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Fears about cost may divide town, but numbers face more scrutiny

UPDATED, Dec. 4: Above a recent news summary about the Arlington High School rebuild, a Boston Globe headline describes the town as "divided" over the issue. Is it?

AHS project
Wynelle Evans, who "wholeheartedly supports the rebuild," said. "Cost is going to hit very hard on those who can't keep up with it."
A petition from the group Save Our Historic High School has 306 signers as of Nov. 30. Of those, the petition says 218 are from Arlington, a town of about 44,400, according to the 2015 American Community Survey

At the Wednesday, Nov. 28, forum in Town Hall, an estimated 250 people attended the public update focused on exterior design, as 18 people spoke. Did their questions or comments reflect division?

The answer depends on who was speaking, what he or she said and the audience reaction.


ACMi broadcast of Nov. 28 forum >>


What are the general takeaways? A key one was fear about costs. Consider what people said, summarized below, and judge for yourself.

First, building committee Chairman Jeff Thielman provided a project timeline and Lori Cowles, principal for project architect HMHF, reviewed three new exterior design options.

On Tuesday, Dec. 4, the building committee plans to choose the exterior design concept of the three options discussed at the forum -- see them all here >> -- and was to begin in earnest to discuss project costs. Tonight's agenda (CM stands for construction manager) >>

Cost estimates will be discussed in late January, and on Feb. 5, the building committee plans to approve the total project budget and concept design for submission that month to the Mass. School Building Authority, whose rules drive process and funding. 

 Latest concepts, notes survey

Cowles reviewed the latest design concepts, introduced Nov. 20 and described in a YourArlington's summary >> The public was asked to comment on them in an online survey, which closes 8 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2 >> 

She described the proposed interior, marked by a prominent central spine, between performing arts/STEAM and gym/humanities wings, with entries back and front. She noted that the 1930s-era white, wooden columns could be refurbished.

Uses of those columns are included in a number of the proposed exterior concepts, including the more tradition option A. Option B shows an auditorium introduced by a curved space behind the entrance.

Option C uses no columns, and the shape of the auditorium aims to draw you in, as does a dramatic canopy.

As to traffic, a light will be added at Millbrook and Mill, with two-way drop-off and pickup at the rear of AHS, near Peirce Field.

 Bikeway connection, parking

A connection from Summer Street and the bikeway to school is planned. She said that "excitement about that" includes the ability to watch a baseball game from the connection ramp.

As to parking, 240 to 250 spaces would be in three lots -- near Peirce Field, on the practice field (one-half owned by the town's DPW) and Mill Brook Drive.

"There has been a lot of talk about a parking structure," she said, making clear it is not part of the current project. "What would that mean for green space?"

 Audience questions, comments

The questions-and-answers with the audience lasted about 40 minutes. While meeting presenters focused on design concepts, the public veered toward costs.

"It's a very large budget," the woman said, referring to the general estimate of $308 million. "Do we want to spend this much?" She described the process as putting "a gun to taxpayers head."

She asked whether the town could take the temperature of the public first to see what cost taxpayers might want to bear.

Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine said a nonbinding, public-policy ballot option might be possible. The Select Board would have to vote to set such a measure for the April town election.

"Are there other ways to cut costs?" another woman asked.

Thielman cited value engineering, a discussion slated for late January about the value and cost of certain elements to decide what stays and what goes.

After former Select Board member Annie LaCourt addressed design and Town Meeting member Greg Christiana asked about green space, Dr. Patricia Worden, a former public official, complained about the projected cost and "taking land away from students .... This is a travesty."

 Why not renovate?

She continued to push for renovating rather than rebuilding. Thielman noted that the committee had decided by last June that the $333 million projected renovation cost made that route a nonstarter.

Town Meeting member John Leonard urged use of solar and wind power, and Cowles responded that plans call for geothermal and solar.

Town Meeting member Carl Wagner, part of Save Our Historic Arlington High School, which has been lobbying since the summer to retain the white entry columns and more green space, asked how many present were concerned about losing green space to a rebuilt school. As many as 15 hands raised.

He said that all three options presented at the forum derived from a decision made June 26, called Option 3a, one he termed "immutable."

In view of paying for the largest project in town history, he said the public should have better options to consider.

 Disabled, more on costs

"I'm very excited about project," said a commenter who followed. "I want to hear more about improvements for the disabled." That drew applause.

Also spurring applause were comments Wynelle Evans, who "wholeheartedly supports the rebuild," but expressed details issues about cost. "Cost is going to hit very hard on those who can't keep up with it," she said.

In part, she asked why Arlington's costs per square foot and per student so much higher than those for other, comparable projects. She compared projected AHS costs with the average of five others with similar enrollments and square footage: Newton, Somerville, Belmont, Wellesley and Woburn. Belmont and Somerville are in the planning stages. Newton was completed in 2010, Wellesley in 2012, Woburn in 2006.

Questions about these numbers did not get a direct response, she wrote on the Arlington email list. But a review of the ACMi tape shows otherwise.

Thielman responded that there will be plenty of time to address costs, that the projects cited were built years ago and that $308 million will be the top figure, as previously reported.

Chapdelaine added that the $308 million already accounts for inflation expected by the time constriction begins.

Asked by another speaker about how the project might affect the quality education, Principal Matt Janger cited the school's high rankings, adding, "I don't expect that to change."

 Thanking committee?

Ted Peluso, 85, a Town Meeting member, tried to temper views of the final project cost. "When you get into the details, [the total] is not what you think it is ... it's not as bad as you think."

He drew load applause when he said, referring to the building committee: "Twenty-five people are working their tushes off. We should say thank you."

Aram Hollman, a resident who is a graduate of Newton North, said the city replaced a $150 million school with one costing $200 million. He said rebuilding AHS will cost 50 percent more than that for fewer students and lacks the vo-tech facilities Newton North has.

He said the AHS cost would be $742 per square foot, asking: "What is so special about Arlington?"

Thielman responded that calling Newton North's vo-tech facilities vocational is not accurate.

A speaker asked whether the real projected total estimated costs is $238 million. He was deducting $70 million, the expected total of facilities described as not directly related to education.

Chapdelaine, part of the building panel's AC: finance subcommittee, said it was preparing to break down costs. He said earlier that plans are to move the office of the town comptroller to Town Hall and facilities to the DPW, on Grove Street.

John Worden, the former longtime Town Meeting moderator, raised his hand many times, but he was not called on.


 What if voters say no?

If Town Meeting votes next spring to advance the project, it goes to the voters in June to raise taxes to pay for the rebuild. But what if that vote fails?

If that happens, Thielman said, the town loses an estimated $100 million in state money, which would help pay for the project.

There would be 60 days to hold a second vote on the same design, to be approved, he said.

Should these votes fail, "we would be back to building with town's money," he said. 


Nov. 28, 2018: Full HMFH presentation (exterior concepts)

Nov. 20, 2018: AHS rebuild committee reviews 3 new exterior designs

Nov. 10, 2018: AHS design discussion turns to interior ideas, and reaction is positive
Nov. 7, 2018, opinion: Let's keep working toward an AHS design compromise
Sept. 25, 2018: AHS rebuild update: Some urge more green; $308M called top cost
Sept. 5, 2018: AHS rebuild design raises questions, but process has just begun
Aug. 29: AHS rebuild approved to move on to schematic design stage
June 26, 2018: DESIGN CHOSEN: High school to be rebuilt, not renovated
June 6, 2018: AHS rebuild process moves toward one design by end of June
 Official information about the high school building project  
June 7, 2018: Official summary of June 4 meeting
April 13, 2018: Town manager clarifies costs for new AHS: It's still early
March 7, 2018: THIRD FORUM: 100 tour AHS, look into future; hear flexibility touted
Jan. 12, 2018: 125 attend as public process to launch AHS update underway
Dec. 20, 2017: Could new AHS be built elsewhere in town? 4 sites suggested
Dec. 12, 2017: AHS Building Committee prepares to focus on its visions'
Nov. 11, 2017: Cost, timeline, design for a changed Arlington High emerges
Oct. 24, 2017: Designer chosen for revamped Arlington High project
Oct. 4, 2017: 3 finalists chosen to design revamped Arlington High
May 25, 2016: State says Arlington High School rebuild can advance
Feb. 15, 2017: Arlington High School rebuild OK'd for next stage: Is it feasible? 
State Building Authority process >> 

This news summary was published Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, and updated Dec. 1, to change the main headline and add link. It was updated again Dec. 4 to add details provided in the ACMi broadcast, as well as correct typos.

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