Select Board to form committee to explore use of 21 Highland Street

In response to public outcry, the Select Board agreed to allow volunteers to explore uses and financial feasibility of the historic "asset"

Above: Abutter Phaea Crede was among the residents lobbying the Select Board to allow them to take part in determining the fate of the historic South Union building and property. (image left from meeting video, right by Beth Melo)

For over an hour last week, the Select Board discussed 21 Highland Street and listened to concerns of residents who believe that the South Union Building and property are worth retaining. 

Although they didn’t vote, the board agreed to form a committee for stakeholders to explore options for its use along with financial viability. They plan to discuss the potential committee composition and charge at their next meeting on October 10th.

As I previously wrote, residents submitted a petition to the Select Board objecting to the perception that the board was preparing to sell the property. In actuality, the board had planned to commission a Feasibility Study for the property’s use. But initially, they had rejected the suggestion of forming a committee to solicit stakeholder input.

Responding to the petition, the Select Board held a discussion at their September 19th Select Board Meeting. At that meeting, the public made clear, they wanted the board to think beyond a focus on affordable housing opportunities vs maintaining the status quo or selling off the property. Petitioners and commenters pushed to explore how the community would like to see the property used.

Before opening up to public comment, board members debated whether exploring potential new uses, which would likely call for an investment, should wait until the Neary Building Committee or Town Meeting decides whether or not to close Finn School. (An expensive school building project to consolidate schools could impact voters’ appetite for spending on other facilities. And a project to convert Finn into a Community Center could overlap or eliminate potential uses that the South Union Building might be considered for.)

But there were also concerns about waiting 1½ years to begin the effort.* In the end, it was suggested a committee could come up with a multi-pronged recommendations for how to proceed based on whether Finn remains open or is put to another use.

Joe Palmer, Vice Chair of the Capital Improvement & Planning Committee, sought to change the lens through with the Select Board was considering the property. He criticized that they were too focused on the expense/liability, and not viewing it as an asset. Instead of worrying about the maintenance & energy or upgrade costs, he argued they should look for ways the property could generate revenue to pay for itself. He floated possibilities like a pool, courts, climbing wall, and indoor fields/courts as uses the Town could charge fees for.

Palmer advocated that a committee of stakeholders could serve as a conduit for public input, helping address the Town’s communication issues.

Abutter Phaea Crede told the board that she appreciated how complicated the issues around the building and property were. She said she really wanted to be involved and knows others in the neighborhood that feel the same. She acknowledged that people had very different opinions about the property’s use/preservation, but opined that residents would be realistic and understand that change needs to happen. Noting that she works as a content strategist, she volunteered to help facilitate the process. 

Kathleen Dupuis, another abutter who volunteered, was among those concerned that using the parcel for one affordable housing project wouldn’t make sense in the broader context. She agreed with Palmer that there were potential revenue generating ideas to be vetted. Southborough Open Land Foundation’s President Destin Heilman referred to that potential as “a teardrop in the ocean of the mandate we have for affordable housing in the town”. He opined that it would be a waste of the property’s value for the community.

Neighbors spoke of the value of the sledding hill on the property for bringing their community together. Member Al Hamilton, who had met with some residents the prior weekend, told the audience he didn’t want to touch the hill. He referred to it as an invisible asset that’s quite important to a New England neighborhood.

A lot of the Select Board’s discussion focused on estimates for how much it would cost to bring the building up to modern, energy efficient standards. Hamilton made “back of the envelope” calculations in the neighborhood of $5-$10M as a “floor” for that work. Kristen LaVault, a member of the Recreation Commission, repeated her objection to officials throwing out numbers without hard facts.

LaVault was among those who pushed for a committee that includes stakeholders. She noted that the board had rejected her suggestion in their prior meeting. She pointed out that while she understood the board’s desire to reduce the overall number of committees, this is one that people were asking to be part of. They wouldn’t have trouble recruiting members.

Select Board members seemed to be skeptical that the committee could come up with consensus and feasible solutions. (Hamilton referred to it as a “Blue Sky” effort and projected that members would find the effort frustrating.) But they also agreed that the neighbors should be given a chance to see what they can come up with. 

Hamilton and member Kathy Cook will work on a draft charge to discuss at the next meeting. They were leaning towards having the committee’s work done within a year. Members also agreed that providing some technical support to the group through a Feasibility Study would likely be part of the plan.

*The Neary School construction project is estimated to head to Annual Town Meeting in March 2025.

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David Parry
9 months ago

BRAVO neighborhood residents! … You FINALLY stood up and INSISTED that YOUR neighborhood residents deserve to have meaningful input ..
to deciding what to do with YOUR neighborhood community center … instead of letting outside “know-it-all” officials steer toward their simplistic goal — minimized renovation costs.

Your 21 Highland St. “Arts and Community Center” is far more than a “building” renovation. It can be YOUR future neighborhood community center.

Please do NOT cave in to some non-neighbors’ loud voices – – who relegate your center to a “run-of-the-mill” affordable housing project — which will provide no benefit or distinction to your neighborhood.

Stand up. Organize. Find leaders.

Betsy Davie
9 months ago

I think it would wonderful if Southborough had an active, vibrant Arts Center at 21 Highland. In the last several years, I’ve been taking ceramics classes in other communities because there is no program to be found in Southborough. (There is an art studio with pottery wheels and a kiln in the basement of 21 Highland and sometimes there are RAP classes, but it is not routinely offering classes for either children or adults, to my knowledge.) I’ve had the chance to see the beautiful Umbrella facility in Concord, the Community Kiln studio in Framingham, and the Hopkinton Center for the Arts. All of these are bustling centers where people from the community gather to make art, perform/display art, sell art, and foster connection. Ceramics classes are wildly popular at all of these studios and fill instantly upon release – there is a huge demand! In fact, I see other Southborough residents at these ceramics studios because… again… there is no studio in our town to enjoy. The building at 21 Highland St already has the label “Arts” on it and many rooms – if we had the collective will and sought additional funding from state and federal agencies (Mass Cultural Council, the NEA, etc), we could transform it into an active arts center with multiple uses. Ceramics, dance, music, drawing, painting, even theater… Wouldn’t it be amazing if our families could enjoy these enriching arts and take classes right in our town instead of driving miles away for access? And if there was a coffee shop nearby… don’t you think we would spend money there while our kids were taking lessons? I know that I would! I would absolutely love for this property to be rejuvenated.

Al Hamilton
9 months ago
Reply to  Betsy Davie

Betsy
It would be nice to find a future use for this building. If it is to remain a public building we need to bring it up to modern standards particularly energy efficiency standards. This building costs about $1.00 per square foot to heat in the winter. This compares to my house (built in the 1980’s) which costs about $0.55 per square foot (my occupancy pattern requires more heating time as well). The current standards are better. The building is tired and needs major work.
Bringing the interior up to modern standards and preserving the exterior will cost millions. The monies involved will have to compete with a host of other worthy claims on your pocketbook including sidewalks, community center, recreation center and ever present need to replace snow plows, fire apparatus and maintain our existing infrastructure.
The Select Board will be appointing a committee to examine this question A discussion on this topic is likely for the Oct. 10 meeting. Please come and let us know your thoughts and volunteer.

David Parry
9 months ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

This is a quote from a member of the Selectboard, about the cost of modernizing the historic “Southborough Arts and Community Center” at 21 Highland St :

“Bringing the interior up to modern standards and preserving the exterior will cost millions.”

Yes it MIGHT cost a lot. But it also MIGHT be worthwhile … IF it serves a legitimate need.

IS THERE AN EXAMPLE OF AN EXPENSIVE TOWN PROJECT WITH NO TOWN (public) NEED ?

YES THERE IS … Look at the TOWN “GIFT” to St Marks School of $1,500,000 which was used as follows:

(1) To abandon the historic St Marks town road (aligned over a genuine Pre- Colonial Indian Trail).

And (2) To replace it with a costly NEW road — thereby creating an ATTRACTIVE MAIN ENTRANCE and private parking lot, serving only ONE rich user … St Marks School … (which SHOULD have funded it themselves).

THIS COST OF THIS ONE PROJECT HAS NEGATED 30 YEARS OF PILOT PAYMENTS.

The HUGE IRONY is how, every single year, the Town Selectboard has to plead with St Marks School for larger “Payments In Lieu Of Taxes” (PILOT). But the same Selectboard then offered to spend $1.5 million on a road project primarily serving the School !

There is NO legitimate justification for this act of wilful spending. For perspective, note that the typical annual PILOT from St Marks is about $40,000. Therefore it will take over 30 years of similar PILOT payments to equal the ONE gift of over $1,500,000. In effect, our Selectboard just spent 30 years worth of PILOT contributions on only one project. And to make matters worse … that one project does not benefit the town public. Instead, the private School is the sole beneficiary … and so the Private School SHOULD have paid for the entire project.

THEN ADD AN UN-NEEDED PARK, NEXT TO A BUSY HIGHWAY (RT 85), ON LAND NEEDED BY THE TOWN FOR OTHER FUTURE NEEDS.

To add insult to injury, the Selectboard is now adding an unnecessary “park” — located south of the new intersection and north of the Library parking lot. But there are two problems with this add-on park:

(1) Nobody ever called for a new park there, next to a busy highway. No town needs are solved.

And (2) the park takes up ALL the available vacant land, which WILL CERTAINLY be needed for future expansion of the Library parking lot !

So (3) you can anticipate that, in a few short years, there will probably be calls for removing the park to make way for an expanded library.

SO … WHY … IS A NEW PARK BEING BUILT THERE , ADDING YET MORE TOWN COST ?

The answer is that the park is simply an attempt to ” beautify” the un- needed road project … adding yet more WASTE TO A PROJECT WITH A LONG HISTORY OF PETTY CORRUPTION. (Just scan the many complaints about this notorious project, which only get worse !)

Al Hamilton
9 months ago
Reply to  David Parry

David

I am as irritated as anyone about this monument to mismanagement. To be clear, this is a park almost nobody wanted or needed and the management of the development was an abomination.

Worse yet, this debacle is reflective of the same old same old thinking where all our public spending is spent in a small area of town near the intersection of 85 and 30. Parks, playgrounds, playing fields, fire hydrants, public water, in the rest of town, Forget It, it is not a priority.

So, Why are we still building a park. The simple answer is that it is the least expensive way out of the mess. It would cost more to clean up the mess we made and return the money to the State than to finish the park. I don’t like it but it is the best solution to a bad situation.

It is time to put this sorry chapter behind us, learn the lesson and move on.

David Parry
9 months ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Quote from Selectboard member Al Hamilton (in letter above) :

” Worse yet, this debacle … (referring to THE ST MARKS ROAD PROECT AND PARK) … is reflective of the same old, same old, thinking — WHERE ALL OUR PUBLIC SPENDNG IS SPENT IN A SMALL AREA OF TOWN near the intersection of 85 and 30 … Parks, playgrounds, playing fields, fire hydrants, public water, in the rest of town.” ( End quote.)

I respectively DISAGREE with Mr Hamilton … Town funds need to be spent WHERE MOST PEOPLE LIVE … not on a FEW people living (like Mr Hamilton, by their own choice) along isolated rural roads, with minimal services.

But the key issue is NOT WHERE the money is best spent, but on HOW it is justified. Mr Hamilton, being a recently elected member of our Selectboard, has just admitted that the St Marks Road Project was (and still is) QUOTE:

” A monument to mismanagement. To be clear …. nobody wanted or needed (THIS NEW ST MARKS RD INTERSECTION AND PARK) and the management of the development was an abomination.” (End quote).

Then, noting that that the project was STILL ONLY HALF COMPLETED , AND THE PARK HAS NOT EVEN BEEN STARTED, Mr Hamilton wrote this:

“So, WHY are we still (about to) start building a park ? The simple answer is that it is the least expensive way out of the MESS. It would cost more to clean up the mess we made, and return the money to the State, than to finish the park. I don’t like it but … IT IS THE BEST SOLUTION TO A BAD SITUATION”.

But Mr Hamilton fails to explain WHY THIS IS SO. FURTHERMORE … IF HE IS CORRECT … then surely the Selectboard is responsible for PUBLICLY IDENTIFYING WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THIS MESS.

We should be thankful that Mr Hamilton has at least come half way, by acknowledging that the Project is a MESS. But the Selectboard owes the taxpayers (who are paying for the $1.5 million cost) A FULL EXPLANATION OF THE FOLLOWING:

WHO WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE “MESS” ? … WHICH THE PREVIOUS SELECTBOARD CHOSE TO IGNORE … AND INSTEAD RAMMED THROUGH TOWN MEETING WITH NO EXPLANATION. The previous Selectboard asked Town Meeting to spend more fund needed to complete their “MESS” … With the inevitable result that Town Meeting voters (who were tired after 6 marathon hours) were duped into approving the funding … thus compounding the Selectboard’s “MESS”.

BUT THERE IS STILL TIME TO STOP THIS FRAUD ON OUR TOWN … because the park element has STILL NOT BEEN STARTED … because it is OVER-BUDGET ! Meaning, there is still time for Mr Hamilton, as a top elected official … to STOP the project. Shut it down. Save the remaining funds (a half million dollars) for OTHER worthy projects, elsewhere in town. And then INVESTIGATE WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE MOST NOTORIOUS MESS IN TOWN HISTORY.

I will name who (I believe) is the town official most responsible for the mess. It is common knowledge, but others are understandably scared of saying it … because of the possible consequences … because he has managerial power to fire town employees.

The person MOST responsible is none other than our Town Administrator Mark Purple, who did the following … he contrived the Project with the previous DPW Director Karen Galligan; then he sold the package to the Selectboard and to St Marks School officials; then he MIS-managed the project, even to the extent of mis-using State DOT grant funds, resulting in an investigation by the State Inspector General ( whose work is secret and ongoing).

In my opinion, the Town Administrator should have been fired two years ago. What happened instead ? Mr Purple forced out Ms Galligan, because she worked under him. And the weak-kneed Selectboard actually sanctioned Purple’s action.

Mr Hamilton was NOT on the previous Board. And yet … so far …he has chosen to sanction their MESS … instead of calling for accountability.

DO SOMETHING !

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John Gulbankian
8 months ago
Reply to  Al Hamilton

Mr.Hamilton: I don’t believe in this Sweep it under the rug attitude. We’re not talking about Ten dollars we are on record for over a million in our taxpayer funds towards a private entity maybe closer to Two million now.
What we need is a public meeting, we have the right to do so to expose and highlight , How money was appropriated , how money was supposed to be spent , who are the players involved of the what and why this money was approved and why there is no park or work done to date.? The galling part to all of this alleged fraud by our town board on multiple levels and have stuck the townspeople with the bill. No Thank You. . You stood up and said at town meeting that” My mother told me to clean up my mess” Well Mr. Hamilton we are waiting for you to pick up the broom rather than sit in the corner and say nothing.

Al Hamilton
8 months ago

Mr. Gulbankian:

My feelings about this project are clear, it was a managerial and financial failure. There are 2 principle responsible parties. The former DPW Superintendent who was responsible for this project is one. The other is the Select Board. By law, the DPW Supervisor reports to the Select Board and as such the Supervisors success and failure are theirs as well. The Buck Stops There!

I will note that the former DPW Superintendent is no longer employed by the town and 4 of the 5 Select Board members involved no longer serve in that capacity. The 5th member has subsequently faced the voters, and been approved by the voters with a comfortable margin.

On the financial side the information I have seen is that the total cost of the project is about $1,000,000 with $290,000 coming from the State. The balance came from funds appropriated for road work by ATM, Chapter 90 monies (State) and funds specifically appropriated to finish the park.

I am convinced that Town Meeting, the Voters, and Taxpayers would be well served by a full, independent financial audit of this project.  This should identify the direct and indirect costs including engineering, architectural, legal, and other associated costs. It should also identify if some funds were spent inappropriately and make any recommendation related to the management of future projects. The ideal body to supervise this audit is the Advisory Committee as their charge includes the review of the books and management of the town. Absent that a sub committee of the Select Board should proceed. I will bring this matter before the Select Board.

We need to put this behind us but we can’t just ignore this failure. Every dollar we spend is taken by color of law from the citizenry, it is not voluntarily given. The careful administration of these funds is one of the highest duties of our government. The taxpayers are not entitled to perfection but they are entitled to better than they got with this project. This audit will be uncomfortable but necessary to restore the public confidence.

In the unlikely event that the Select Board does not move forward on this matter then I would recommend that those that care raise the necessary 10 signatures to force this matter on the floor of Town Meeting.

Tim Davis
9 months ago
Reply to  Betsy Davie

Hi Betsy – Just wanted to add a comment about ceramics. We have reintroduced adult and children’s ceramics programs over the last 6-8 months. Children’s ceramics continues to be one of our most popular after-school programs! They got off the ground well. Unfortunately, at this time, they are on hold as we need to replace our Kiln after it stopped working this past Spring. It is on order and our hope is to be back up and classes running this winter. Further programming use of the space upstairs is in constant planning and a winter suite of programs will be out soon. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to me at the Rec Department @ TDavis@southboroughma.com

Michael Weishan
9 months ago

Hello Everyone. I would just like to remind folks that you will within the next year have a new history and arts center at Fayville Village Hall, featuring a full roster of classes in arts, crafts, history and culture in a state of the art, modern facility. We’ve been set back in timing due to variety of factors too long to go into here, but this facility is in fact happening in an area of town that has seen little to no investment outside of the hugely popular Fay Memorial Park, which we abut. More info can be found at https://southboroughhistory.org/fayville/ We will also have a very exciting announcement coming shortly about enhancements to the site that will thrill the heart of anyone who’s ever dreamed of riding the rails.

Betsy Davie
9 months ago

Thank you for this comment and the link – I had lost track of the Fayville project. I’m really excited about it! Great job securing funding. This is exactly the kind of fundraising I was getting at in my original comment. Great job on all your hard work for the project! I can’t wait to see this opened.
I absolutely love the future uses and ideas for classes at the new site! However, and I know I am biased, I’m disappointed that it doesn’t appear to include ceramics. I mention this because 21 Highland has a studio with potter’s wheels and a kiln in the basement. If that building is demolished, there seems to be no replacement space for ceramic arts in town. RAP programs have used it from time to time, and there have been sporadic adult classes as well. There is interest!

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