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Planning Board offers suggestions for Center School re-use

by | Jun 22, 2022 | News

Planning Board members have many ideas about what to do with the vacant Center School and property at 11 Ash Street, across from the Town Common, with all in agreement that whatever the future holds for the property, it must be in the best interest of the town.

Perhaps the boldest suggestion came in the form of possibly tearing down the 1928 building altogether. (Additions in the back were constructed in the 1950s and 1980s.)

“I know from conversations I’ve had, there are massive expenses associated with rehabbing it in some way,” Planning Board Chair Gary Trendel said at the board’s Tuesday night meeting, where Permanent Building Committee Chair Dan McIntyre gave the board an update on the project. “I’d also point out this is such a wonderful parcel of property, with that frontage on the common.”

Trendel suggested building something that maintains the character of the original building while offering “substantially” more upside.

“How important is it to save the existing shell of that building, or would folks be open to something being built in its place that, again, has similar characteristics but was built in a modern capacity that included functionality,” Trendel put forth to his colleagues.

There seemed to be at least some appetite for that, and McIntyre said Trendel’s suggestion was similar to what his committee was hearing from its architect. He said he would likely hear the opposite when he makes a similar presentation to the Historical Commission in late June (McIntyre previously updated the Select Board on the project).

The presentations are being done to gather input before the committee issues a request for proposals (RFP) to developers.

“Our architects are saying buildings like this are kind of a dime a dozen around New England,” he said. “There’s nothing really special about them. It makes it difficult to build something that’s going to serve the next generation.”

The Planning Board and Select Board, which previously expressed its sentiments, both seem to be on the same page when it comes to wanting to maintain ownership of at least some of the property and not sell it off entirely to a developer.

“There are two parcels,” Planning Board Member Jane Moran said. “It sounds like the town may have a feeling about wanting to hold on to both.”

She asked McIntyre if there has been thought given to having the town keep the Center School property and sell off the other parcel in the rear, the topography of which McIntyre noted is “pretty tough.”

Housing, McIntyre noted, seems to have attracted the most interest through a request for information. The preference when it comes to housing is to build multi-family units on the back property, which would require a zoning change.

Calling it a “very tough project,” Trendel applauded the efforts by McIntyre and his committee. When the discussion turned to “optimal” uses by developers for the project, Trendel countered by saying, “Optimal for developers is not necessarily optimal for the town. Our goal isn’t to make the developer more money, it’s to build something the town benefits from.”

Members were keen on uses that would benefit the entire community, including youths and other organizations, with a community center on the front parcel receiving support. McIntyre also mentioned the possibility of administrative space for the town.

“As a mom of young kids, I’m also on the board of a moms group in town and there aren’t really any municipal buildings or spaces where we can hold events or meetings,” Planning Board Member Elyse Mihajloski said. “It would really be nice to have this. It doesn’t have to be specific, not necessarily courts or anything, maybe just rooms or a big open space where volunteers could use it for meetings, so if they wanted to use it for fundraising, we’d have a place to offer them.”

She said it would also be nice to have an indoor space for use during the winter.

McIntyre acknowledged the allure of a community center, saying, “I think there would be more town-wide support of this project. No one wants to spend money just on an office space for administrative staff.”

The board is in a “unique position” with the property belonging to the town, Member Fran DeYoung noted.

“We can provide some pretty strong guidance,” he said. “In the RFP, I would be incredibly descriptive to developers. What are the key things the town wants to keep, whether indoor basketball facilities, administrative, and once you define what needs to stay, then you allow developers to [build] something around that. If it’s open, it’s all going to be housing. They’re going to want to make the most money they can in terms of the space. For the town … [we want to] really keep the spirit of what people would like that building to be preserved as.”

Whatever ultimately happens with the property, board members appreciated being kept in the loop and being part of the discussion.

“This is the kind of stuff we like to talk about,” Trendel said, “and the more we can engage early on in the process, the better. … We all agree this is an opportunity for the town and we want to make sure we get something done with that property that has a very positive net result for the town.”

Eversource lines approved with conditions

Board members also unanimously approved, with conditions, new electrical lines by Eversource along Chamberlain Street, a scenic road, as part of a 29-unit subdivision being built by Toll Brothers at the ends of Chamberlain Street and Whalen Road.

The work by Eversource involves the removal and pruning of several trees, with the company proposing eight removals and seven limb removals. The board attached seven conditions to the plan, including a reduction of tree removals to seven, sparing a cherry tree, while allowing four limb removals.

The conditions require Eversource to submit a revised plan showing the trees and limbs agreed to be removed within seven days after the permit is issued. In addition, Eversource must ensure an arborist is present during the removal and trimming.

Another condition includes the planting of seven compensatory trees of native species along Chamberlain Street and Whalen Road, to be approved by the Planning Board.

With Trendel (a resident of Chamberlain Street) recusing himself from the discussion, Vice Chair Mary Larson-Marlowe led that portion of the meeting. The board ultimately voted 6-0 in favor of the permit, with the conditions attached.

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