Update on St. Mark’s St Park

Public Forum Thursday, archeological dig about to begin, landscape designs underway, and more process disputes

Above: This Thursday, the public is invited to weigh in on how the Town should use the “St. Mark’s Park”. Meanwhile, an archeological study of a possible indigenous burial ground is in the works. (photo by Beth Melo)

With a public forum planned for this Thursday, and an archeological dig about to begin, it’s time for an update on the controversial park and road project next to the Library.

The most important thing I want to stress to readers who have been concerned about the possibility of indigenous burials at the site – don’t panic if you soon see the return of big construction equipment.

Apparently, this type of archeological excavation calls for use of an actual excavator.

The process, including careful use of a digger, was described to the Historical Commission earlier this summer. (I’ll get to that further down in this post.)

Late last week, the firm hired by St. Mark’s School to conduct the archeological study received the necessary permit from the Mass Historical Commission. They are now getting prepared to conduct that dig. It’s expected to be sometime soon, but that date is still pending.

Whether or not Special Town Meeting in October will be asked to vote on Warrant Articles related to this project is still up in the air.

Last week, members of the Select Board debated the Town’s recent steps and how to proceed at this stage of the project.

Select Board and Working Group steps (and process issues)

The Select Board had agreed to pause work on the site until the archeological experts report back. The Board hoped the study would confirm that there isn’t evidence to suggest remains are buried in the location of the park. But it turns out that some additional funds are already being spent this summer on exploring potential designs for a park.

That investment and questions about transparency were topics of contention among Select Board members last week.

Vice Chair Chelsea Malinowski and member Lisa Braccio both referred to the heavy criticism over the board’s handling of the decision making process last year. They were concerned that steps being taken opened the project (and Board) up to even more criticism.

In a meeting held on Friday morning for the sole purpose of funding the design plans, the two objecting members were outvoted. The board approved $7,695 for Public Works’ contractors to finish drawings of three potential designs for consideration at this Thursday’s St Mark’s Park Working Group meeting.

St Mark's Park St Working Group forum inviteTo address one of the concerns they raised, the Town is now advertising this Thursday’s meeting as a Public Forum. (An announcement was issued this morning.) 

The public is invited and encouraged to provide feedback on plans for the space.

Select Board Chair Kathy Cook indicated surprise that the request prompted debate. In supporting the ask, she referred to the planned steps as good timing. She updated that she would soon be meeting with officials at St. Mark’s. Cook didn’t detail what the planned topics of discussion were, but it is likely to include a potential land swap.

One of residents’ criticisms of the project has been that the Town was investing in improvements to land owned by the private school and in allowing parking for the school on land owned by the Town. At Annual Town Meeting, the Board had argued that a proposed swap of easements represented a swap in property interests. (The proposal was rejected by Town Meeting, although Board members have publicly defended that since the Board attempted to withdraw the Article, voters never heard their full argument in favor of it.)

At their May 31st meeting, Board members publicly hoped that a swap of land ownership would better allay voters’ concerns. 

In Friday’s discussion of the Park Working Group’s steps taken, Malinowski and Braccio referred back to the group’s revised charge approved on June 14th. It included a requirement to hold three public forums. On Friday, Malinowski expressed dismay that the group hadn’t held any but was already seeking funds for potential designs.

Member Andrew Dennington, who is the Working Group Vice Chair, responded that he had believed the regularly posted public meetings sufficed as forums. He noted (and Board member Sam Stivers supported) that the group had received plenty of public participation and comment at their meetings. He suggested that a forum or hearing could be held after the Working Group selects a design/concept to recommend to the Select Board.

But Malinowski highlighted that there hadn’t been public outreach to invite comments at the meetings held over the summer. Later, Working Group member Kevin Miller reaffirmed that. He noted that while Chair Marguerite Landry has been great about allowing members of the public to comment, agendas haven’t listed it as an option. (Public Comment has been included on this Thursday’s agenda, posted yesterday afternoon.) Miller pointed out that on June 30th, he had requested the group hold a public hearing.

Dennington pushed that the passionately differing viewpoints of the group’s members made coalescing around a concept difficult. He urged that providing concrete options would allow more productive discussions.

The compromise reached was to make this week’s meeting a forum. Dennington also offered to hold a second forum after Labor Day. (Stay tuned for that date.)

Malinowski was still against moving ahead with spending. Part of her concern was potential waste of funds based on the study results. That was later echoed by Miller, who as Chair of the Historical Commission had advocated for a study of the parcel.

Braccio stressed her disappointment that she discovered funds were committed without notifying the Board. She stated that prior to the meeting, members received a packet that included a $6,500 contract for VHB’s landscape design work. She reached out to Public Works Director Karen Galligan to find out if there was another contract for the additional $1,195 requested. She learned that there had been one. 

Braccio went through the Park Working Group’s agendas and minutes and discovered that it had been requesting meetings with and work from the Public Works’ engineering firm, starting back in late June. That appeared to be the source of the $1.2K contract, and gave the appearance that work already started on the $6.5K contract. The Select Board wasn’t asked to approve funds or updated about the steps being taken.

She reminded that when the Park Working Group’s charge was amended, the Board was told to expect a one page recommendation by September 30th. That step was intended to precede any decision for the Town to spend more funds on the park project.

It’s worth noting that the Select Board had hoped for the group to receive expert advice on the project layout at this stage without paying for it. As captured in minutes from that meeting, Assistant Town Administrator Vanessa Hale was expected to recruit new members for the Working Group, “including those with civil engineering, architectural or landscape design expertise.”

The committee did add representatives from the Open Space Preservation and Historical commissions, but public recruiting for the other role was never publicly done. (Generic calls for volunteers to the many openings on Town Committees was issued, but not one focused on providing that expertise to the Park Working Group.)

Braccio emphasized that she was supportive of the work being done by the Park Working Group. She pointed out that her issue was with the process. Dennington agreed that moving forward he would communicate better with the Board. An update will be on the agenda of the Board’s February 7th meeting.

During the discussion, Malinowski asked about future project costs once a design concept is settled on. Galligan explained that the contract for the project (under the Town’s Various Streets RFP last year) should cover the work for “building” a park. What isn’t included is engineering plans. Stivers pointed out that the range of options being considered make it too difficult to estimate engineering costs. (One is a “low touch” concept that he believed wouldn’t cost much.)

Archeological Dig

As I’ve previously covered, some outspoken opponents to the project have claimed that historical documents indicated the site may have been used as a burial ground for indigenous people prior to the Town’s building of walls around the Old Burial Ground cemetery.

Since the soil has already been disturbed by the tree removals at the site last fall, ground radar isn’t helpful for identifying potential graves. The Mass Historical Commission recommended a more extensive archeological study be done. Following the Town Meeting vote to reject the road and park project, St. Mark’s School contracted Archaeological Consulting Services to do the study.

On July 19th, the Historical Commission hosted a presentation by ACS Director Gregory F. Walwer, PhD. Walwer described the methodology for identifying potential burials while trying to avoid disturbing any. Walwer explained that the layers of dirt that settle over time have the appearance of a layer cake. When holes are dug and then filled, those layers are mixed, resulting in a bunch of dark stains in the lighter subsoil.

To examine if those exist, they combine “soil stripping” with “systematic shovel tests”. Tests pits are dug (about ½ meter in diameter, 2-3 feet deep) all the way down to “sub strata soil predating presence on continent” to identify the color pattern in the layers.

An excavator with a flat blade is then used to slowly scrape the soil surface of the site, to see if there are areas where that pattern is disturbed. Any “pre-contact” indigenous burial shafts would likely be much smaller than modern graves. Walwer described that for efficiency, people were historically buried in a fetal-like position.

If during the digging of pits, the team comes across a “feature” they would try to dig it out separately to identify what that is. If they find evidence of grave shafts or significant features, they will need to stop and contact Mass Historical.

The final report will include recommendations of anything that needs to be done for preservation. If they find indications that abutting areas beyond the park (like the planned road and parking lot) should also be examined, that will also be in the report.

Walwer did share an unusual case of a “false positive”, where caskets were discovered, but later found to be empty. (They discovered it was where cemetery management used to discard broken caskets.)

At the time of the presentation, Walwer was still waiting for a greenlight to proceed from Mass Historical. He described that finalizing the report after the dig is rapid compared to the extensive documentation that needed to be submitted for the permit application.

The permit apparently came through last week. ACS has begun to preparations to do the work, but is not yet on site. As of this morning, St. Mark’s School’s Robert Kuklewicz said that the exact date is still unknown. 

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Al Hamilton
6 months ago

The BOS would be well advised to just walk away from this misbegotten mess.
Town meeting was sufficiently incensed about this project that it would not even let the BOS withdraw its article and instead, against the wishes of the BOS, brought the articled to the floor for the expressed purpose of killing it which they did in overwhelming fashion.
The idea that the BOS is going to bring the town funded “St Marks Parking Lot” project back from the grave is tin eared at best. The idea that Town Meeting Members did not know what they were voting for is frankly bovine effluent. Town Meeting knew and knows what they are voting for.
Please, there must be 100 better uses for $7000.

Alex Neihaus
6 months ago

It’s not about the money in my mind. $7k is small potatoes.
Instead, the underlying root causes are what they always are in Southborough: regulatory capture by out-of-control departments who act with impunity (while feigning compliance), incompetent administration and a Select Board that, no matter how much it promises change or increased oversight, instantly retreats in the face of even the smallest issue.
It doesn’t matter who or what, we have a decades-long record of oversight failure. This project is just one datapoint that shows the real problem is fundamental and structural. As if we needed yet another demonstration of this sad state.

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