, Newburyport, MA

February 13, 2014

Brown School plans debated

Residents concerned about property values


---- — NEWBURYPORT — As municipal leaders make plans on how and when to change the function of the Brown School, local residents want them to learn one lesson: Don’t permit property values to fall.

Mayor Donna Holaday and several city officials held a public discussion last night with residents of the South End to discuss what to do with the Brown School when it closes this spring.

The mayor said that they are considering a plan to move the Department of Youth Services from the Kelley School to the Brown.

If youth services occupied the ground floor of the Brown, a contractor might be identified to develop the second and third floors.

Possible uses of those floors could be affordable housing, senior housing, and artists lofts and/or apartments.

Several residents said that they were concerned that affordable housing could have a chilling effect on the value of residential real estate, which has been rising steadily in recent months.

But city officials stressed that decision-makers are not even considering low-income housing.

Andrea Egmont, who heads the youth and recreation services department, said, “Affordable housing is not the same as low-income.”

She said that those in affordable housing pay close to the amount of market-driven apartment units.

Based on past projects, city officials say that those obtaining an “affordable” apartment would pay about 80 percent of market rate, and presumably tenants would have to be prosperous to afford a unit.

Officials did not state how many units might be created on the upper floors.

It is the goal of the city to provide more affordable units. If the percentage of affordable units reaches 10 percent of the housing stock, it can qualify for a range of state grants.

Yet a recurring area of concern from the audience, which numbered about 80, was that affordable housing might compromise real estate prices in the South End.

No decisions were made and more public hearings will be held on the matter of school use, which appears to have many moving parts.

The tentative plan as articulated by municipal leaders includes the following elements:

The Kelley School on High Street, built in 1873, is no longer an appropriate site for after-school programs. Its second floor cannot be used, and officials feel that roof leakage will damage it as a marketable product if it continues in its current state.

So the Kelley likely will be sold to private interests, probably to a contractor who wants to create high-end residential condominium units. The city will realize cash from the sale, and in coming years will collect real estate taxes.

The integrity of the architecture of the Kelley School will be retained, officials said.

Municipal leaders at one point were considering moving administrative offices from the Nock-Molin complex to the Brown, but that idea has been dropped.

A new prospective plan calls for the youth services program to move to the Brown School, which has a playground in the rear of the property and an indoor gymnasium.

The timing of such a move is unknown, but City Councilor Jared Eigerman said, “We would not want a vacant building for very long. There should be a sense of urgency.”

Eigerman, who represents Ward 2 in which the school is located, attended the Brown School.

In addition to showing a concern for their property values, some of those in attendance said they wanted the rear of the Brown property to remain “a park and not just a playground.”

The South End is thickly settled, and several residents expressed concern that if the school is turned into a structure with residential units, assigned parking slots might take the place of open space.

Holaday, who lives in the neighborhood, said city officials will be sensitive to the desire for recreational open space on the property.

No decisions were made, and municipal leaders said more public discussions will be held as plans progress.

One of the next moves is to bring in a consultant to assess possible uses of the Brown School. When recommendations are made, residents will be alerted in advance of another meeting, Holaday said.