Thursday, June 29, 2006

The 1909 Wing – Sentimental Attachment

For the better part of four years now Selectman Jimmy Mullen has made the renovation and commercial re-use of a portion of the 1909 wing of the old High School his hobby-horse. His proposal is seductive in its simplicity. Let’s retain some indeterminate portion of the 1909 wing, permit office space to be developed in the structure, and funnel any tax proceeds to the public schools. Bolstering his advocacy is a non-binding vote of the citizens at the annual town election in 2003.

Discussion on this topic has been decidedly one-sided. With the exception of the estimable Charlie Winchester, Mr. Mullen has had the stage to himself and has used the opportunity to hammer home the theme of a simple proposal that represents a big win for everyone involved.

On March 24, 2003, barely a month before the annual town election, the Selectmen placed a question on the ballot. In the ensuing 5 weeks there was little discussion of the question. This was no doubt due to two factors. First, the School Building Assistance administration had declared that any execution of Mr. Mullen’s idea would constitute a material change to the approved building plan, with serious consequences. And second, the vote was purely advisory, having no binding authority on Town officials. So no one bothered to point out the problems with re-use of the 1909 wing. Consequently, what most voters based their vote on was the plain language of the ballot question:

“Do you favor retaining a portion of the 1909 section of Milton High School to be placed on the tax rolls and used as commercial office space with said income to used exclusively for the operation of Milton Public Schools?”

Who could object to such an innocuous sounding plan to put more money into educating our children?

I suspect many would if we took a closer look at the issue. A start in this direction was made a couple of weeks ago when Charlie Winchester and Jimmy Mullen appeared on Bernie Lynch’s _Milton Speaks_ to “debate” the topic. Mr. Winchester noted that Massachusetts Department of Education site size guidelines for Middle Schools called for 15 acres plus an additional acre for every 100 students, or 25 acres for Pierce Middle School. The Pierce School site is 8.8 acres. Even with the availability of the adjacent Kelly Field for some athletic activities the site is significantly below state guidelines. The architectural firm Drummey Rosane Anderson pointed out in their 1999 Facilities Study that “the site is extremely compressed, lacking the necessary parking and athletic fields.”

So why would we want to truncate a site which is already small by allowing an office building to stand about 100 feet (assuming we demolish more than half the remaining 1909 wing) from the entrance to a school attended by 1000 youngsters? Not only would the entrance to the school be substantially blocked visually, but since all the planning for the site assumed the demolition of the 1909 wing, the proximity of the proposed office building would affect student drop off, building deliveries, and the number of parking spaces. Handicapped parking, by its nature sited nearest the entrance, would be lost. In addition, Mr. Winchester expressed concerns about whether the storm water management system would require changes.

Mr. Mullen appealed to the widespread trend to re-use old buildings. He lamented the destruction of the Vose school and the old Town Hall, and cited examples of other old structures, including schools, that have been preserved and renovated around the State. But the fact of the matter is none of these examples is analogous. In no instance did he cite a case in which a portion of an old school building was developed commercially on land carved out of existing school property on which a functioning school sits. I’ve been unable to find any examples of this. I doubt anyone else can.

Let’s try a little thought experiment. Let’s suppose that five years ago, before the final plans for the schools were finalized, the town was approached by a commercial developer. The developer proposes the construction of a commercial office building which, because of the size of the site in question, would need to stand in close proximity to any planned school. To realize their vision they request that a portion of town property under the care and custody of the School Committee for 100 years or so be lopped off, re-zoned, and an RFP for commercial development be issued under the guidelines of Massachusetts General Laws Chapter 30B. The School Building Committee objects to the proposal because of the resulting impracticality of properly siting a modern Middle School on a lot already too small, and because of the inappropriateness of a commercial development on land contiguous to a large public school. Do you think the residents of Milton, the elected boards, and the Town Meeting would approve of such a proposal? I very much doubt it.

The only difference between the thought experiment and the situation we face is that the potential office building, in un-renovated condition, already exists. But that fact doesn’t address any of the serious issues an office building raises. In truth, this is about an understandable but misguided sentimental attachment that Selectman Mullen and others have for an old Milton structure. But sentimentality is no reason to adversely impact a school that Milton and Massachusetts taxpayers spent tens of millions of dollars building, and a few thousand Milton children will attend. It’s time for the appropriate officials to have a public discussion of the issue and officially vote to demolish the 1909 wing, as planned from the beginning, once it is no longer needed as swing space.


Anonymous Anonymous said...



11:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Milton has a new hero.
Her name is Marion McEttrick.

She was nothing less than heroic during the July 25, 2006 Selectmens meeting when she stopped Mullen and Shields dead in their tracks as they tried to slip an RFP past her nose and under the table for the 1909 Wing. Oh, were they cute.

Mullen and Shields looked like two bad boys with their hands caught in a cookie jar.

An RFP in advance of the 1909 Wing matter is no different than the RFP's attempted in advance at the Rt 28 Milton Centre Mall scandal. Back then, some allegedly proper milton people turned out to be just front men for the secret out-of-town people who were trying to slip into our town, according to a John Shields report at the previous selectmens meeting. Just as the rt 28 Mall affair smelled to high heaven, the 1909 Wing is now smelling just as bad.

Why can't the kids at the Pierce Middle School have the original plan as favorably voted on twice by the people of Milton. Who are the secret people this time?

Mullen said he has three people in his back pocket who are interested in developing the 1909 Wing. How about some names. More secrecy?

Mullen will be running for re-election in the spring of 2007. Maybe our hero Marion could convince her husband to run.

The School Committee is meeting this Thursday the,10th, at 7:00pm at the High School library and the 1909 Wing is on the agenda. Citizens have a chance to speak for 2-3 minutes at the Citizens Speak. Charlie Winchester will be appearing to present his reasons for tearing down the 1909 Wing. Give him some support. Tear the old wreck down.

-Governor Belcher-

3:16 PM  

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