South Union Building sale headed to Town Meeting (Updated)

Above: A developer has bid $700k to purchase 21 Highland for redevelopment, including adapting the historic South Union Building while preserving its façade. (images cropped from application)

[Editor’s Note: Based on feedback that some elements of my post may be misleading, I’m adding some clarification here. There were a few points in the story that weren’t communicated clearly enough.

  1. While it appeared as of the May 10th meeting that selectmen were still moving as though the Article would be presented on Saturday, there is still the possibility that they might postpone to Special Town Meeting in the fall. 
  2. Selectmen weren’t agreeing to support accepting the proposal. They were talking about bringing the option to voters to let them make the call.
  3. I didn’t refer to the Capital Committee’s position on the proposal, because they had yet to meet to discuss it on the 10th. (And Jason Malinowski’s advice to Selectmen that if they bring the Article forward it be with majority support didn’t mean he supported it.)**]

The Town received only one bid in response to the RFP for the historic South Union building. While selectmen noted concerns, they continued to move towards bringing the proposal to voters at this Saturday’s Annual Town Meeting on May 22nd.

The sole offer for the 3 acre property at 21 Highland Street was $700,000. The application envisions dividing the parcel into four lots to add three single family homes while preserving the façade of the historic South Union Building.

Some officials voiced concern that the proposal wouldn’t fully ensure preservation of the building. And some were disappointed in the price tag, positing that the value for the property should be higher.

All that may be moot given a concern raised about a potential conflict of interest.

Here are the highlights from the discussion and application.

The Board of Selectmen discussed the bid at their May 10th meeting with the Capital Planning Committee and Advisory Committee.

Advisory Chair Kathy Cook opined that voters shouldn’t be given the impression that the proposal commits to preservation of the building. She noted that nothing would stop the developer from reselling the property to someone who might tear it down.

Then-Selectman Brian Shea* was less concerned about that issue. He reminded that the building would still be subject to the Demolition Delay Bylaw. His concerns laid in other areas.

Shea referenced a listed “partner” that serves on the Capital Planning Committee. He said that needed to be “vetted” in terms of the timing of votes on the RFP. He urged “well placed calls” to attorneys. Others echoed the necessity of looking into that. (Scroll down for more details.)

Shea was also surprised that the bid wasn’t higher. Selectmen Lisa Braccio and Chelsea Malinowski echoed dismay at the price tag. Malinowski noted disappointed that there was only one bid. She would have preferred options for voters to choose from. They weren’t eager to bring the proposal to Town Meeting voters.

Chair Marty Healey said he was initially surprised, but thought in context of the situation it was a good offer.

Jason Malinowski, Chair of the Capital Planning Committee had recommended selectmen list the building for sale because of the costs for keeping up the building for just two departments.

On top of the annual $37K in upkeep, Facilities was projecting $500K needed for capital work on the building over the next 5 years. He said the majority of that would be sooner rather than later. The Capital Chair opined that the applicants’ expressed willingness to be flexible about the timing of when the Town would need to move staff out was a plus.

He did also remind that there would be costs associated with a sale. The Town would need to relocate the Arts Center playground located on the property. Selectmen have acknowledged the need for keeping a public playground on the south side of town. (Recreation had previously confirmed that most of the equipment should be able to be moved.)

Although selectmen weren’t in consensus in recommending the proposal, Healey read his board as agreeing to move forward in giving voters the option. Article 23 at Annual Town Meeting this Saturday will ask voters to authorize selectmen to sell the property. 

Selectmen had hoped to bring a specific proposals to voters this spring. However, the Article’s vague wording would allow them to adopt a similar strategy used for Fayville Hall.

In that instance, Town Meeting authorized selectmen to make the decision. (Although, first commenters from the floor extracted a verbal pledge from the board to prioritize preservation as a criteria.)

As for the proposal on the table. . .

Proposal for Redevelopment of the Historic South Union School 1912

The application wasn’t included in the Board of Selectmen’s meeting packet for last week or this week. Nor is it posted to the website. Through a Public Records request, I received a copy. (Click here to open the full document.)

The application from StreetBlock Development pitches:

This proposal is intended to enhance the community by maintaining a village like setting by keeping the density of development consistent with the is surrounding neighborhood. While a denser build-out could potentially yield a greater financial benefit, this proposal seeks to find balance between economic gain and a sensitivity to surrounding community.

The existing building would be converted into two side by side townhouse units. The side with the elevator would be marketed as fully a fully ADA compliant accessible unit. A four car garage would also be added to the plot for that building.

Preservation of the façade is described as follows:

Existing masonry will be patched and repaired where functional signage has been mounted on the building by the Town; patch materials and mortar will be color matched. All existing window units will be replaced in its entirety utilizing a custom match strategy to maintain the existing sash and mullion patterns, profile, and proportions. It is expected that color matching and profiles will be submittal for discretionary approval to the Authority Having Jurisdiction (AHJ). The upper roof parapet (or upper frieze) will be prepared for new paint finish. Due to the repair needed at the two front entrance stairs, these stairs will be demolished and rebuilt using masonry or masonry cladding materials appropriate to the historic significance of the building façade. Profiles of the handrails will be brought back to an aesthetic of the exterior façade, without compromise to it being code compliant.

Questions about potential conflict

The “partner” referenced by Shea is Capital Planning’s Steven Hinterneder. He is listed as one of the “individuals who have or will have a direct or indirect beneficial interest in the real property”.

Capital Planning initially voted to make the recommendation to selectmen that the building be listed for sale last summer, prior to Hinterneder joining the board in January. But in February, Hinterneder seconded the motion to affirm a recommendation to list the building to solicit proposals prior to this spring’s Annual Town Meeting.

At that meeting, he was one of the five members to vote against a fellow member’s motion to recommend that the bidding process include a deed restriction to prevent subdividing the parcel and require the original building be kept. (The vote was 1-5-1.)

Although the Committee joined the BOS for the May 10th discussion, Hinterneder wasn’t shown on the zoom screen as a participant.

Next Steps

The RFP for the property was posted on April 2nd with responses due May 5th.

Given the quick timing, in last week’s meeting officials acknowledged that it wouldn’t be possible to get a Purchase & Sale agreement in order in time for Annual Town Meeting this Saturday.

However, Jason Malinowski urged selectmen to try reaching out to the applicant to learn about any potential “sticking points” that could come up in a P&S. He also suggested that if selectmen are bringing it to ATM it should be with a “support” vote by the majority of the board and a presentation of pros and cons. (Earlier he had indicated that he wasn’t personally supportive of the proposal. At that time his committee hadn’t yet met to discuss the application.**)

Cook recommended tabling the Article to the planned Special Fall Town Meeting. She opined that bringing the proposal forward without knowing all the details was potentially “dangerous”.

Since the Article was already on the Warrant, keeping it there didn’t require any vote or action by selectmen last week. This Tuesday night, it’s back on their agenda as part of their prep for ATM.

*The May 10th meeting took place the night before the May 11th election ending Brian Shea’s term. His seat has been filled by Andrew Dennington who was on Advisory at the time of the meeting.

**Updated (5/18/21 10:53 am): Jason Malinowski reached out to me concerned that the post was misleading. I felt that he had some fair points that highlighted that my coverage didn’t make some things clear enough. Based on that, I inserted an Editor’s Note at the top of the post. He also stated that he had made clear that he wouldn’t have voted for the proposal. The Capital Planning Committee discussed the Article on Thursday.

I took a look at that this morning. In that meeting, member Andrew Pfaff advocated holding onto the property. Referring to the Town’s need to meet state requirements for zoning and housing, he suggested pursuing money that should be available from the American Rescue Plan to develop affordable housing there. Malinowski agreed, noting that the plan had just been released the morning of the meeting and selectmen likely hadn’t had a chance to “digest it”. Member Joseph Palmer voiced concern over timing of reshuffling Town Depts given other work in process. Selectman Lisa Braccio indicated that she would bring the feedback to tonight’s BOS meeting.

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2 years ago

So, not only is there a huge conflict of interest, but the potential buyer is going to pay a measly $700k for land that will accommodate 4 houses PLUS the building? What happens to the park–do the local kids lose its use? A reminder that on that side of Southborough there are no parks whatsoever. I hope people will vote against this bad decision. Let’s not sell ALL of our historic buildings!!!!

Ridiculous Conflict of Interest
2 years ago

Voters: Vote “NO” on this Article 23. Shame on this entire BOS for not ripping up this RFP in front of the applicant and turning the matter over to the State Ethics Commission immediately. Do your damn job. Shea is the only member who at least touches upon the topic, but falls short of taking steps publicly. A member of Capital Planning, Steven Hinterneder, is voting to recommend to authorize BOS to sell this building to Steven Hinterneder! (And votes against deed restrictions!). What kind of bullshit is this? Read state ethics laws!

Guess what? While the balance of the BOS is wrestling over the price (WTH?), this BOS appointee should be immediately publicly admonished, removed, and turned over to State Ethics Commission. Yet, Mr. Healey, an attorney, plows right ahead. Call state ethics for goodness sake! Here is another town giveaway of our money. Not to mention pathetic excuse for marketing resulting in one bid again. As the only playground on the south side of town where mothers can bring their children during school hours, there are plenty of good reasons to consider rethinking this one. It’s our money.

2 years ago

Why does the town sell real estate this way? Anyone knows that 4 lots alone are worth at least 250k, but we sell it in an obscure rfp that nobody knows about except the person who suggested it be sold? The rfp should be for a real estate professional to list and sell the property not to actually sell the property direct. Hello BOS nobody knows it’s for sale. The outlet is called MLS. You would never sell your own property via rfp posted at the end of a meeting and on an obscure website would you?

2 years ago

I will be away this weekend, and won’t be able to attend the town meeting. However, this sounds like a really bad idea. $700k for the building and the lots seems way too low. It is curious that only one bidder came forward, especially given the current state of the local real estate market. It seems clear to me that perhaps this needs to be relisted and much more widely/openly advertised. The historical nature of the building and the existing playground (in which my children play) warrant a much more thoughtful process. How much of the $700k will be spent relocating the playground and the existing Rec Dept. offices? That’s prime real estate, and the town can do a LOT better.

Another Vote No
2 years ago

This building is possibly a great opportunity to add affordable housing units near public transportation. It does not appear that the current proposal includes any affordable housing options. Meanwhile, BOS, Advisory, SHOP-C, EDC and others try to figure out how we are going to meet affordable housing quotas. The bad ideas and proposals keep coming from our elected officials. It’s truly staggering if you pay attention.

Ridiculous Conflict of Interest
2 years ago

Agree completely with all of the above commenters, especially Realtor and Another Vote No. However the Conflict of Interest tops it all and requires leadership from BOS. This is your appointee !! voting to enable selling the property to himself at a favorable price without any deed restrictions. The taxpayers that you are supposed to be representing expect you to do the job you were elected to do. Please do something. This is your appointee and this situation is absolutely ridiculous.

Just Say NO
2 years ago

Why not simply convert the existing school building into some number of condominiums?

That would keep the building and create housing, while preserving the lot!

VOTE “NO” at Saturday’s ATM on the proposed sale – for now.

2 years ago
Reply to  Just Say NO

Agreed. Make the condos, ditch the sub division.

Karen Muggeridge
2 years ago

The building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. What implications does that have on the buildings future?

Tim Martel
2 years ago

Hi Karen,

Sadly, being listed on the National Register of Historic Places offers no protection for the property in question. The only consequence for a developer making non-historic changes to the building…is that the building is removed from the Register.

Another resident
2 years ago

It is so discouraging to continue reading about the lack of planning and conflict of interests of our elected officials. One word GREED,

This building needs to be maintained and converted into affordable housing for seniors.

Vote no on this article and take back our town.

2 years ago

Thanks for all of this info! I would hate for the building to get turned into condos but I get that it’s a money trap. Wish I could go to the meeting on Saturday – I miss the weeknight meetings.

Kelly Roney
2 years ago

This looks like a bad proposal to me.

It’s interesting to see what people are for and against. For example, I’d like to see condos in the South Union School, and this has been a common reuse of school buildings that are obsolete as schools. Its main advantage is that the facade is permanently preserved. That’s not perfect – facadism is a dirty word! – but it’s way better than demolition or demolition by neglect.

Just Say NO
2 years ago

I laughed reading about the “leadership” shown by some of the BOS members. Sitting on the top rung of a fence does not demonstrate taking a position!

We’re coming up on ONE YEAR since “Mr. Chairman” dodged responding to ATM queries around the PILOT negotiations with the Fay and St. Marks schools. “negotiations could be jeopardized…”. Well, what’s the status now?


Tree frogs…

Lead, follow or get out of the way.

Ridiculous Conflict of Interest
2 years ago

Hallucinating again. The above article states that Jason Malinowski, Capital Planning, is urging BOS to reach out to the applicant on “sticking points.”

Jason, check state Conflict of Interest laws for “sticking” points. There is NO applicant. There is a Capital Planning Committee member voting to have BOS authorized to sell the property to him at a favorable price, with no competitive bids, and no deed restrictions.

To Marty Healey and BOS:
1). You are the appointing authority of this conflicted individual.
2). Stop mulling over the bid offering.
3). Take the RFP and this conflicted individual by the ear and REPORT him to State Ethics Commission immediately.
4). Stop wasting the public’s valuable time with this bullshit.
5). Tear up the so-called RFP and show some leadership by admonishing and removing this YOUR appointee.
6). Start over. This is OUR money. Not yours to give away. There are some good ideas in these comments. How about real senior housing? What about the historic designation? Stop wasting our time and money. Leadership please or step aside. It’s noteworthy that everyone is running for the door but no one is addressing the conflict. This made it to Article 23, right? The town deserves better leadership, performance, and accountability.

Frank Crowell
2 years ago

Too bad it cannot be a Charter school.- perfect location.

Good thing we put that elevator into this property some years back. I don’t remember what it costs but probably more than $400K. Maybe we should start a list of money “well spent” in town. Elevators, rescue boats, additional schools, just the tip of the iceberg. In the mean time the town still could use more sidewalks.

Another Realtor
2 years ago

$700k? No. Fully aware that there are other moving parts to this, but that is way too low. That is a beautiful building, one that I I have both nostalgic and pragmatic opinions on. Please do not build that into four separate single families. At the very least, turn it into a beautiful replication of the school building it is; townhomes/condos keeping the original structure and details. There are not enough non-age restricted townhome/condos in town. Additionally, I never understood why property belonging to the town was sold basically off market. That should have been allowed to be openly viewed by all, and although it seems that some knew about it, it should be available for all to know about it in a very public fashion. I do hope that this is looked at a little more closely and does not get given away only to be turned into something that does not reflect The town’s history of this building.

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