Several Options for New High School, All Have Some Headaches

An illustration of how a new high school building with a four story academic wing could fit on the current WHS site. Architect Scott Dunlap stressed this is just a mock up to see if it would fit, not a design.

Designers of the new Watertown High School presented several options for how and where new building could be built, but none of the options were simple and all have challenges.

Last week, Scott Dunlap, the lead architect from Ai3 Architects, showed the School Building Committee some of the options for how a new high school could be built. With no obvious piece of unoccupied land, all the scenarios require tearing down existing buildings or displacing facilities, such as fields or the Senior Center.

At a meeting in December, Dunlap presented some locations, including the existing high school site (both with or without the nearby former-Phillips School), the Victory Field site (both with or without the DPW facility), and Moxley Field. At the Jan. 8 meeting, he ruled out Moxley because it the project was complicated by the fact that it is right next to Watertown Middle School, and the field is WMS’s outdoor play space. He also left out discussion of a scenario where the Town acquires land, or renovates the current school.

Town Council President Mark Sideris said the options are being put on the table so they can be considered by the School Building Committee, which oversees the project, and the public.

“These are just concepts. We are not going to get stuck on anyone of those,” Sideris said. “We will get through the three options so the committee can think about what’s in front of them.”

He added that the School Building Committee will have several more meetings before choosing an option, and the public will be able to weigh in at an upcoming meeting. Community Forum will be held on Jan. 21 at 6:30 p.m. at Watertown High School, 50 Columbia St. It will either be in the Lecture Hall or the Auditorium, depending on the size of the crowd. Also to be discussed is the educational vision for the new high school.

Using the Current Site & Victory Field

The main challenge for using the current site is finding “swing” space for the facilities lost during construction. Dunlap proposed tearing down the gymnasium and wing closest to the the cemetery to make way for a four-story building main academic building, but the classes would have to take place nearby.

“One suggestion is to take 25,000 sq. ft. to accommodate all the high school’s athletics, heath, fitness, and physical education programs during the duration of the project of project and build it at Victory Field,” Dunlap said.

An illustration of where a gymnasium and health and physical education facility (in orange) could be built at Victory Field. It would serve WHS classes during construction of the new school, then likely be used by the Recreation Department.

He proposed the building would go where the outdoor basketball court is as well as the space where the current locker rooms and concession stand are located at Victory Field. Dunlap said the facility would cost $15 million to $20 million, on top of the $160 million to $180 million for the high school construction). The building would include a full gym with bleachers, locker rooms and space for health and other classes. It would likely be turned over to the Recreation Department to be used by the public after the new high school gym is built.

The school would have to work out a way for students to get back and forth from the school between classes, Dunlap said. Also, the construction of the gym at Victory Field would impact at least part of one WHS football season.

Using the Current Site & Phillips School

Another option would be to tear down the Phillips School and the Senior Center (across Common Street from WHS), and build a new facility with the gymnasium space for the health and PE programs. A new Senior Center would be included in the new building.

This scenario would allow for more green space to be added to the current high school site (likely near Columbia Street), Dunlap said. At the end of the construction a pedestrian bridge would be built across Common Street to link the main high school building with the gym and health building.

An illustration of how a combined gymnasium/health/physical education facility and Senior Center could be built on the current Phillips Building/Senior Center site. The building is on the top right, with the mock up of the high school below. This scenario would mean finding a new home for the School Administration’s offices.

The Phillips Building houses the Watertown Pubic Schools’ administrative offices, so a new home would have to be found or constructed for those offices, Dunlap said. Also, a temporary location would be needed for the Senior Center while the new one is being built. Dunlap added that by starting with a clean slate on that property, the site could be used more efficiently.

Using Victory Field

Designers looked at building the high school on a combined Victory Field and Department of Public Works property. Dunlap said the option seems appealing at first, but it has some big downsides.

“You are going to look at this and it is going to look very attractive, because it gives you the freedom to reorganize everything, until you see the cost and schedule impacts associated with it,” Dunlap said.

The main problem with this option is finding another location for the Department of Public Works facility. Typically, relocating at Public Works facility takes two years, said Dunlap, and that is when a site is available.

An illustration of how a new high school could fit on the current Department of Public Works site and preserve athletic fields at Victory Field. Architects said the school would have to be squeezed into the space.

Tim Bonfatti, from Watertown’s owner’s project management firm, Compass, said that he has worked with projects in three towns where moving the DPW was considered, but in all three cases (Medfield, Medway and Norwood) they eventually ended up staying put. In Medfield, the project got as far along as having a new site picked out, but at Town Meeting the proposal failed after residents in the area of the proposed new location came out strongly against it.

Dunlap estimated the cost of replacing the DPW facility to be $25 million to $30 million, which doesn’t include the cost of purchasing the land, if that is necessary. Acquiring enough land could add $15 million to $20 million.

Dunlap said to move the DPW in time to keep the WHS project on schedule, planning to move the DPW should have started in 2018. Watertown could not just promise the MSBA it would find a place for the DPW, and delay the school project.

“The MSBA would not just allow you to defer for a year,” Dunlap said. “In general, they would want to remove you from pipeline and apply to re-enter the program because there are so many other schools waiting for money.”

A scenario where the high school goes on the area where the Victory Field track sits, and fields are relocated onto the Public Works site. Finding a new location for the DPW would be a major challenge, architects said.

The athletic facilities at Victory Field are also a complication, Dunlap said.

In order to preserve all the playing fields, the school would have to be shoehorned into the DPW property, with the gym and auditorium dug into the hillside, Dunlap said.

A school could be built on the area where the track and tennis courts are located, Dunlap said, which would allow for the move of the DPW to be delayed, but it would mean losing an athletic field. The current high school site is not quite large enough for a track, and is also too small for a baseball field or a full football field with stands. Dunlap did show an illustration of a multi-use field, with a full-size soccer field, and basketball courts that would fit on the current high school site, but it would not have stands.

If the DPW moved, the Victory Field/DPW site could handle the school, football stadium and track, but not a baseball field, Dunlap said. If another spot for a baseball field could be found it would change the equation, but Dunlap said he does not know of such a space.

7 thoughts on “Several Options for New High School, All Have Some Headaches

    • Jack, yes, the high school is in bad shape. In short summary, it has had problems with pipes breaking and other issues. The school almost lost accreditation due to poor facilities. Also, the MSBA does not just take a district’s word for it that a school needs to be rebuilt, they come take a look at the school.

  1. To Jack Graham,

    Some more background for you on this. Because Watertown neglected the public schools for so long they are now faced with having to rebuild or renovate 4 of the 5 schools at the same time essentially. Had we planned better and paid more attention to our schools many years ago we could have done one school at a time and applied for federal money for each through the MSBA. Instead we are paying for the three elementary schools to be renovated and will need a substantial tax increase voted on for the high school. Again, had we planned better we would have renovated one school at a time with funding help from the MSBA for every school.

    We already pay quite a bit in taxes so trying to get the residents to vote YES on another increase may be a tough sell. Belmont residents voted yes to a new school and they are just now starting to see how high their taxes have increased to pay for it, the range is upwards of 25% increase. OUCH.

    The big difference between the two towns is that Belmont has far more families in town and they want to see the new school for their own kids. Watertown doesn’t have that demographic nor can the average resident handle another tax increase. The other big difference between the two towns is that Belmont has always had a highly regarded school system with high standards. Watertown has never had that nor has never had that reputation. A fancy new school isn’t going to help if you don’t raise the standards and fix what is happening between the four walls of each school.

  2. The options for the new high school presents a number difficult options for the building committee and the Town’s administration. In addition to the siting of the school, the committee needs to make sure the school is the appropriate size for the projected enrollment. The numbers presented by Mr. Dunlap, indicate that at its current size is 13% greater than that recommended for 720 students, or nearly $23M above the MSBA guidelines. That assumes that Watertown can convince the MSBA can accept the over 40,000 SF of space planned for Vocational Education, Special Education and Core Academic areas. There is a lot to do in the process and it is just starting.

    • They did take a look at the Lowell site for the high school, but I believe it is not as big as the current site, plus the hill on the grass leading up from Orchard Street would pose a challenge for designing a school.

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