Friday, January 25, 2008
Highland Study Group begins brainstorming
At the first meeting of the Highland Building Study Group on Tuesday, January 15, general discussion quickly turned to brainstorming uses for the historic 100-year-old school that would save it from destruction. The Study Group was formed by the Selectmen in October at the request of the Carlisle School Committee (CSC) to examine the issue of what to do with the Highland Building, which now sits empty on the Carlisle School campus. One possibility put forward by the CSC is demolition. The Study Group has been asked to report back to the Selectmen by June 30 with "a comprehensive report of the feasibility of all possible uses and dispositions" along with the costs and impacts.
Only three of the six appointed members were present, and they struggled to better define their mission and goals without the input of those absent. Bob Stone, at-large member, Bob Hilton of the Historical Commission, and Selectman Alan Carpenito were there, with John Ballantine, School Committee member Wendell Sykes, and Planning Board representative Ken Hoffman otherwise engaged. (A seventh opening on the committee had not been filled.) Future meetings will be every other Wednesday, and better attendance is expected.
Stone questioned the likelihood the group will be able to fully vet all possibilities in just five months, and suggested that a list of reasonable alternatives might be the more likely outcome by June. He noted that, as a general contractor, he has moved several large buildings at Mass General and also renovated the Old South Meeting House. Hilton also has significant experience with historic renovation, including libraries in Lexington and other towns. Given this in-group experience, it seemed that ballpark figures, at least, would be easy to obtain.
Hilton noted "it's almost always cheaper to knock down" an aged building than to renovate it for modern use. Is Highland worth spending a premium to keep? "Carlisle has no large inventory of historic buildings," he said, and the importance of Highland is indicated by its inclusion a few years ago on a poster issued by the Massachusetts Historical Commission of the state's endangered historic buildings. Hilton also pointed to the benefit of having a piece of history on the school campus. "It's good for students to think about preservation and conservation." Carpenito agreed. "I would like to see the school include buildings from different eras."
Stone wondered how much the town would be willing to spend to save the building. Hilton said the Gleason Library renovation is an example where the town paid a premium to preserve, and asked, "Do people feel as enamored of Highland?"
Hilton noted Lexington is using many old schools as housing for the elderly. "These are very desirable" he added, and Stone agreed that classrooms generally make very nice apartments. Stone also observed that another Lexington industrial building is being turned into housing for the mentally disabled using HUD money. But parking, wheelchair access and lack of public transportation would be issues in these scenarios for Highland.
Carpenito said he would like to see public use of the building for artists, music lessons, or exercise classes. "We don't have anything. They're holding yoga classes in the Clark Room" at Town Hall. But Hilton noted it would be difficult to achieve payback of major renovation costs with these kinds of tenants.
Move it 150' farther from school?
Selectman Doug Stevenson had suggested moving the building 150 feet closer to the Congregational Church, away from the school and closer to the road, noted Carpenito. This would answer the school's concerns about public use violating the security of the campus. In addition, perhaps an agreement could be reached with the church for use of a few parking spaces. Stone noted moving the building a short distance is much more feasible than transporting it down the hill, which would require removing many trees along School Street. Although it would cost money to build a new foundation, this would also allow addition of 2,000 square feet to the current 6,000.
Group to gather data, tour building
Questions arose throughout the meeting as to the limitations on what can be done with the building. What code violations need to be addressed? Would elderly housing be feasible? Would the school oppose that use? What scenarios have already been examined as part of the work of the School Building Committee? Is there a reason the building is not included in the historical district? School Building and Grounds Supervisor David Flannery will be invited to an upcoming meeting to answer these questions, and a tour of the building will be arranged, targeted for Sunday, January 27.
Stone noted that in the end, "I'd hate to see this group decide to demolish it." But, he asked, "If it's a premium price (to renovate), with all the other budget issues, would people value it?" It was noted that the town considered renovating the building for town offices in the 1990s, but memories were unclear on the details (see box below).
Carpenito joked that "a lot of people don't even know it's there," but added his hope that with a good usage plan and some combination of CPA and private money added to town funding, a recommendation could be made that would gain town support.
History of Town votes on Highland
In 1994 the Carlisle School signed a ten-year agreement to rent the Highland Building to the Emerson Umbrella artist's cooperative. The year before, the town had considered using the Highland Building for town offices before moving on to build a new office on the Conant Land.
According to Carlisle's Annual Reports, the following questions were voted in the 1993 Town Election on April 13: "Question 2: Shall the Town of Carlisle be allowed to assess an additional $30,000 in real estate and personal property taxes for the purpose of engineering services, preliminary planning and continued maintenance for converting the Highland School to Town Offices of the Fiscal Year beginning July 1, 1993?" Votes were Yes: 685 versus No: 431 with 21 blank.
"Question 3: Shall the Town of Carlisle be allowed to assess an additional $20,000 in real estate and personal property taxes for the purpose of the demolition and disposal of the Highland School for the Fiscal Year beginning July 1, 1993?" Votes were Yes: 249 versus No: 836 with 52 blank.
Two weeks later, Town Meeting also approved the $30,000 allocation for engineering and planning. A Warrant Article to demolish Highland was not moved.
The Selectmen's Report for 1993 summarizes what happened next: "The Building Committee together with Carlisle's School Committee met through the late spring and summer attempting to resolve issues pertaining to the proximity of the Highland Building to the Carlisle Public Schools. Concerns were raised regarding security of the school's campus and the need for some type of fencing to provide as a barrier. The proposed security solution, however, failed to receive approval from Carlisle's Fire Chief. Any type of barrier, the Chief felt, would make an unsafe situation when fire trucks and equipment needed access to the school in emergencies.
"Given the report and knowing the effort that had taken place in trying to resolve this issue coupled with some other site and cost-related issues, the Board of Selectmen decided spending additional money in developing architectural plans would not be prudent. Further, recognizing the need to have a town office plan and site identified for Spring Town Meeting , the Board charges the Building Committee with a non-funded investigation for a new town office building sited on the Conant Land."
In April of 1994, Town Meeting transferred the $28,000 in remaining funds to study a land swap proposal that was ultimately rejected by voters.
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