williams professor and economist Stephen Shepard, who has written about and studied the impact of museums on communities, said new museums generally raised property values in Kenosha, Wis., Toledo, Ohio, Beacon, N.Y., and North Adams. At the second meeting, site neighbor Williams Prof. Tom Murtagh said he had reviewed Shepard’s research during supper. He said that was because in each of those places, museum builders “saw an area in need of assistance, of development, and were taking a part in it.” He added: “They looked at it as an opportunity . . . their donors wanted an opportunity to do good.”
Karen Shepard, who teaches English at Williams, argued for the Williams Inn site, urged the planning committee to embrace the idea of spreading resources and disciplines across the campus rather than in programmatic ghettos. The convenience of faculty or students in having a short walk should not be a defining consideration, she said.
This blog post was written by Bill Densmore (firstname.lastname@example.org)