Monday, August 22, 2005

Milton Centre/DPW Yard Update

Much has happened in the month of August concerning the possible development of the Town DPW yard. On August 1 the Board of Selectmen made three important decisions. The DPW yard was declared surplus and available for disposition. An appraisal of the DPW yard was ordered. And by a unanimous vote, the Board agreed to issue an RFP for the site. The Selectmen also agreed to the appointment of a Citizens Advisory Committee to assist with the RFP. At the August 15th meeting the Board settled on a 5 person committee and appointed the following members: Phillipe Plageman, former interim Town Planner, chair of the committee, Mark E. Boyle, AICP, of Lawrence Road, Director of Real Estate for the MBTA; Shirin Karanfiloglu of Hutchinson Street, Director of Planning and Development for the Massachusetts Turnpike Authority; former Selectman Rick Neely of Russell Street, CFO of Teri; and Joseph R. Mullins of Highland Street, a Real Estate Developer. Mr. Mullins subsequently declined to serve and no replacement has been announced.

So four months after the original proposal by Milton Centre LLC, and after much discussion, the town is taking the very first step in what still remains only a possibility- some kind of development in the Town’s DPW yard. In fact much work on the RFP remains to be done, so it will probably not be ready to issue for another 6 weeks or so. And yet, despite the prudential nature of the process to date, opponents claim that what they call the “Mall” is still on a fast track.

In the days following the decision to issue the RFP, letters from opponents were sent to the Milton Times and Patriot Ledger. While most of the arguments were old, a letter to the Ledger made the following claim. “It is interesting and disheartening that the Town of Milton is considering selling the DPW yard for commercial development, particularly when so many towns (Quincy being one) and states (New Jersey and Florida, for example) are moving away from commercial development in the context of ‘‘smart growth'' and sustainability initiatives”.

Smart growth is all about development, development of all kinds. Smart growth principles do not frown on commercial development. Communities employing smart growth are not walking away from commercial growth opportunities, provided they make sense. That’s what smart growth is all about. If you’re interested in learning more about what this term means, this is an excellent source.

While a few general principles exist, the way in which these principles are applied depends on the situation in a particular community. As the Smartgrowth Network says:

“Growth can create great places to live, work and play -- if it responds to a community’s own sense of how and where it wants to grow. Communities have different needs and will emphasize some smart growth principles over others: those with robust economic growth may need to improve housing choices; others that have suffered from disinvestment may emphasize infill development; newer communities with separated uses may be looking for the sense of place provided by mixed-use town centers; and still others with poor air quality may seek relief by offering transportation choices. The common thread among all, however, is that the needs of every community and the programs to address them are best defined by the people who live and work there.”

Just as the term “Big Box Retail” was erroneously employed to cast the Milton Centre proposal in a negative light, it appears that “Smart Growth” will now be defined out of all reality to suggest that commercial development at the DPW yard places us outside current thoughtful approaches to community development. Whatever issues the Milton Centre proposal presents, issues that would need to be investigated, its concept reflects core principles of Smart Growth. It is sited in the center of our Town, not on the periphery with the attendant need for infrastructure. Its scale is reasonable and its initial rough design pays homage to traditional New England themes. It incorporates mixed uses. It provides common amenities that this town lacks, such as a supermarket. And most importantly, it is responsive to the Community Development Plan, written with expert help and citizen participation, which recognized that Milton needs a more diversified tax base, and must do what it can to foster commercial development.

Opponents like to suggest that the Milton Centre proposal is huge. Their website describes it as “8 times larger than the Fruit Center”, and “the largest retail development in the history of Milton”. But Milton has virtually no retail development of any size, so the fact that this 133,000 square foot proposal would be our largest certainly doesn’t mean it is large. And with 40% of the site given over to green areas, including buffer zones, it will be far less dense, and much better sited, than the Fruit Center. Is a 133,000 square foot project large? I guess that depends on your frame of reference. The South Shore Plaza is 1,595,000 square feet. But what about developments in bedroom communities more like Milton? The Derby Street Shoppes in Hingham are over 433,000 square feet. The Town of Westborough is contemplating a project of 200,000 square feet. And the town of Wayland is studying a possible 500,000 square foot “Town Center” proposal. This concept as proposed is not large. It is appropriately sized for the site, and for the services it provides. A very important part of those services for me is a supermarket, which only in Milton could be considered some form of foreign organism. I think its time for those of us who are tired of driving to other communities just to shop for groceries to change that.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

1909 Wing- School Policy and Procedure

At the last school committee meeting a discussion of the 1909 wing of the old High School, now housing the Collicot and Cunningham Elementary Schools, occupied much of the meeting. Parent groups have spoken to the committee as a whole and to individual members about the conditions in the building, including what is perceived to be an overcrowded situation.

As a possible way to reduce the student population, a motion was made by Committee member Beirne Lovely to have the Superintendent’s office study the feasibility of moving the entire 5th grade from the 1909 wing to the Pierce Middle School. The motion formalized for discussion and vote a request Member Lovely had made a month earlier in a memo to the Superintendent. After discussion the committee voted against the motion 3-2.

This week’s Milton Times contains a letter to the editor in which the writer offers the opinion that if a School Committee member requests an analysis from the administration, the analysis should be done and provided. But is that really a wise procedure? Certainly there are requests of a routine nature which committee members might from time to time make in the performance of their jobs. The initiation of a substantial, time intensive project is another matter.

The Superintendent of the Milton Public Schools, assisted by two Assistant Superintendent’s, has responsibility for the education of 3600 students, 2/3 of the Town’s employees, ½ of the Town’s operating budget, and a physical plant as large as the rest of the Town combined. This is a very challenging job, requiring long hours at a frenetic pace. If six individual members of the elected board are free to request projects requiring a substantial commitment of time, the risk exists of overburdening the administration and affecting performance on their central function. Furthermore, what safeguard is there that the issue being raised by an individual member even enjoys the support of the majority of the committee? And without that, why would you want precious time to be spent on it? I think the proper procedure in these instances is for the committee to discuss the question and vote on it.

On the particular issue of moving the 5th grade students to the Pierce the very first thing that should have been done was a poll of every 5th grade family to find out how they felt about their children being placed in a Middle School environment. Otherwise you run the risk of parents coming to the committee after substantial work has been done to oppose the move. The committee, in essence, would be chasing its own tail. Let’s recall that last November, in response to parents concerns, the suggestion was made in a school committee meeting to move all the students in the 1909 wing, disbursing them throughout the system. A few months later when a budget crisis threatened the closure of the 1909 wing, hundreds of outraged parents attended School committee meetings, the Selectmen’s meetings, wrote letters and emails, and made phone calls protesting the very action which was contemplated a few months earlier.

Sometimes it’s a fine line between being responsive and being reactionary. We need to make sure we have a handle on what all the stakeholders to an issue think before we rush to act. We don’t have the time, nor the money, to be chasing our own tails.