NEWBURY — An innovative building located in the heart of the Historic District and designed to meet space and program needs for the next 30 years is how the town’s Municipal Building Committee is promoting plans to build a new Town Hall.
But as is often the case in small towns, a vocal minority of taxpayers are pushing back on the proposed project and voicing frustration with the process used for this latest town building project
Designed for construction at 25 High St. – previously serving as town offices and the police station – the proposed $10.9 million structure would consist of 5,055 square feet on the entrance level, with elevator access to the same square footage on the second floor.
A 4,395-square-foot attic would house town records and mechanical, electrical and information technology needs.
The price tag factors in a 4% construction cost escalation and a 7% contingency, according to the committee.
An independent project review by construction cost estimator A.M Fogerty is expected soon, committee Chair Bob Connors said during his recent 40-minute presentation at the town library to the Planning Board, Capital Planning Committee and the Finance Committee. Select Board members were also present.
“I think we’re in the ballpark,” Connors said, but stressed that “the true estimate of costs will be when the bids come in.”
The committee hopes for a positive vote on the project at the annual Town Meeting on April 25, coupled with a debt exclusion override vote at the polls May 9. The deadline for submission of bid documents is November and the contract would be awarded by January.
Connors’ presentation included information on the project’s schedule and probable costs; the local approvals and permitting required; a schematic layout; detailed Municipal Building Committee meeting minutes; previous relevant reports and articles; and a program comparison for the Town Hall.
The building’s handicapped-accessible, first-floor entrance leads to a lobby with chairs, according to the schematic design. From there, visitors could go to the treasurer’s or the assessors’ offices on either side of the lobby with the town clerk’s office straight ahead.
Two conference rooms flank the 2½-story building on each side. Upstairs houses offices for the town administrator, the Select Board and Conservation Commission along with planning, accounting, health and inspectional services.
Workers who spend a minority of their time inside Town Hall share cubicles with other employees in a similar work situation. A large public hearing room is on the second floor. There are 42 parking spaces, with 10 additional offsite spots at the adjacent fire station. Regulations call for 20 spaces.
Connors offered a brief history of the site, which originally served as the local Grange Hall until it was destroyed by fire in 1927. In 1937, the replacement built on that spot became Town Hall.
He also spent time dissecting an alternative plan popular with some in town to renovate the current Town Hall. The Municipal Building Committee determined a renovation project would require gutting the building to address electrical issues, possibly elevating the structure two feet to create adequate space in the basement or incorporating an addition larger than the original building.
State law says any additions or new work within the original building must comply with current building code requirements. The cost per square foot would likely be at least $640 – which is the same as new construction. It would ultimately be more expensive than new construction, the panel concluded.
But not all of the approximately two dozen people in attendance for the presentation were willing to accept this conclusion without more information.
“For $11 million, aren’t the people entitled to a cost comparison so the people can decide what is the most cost-effective?” asked Jim Moran.
Select Board Chairperson Alicia Greco noted that the committee includes an architect – Eric Svahn – and a builder – Bob Connors – “who have given their professional opinion that a renovation at High Road will cost more money than building new.”
“With all due respect,” Moran responded, “without a cost comparison, there’s no credibility to that statement.”
When Greco asked him to be seated, Moran answered, “The public can’t comment at an open meeting?”
“If you are going to be rude and insult me, please sit down,” said Greco, to which Moran replied, “Another sad commentary to the way you run meetings.”
Others in the audience proposed approaching the owner of the Kent Way building where the town offices are housed about signing a long-term lease – or possibly purchasing the property.
The old Town Hall could be refurbished as a senior center and town offices could expand into the space occupied by the current center, one man suggested.
With costly capital needs for Triton Regional Middle-High School and Newbury Elementary School, it’s vital to demonstrate all options were considered or skeptics will not be satisfied, he said. A traffic study of the Morgan Avenue area – where the fire station and new police station are located – is needed before pursuing this option.
“I’m telling you right now, living there – it’s a nightmare,” said former Select Board member Mike Doyle. Better communication with the public about the project is essential. The town should get the plan online as soon as possible, Doyle said.
Moran pushed for information on a cost comparison between a long-term lease on Kent Way and the borrowing required for new construction. He also asked for the interest rate at which the town is now borrowing, saying, “Maybe in the next few days the town can get that?”
Resident Fred Thurlow proposed JRM Hauling and Recycling on Route 1 as a potential site. “The time for this site (High Road) has gone by the boards,” he said.
“I’d like to thank the public for bringing us these questions because that will help us bring a better presentation to the Town Meeting,” Greco said.
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