Selectmen to seek bids on South Union School building

by beth on March 10, 2021

Post image for Selectmen to seek bids on South Union School building

Above: Selectmen want to learn the value of the historic property before asking voters for authority to sell it. (Photo by Susan Fitzgerald)

Southborough Selectmen are hoping to sell off another historic property. This time, they will seek bids on the old South Union School building at 21 Highland Street. The board plans to discuss a draft RFP at their March 16th meeting.

In case you’re wondering if you missed voters approving that, you didn’t. The board won’t be able to sell off the property without getting authority from Town Meeting. Their plan is to determine the value of the property and possibly have some real options for voters to evaluate when they make the ask.

It’s a different tactic than the Board took when it sought voter approval to sell off another historic building five years ago.

When the Board asked Annual Town Meeting for authority to sell Fayville Hall in 2016, it met resistance from residents surprised by the request and urging for time to attempt preserving the historic building. The measure failed. A year later, ATM voters only agreed to authorize the sale after leveraging a promise from the Board to make historic preservation one of the preferential factors in a successful bid.

The hall was eventually sold for only $21K. The deal was based on requirements that included the facade be preserved (as well as parking for the baseball diamond across the street). Some residents lauded the preservation while others criticized the Board for not generating more revenue.

Prior to asking Town Meeting to vote on selling South Union, selectmen hope to educate them on the financial choice preservation would entail.

In discussing whether to seek only bids without preservation requirement, Selectmen Lisa Braccio said that Town Meeting made their opinion clear when Fayvill Hall was on the line. Still, she agreed with other selectmen that it was important to also find out how much the property would be worth without restrictions. Selectman Brian Shea noted that even if the Town didn’t pursue preservation, he believed the Demolition Delay Bylaw would come into play.

The South Union Building was built in 1912 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Historical Commission was asked to weigh in on the building disposition this summer. They responded with a letter stating:

the SHC strongly encourages that the town considers sale only to buyers who are committed to preserving the exterior of this structure. A Preservation Restriction would be ideal for this unique building and guarantee its place in Southborough’s landscape and history for years to come.

Chair Marty Healey was the sole selectman who was against “putting shackles on ourselves” when seeking to learn the value of the property. He forecast that the property wouldn’t garner any bids of value with historical restrictions included.

Healey opined that if voters want to prioritize preserving the fa├žade it would likely require the Town retaining the property. He described a scenario where the Town developed the building into affordable housing units.

The potential use of the building as multi-unit affordable housing has been a subject of discussion in multiple SHOPC (Southborough Housing Opportunity Partnership Committee) meetings. The subject also come up in other selectmen’s discussions related to housing legislation passed by the state last month.

The new state law includes a provision that communities served by the MBTA have zoning that allows some multi-family housing by right within a 1/2 mile of the station. The property is around the corner from the commuter rail station. Selectmen have referred to the possibility that creating a special zone in that area that covered the property could make sense.

Officials also discussed the possibility of including open space and affordable housing as a factor in bids. In the end they opted to keep it simpler with just the two options – historical preservation or not. 

The Capital Planning Committee had recommended to selectmen that they seek proposals for the property sale. However, they side stepped a stance on whether that should include historical or other restrictions. That was a decision they believed was in selectmen’s purview.

Although it wasn’t detailed during last week’s meeting, officials have in the past described another issue in common with Fayville Hall. It appears the desire to be rid of the building relates to the expense of maintaining the old facility as a municipal building. Any presentation to Town Meeting would likely include that information.

Member Joseph Palmer warned selectmen of another important question voters will raise. If the Town sells off the building, what is their plan for housing the Town departments currently housed there? The building is the home of Southborough Recreation and Southborough Youth & Family Services.

The Capital subcommittee has been working with the School Committee to research the possibility of eliminating a school building. As I’ve covered, one potential option discussed was using Woodward School to house Town Departments. But while that could be an eventual path for the schools and Town, the subcommittee appears nowhere near ready to recommend, let alone move on, that solution.

In a prior meeting, Selectman Chelsea Malinowski raised another important use of the facility that would need to be replaced. She pointed out that the property holds the only non-school playground on the south side of Town. (Finn’s playground isn’t accessible to families of little ones while school is in session.) She said they need to take a look at what other properties the Town owns in that region of Town that could be used for the purpose. Recreation’s Director has apparently assured that the equipment could be relocated.

Issuing the RFP and going through bids is expected to be a 45 day process. Meanwhile the Board discussed later in the same meeting the targeting of April 20th for closing the Warrant for the Annual Town Meeting. Capital Planning and Selectmen discussed the possibility that the request won’t be brought to Annual Town Meeting. It could potentially wait for a Special Town Meeting.

Malinowski will work with Town Administrator Mark Purple to flesh out an RFP to review at the Board’s March 16th meeting.

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