Residents attending Tuesday’s Community Forum about the new Watertown High School project could not agree on which of the locations they would like to see the new school built.
The two most likely spots are the current WHS location on Columbia Street or building a school on part of the Victory Field complex on Orchard Street. Designers have eliminated the possibility of building on the Moxley Field site because it is too small, and said renovating the current building would be more costly than erecting a new school. Also, the design of the school, which dates back to the 1920s, would not work for modern teaching techniques.
The Lecture Hall at WHS was packed for the forum, which was the second held for the project. Watertown has been accepted into the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) program, which will mean about 48 percent of the cost will be reimbursed by the state but also comes with rigid guidelines.
The current cost estimates range from $175 million to $205 million for the school, which could include the cost of building swing space for the students or building new facilities for programs displaced by the school project.
The school would be built to accommodate up to 720 students, Dunlap said. The current enrollment is about 690. The new school would include not just traditional classrooms like at WHS currently, but also small and large spaces for students to gather and learn.
The school will be built to be Net Zero Energy (produce enough electricity to power the school) and currently the goal is to have the school meet LEED Gold standards for green and sustainable construction, Dunlap said.
Project Architect Scott Dunlap from Ai3 Architects explained the options still on the table for how to build the new high school. Some call for the school to be rebuilt on the same site, while others would move it to a nearby space.
Some include tearing down the high school in phases and building the new school with students attending class in the remaining part of the current one still stands. Dunlap said the parts of the school that would be torn down first is the gymnasium and the wing closest to the cemetery. Before that can happen, the gym space would need to be constructed so students could attend physical education and health classes. Athletic teams that use the gym would also play at the facility, which would be built with bleachers.
There are two places that could happen: on part of the Victory Field site or on the site of the former Phillips School (across the street from WHS). If Victory Field is the location, the gym would become a recreational facility for the town after the new school is finished. While one at the Phillips site would be the gym for the new school. That project might also include rebuilding the Senior Center, which sits next to the old Phillips School.
Other alternatives involve building a new school on what is now Victory Field. Some options would look at tearing down the next door Department of Public Works facility, and replacing it with either the school or a playing field.
Dunlap said any alternative where the DPW would move is problematic because there is no space identified to move the DPW, and that process can take up to two years before construction on the facility begins.
If the DPW remains, then the challenge would be to find space for the athletic fields lost at Victory Field when the school goes there. Dunlap said a new stadium with a track around it would likely have to be built, because the site is not big enough for both. There would still be a need to build a new field, likely for baseball, or a multipurpose field that would not have any significant number of stands. Dunlap showed the drawings athletic fields on the current high school site. The plans showed that a soccer field would fit, and a baseball field could be squeezed it, but one of the outfield fences would be significantly shorter than the other.
Some residents opposed using Victory Field because of potential loss of facilities, while others worried about how a school could be built on the same site as a functioning school.
A father of a student who would be going to WHS during the years it is being constructed asked what the students’ experience would be like. He asked which option would have the least impact on students.
Dunlap said a school being built in another location would have the least impact, but added it is not that simple.
“What the town has to weigh is, yes, there is an impact, but how can that be mitigated?” Dunlap said. “If we build on Victory Field, what would the impact be there? It is a complicated process.”
Dunlap added that he has been part of projects where high schools were built in phases while the old school was occupied by students and staff, including at Somerset Berkley Regional, Plymouth North and Plymouth South. He added that students at Whitman Hanson Regional High School won an award for a video they made about the construction of their school.
Other residents said they were surprised to hear that Victory Field might be replaced by a school because the Town renovated the football/baseball field and installed artificial turf within the last decade. Others said they don’t want to see the loss of recreational and open space. Elodia Thomas, chair of the Community Preservation Committee said Watertown is well below the amount of open space per resident compared to other communities in the state. She also lives near Victory Field.
Residents who live near the current school say they are currently impacted by the school. Many expressed concern about parking and traffic at the new school.
Dunlap said a traffic and parking study will take place during the next phase of the planning, which will begin in March. He noted, however, that more parking has been a request by people at WHS. There is an opportunity to put parking on the bottom level of the school because the site slopes about 10 feet from Columbia Street to the far side of the property, he added.
Some other ideas have been considered, and some suggestions are still being made. Dunlap said acquiring land to build a new school is unrealistic because of the price of land in Watertown, plus it would put the project off schedule and risk losing state funding.
School officials floated the idea of building the new academic building on the Phillips School site, and move students there while the rest of the project is built. In that case, the gym would go on the current WHS site. Dunlap said his team will look at that, but worries the Phillips site is too small.
Resident Russ Arico floated the idea of exhuming the graves at the historic cemetery next to WHS and building the new school there. The remains would have to reburied, and he said that was done when the Quabbin Reservoir was built. That idea did not seem to get any support from people at the forum.
By the end of February, a decision will be made by the School Building Committee on which options for sites on which to build the new WHS will be seriously considered, Dunlap said. After that, the School Building Committee will pick the final option by September.
Next, architects would do the schematic design of the new school, which includes making realistic drawings of what the school would look like, how it would be laid out. The plans would contain enough detail to do an accurate preliminary budget for the project. That phase would end in February 2021, under the current proposed schedule.
After the schematic design is approved, the MSBA will look at the budget and if they agree, will approve it.
“The community then has 120 days to have a townwide vote to approve the funding,” said Dunlap, who said he expects the vote to occur in the spring of 2021.
More community meetings will be held, with the next one likely to occur in the next two or three months, Dunlap said. Also, the School Building Committee, which makes many of the decisions about the project, typically meets twice a month. The next meeting will be held on Jan. 29 at 6 p.m. in Town Hall.
Documents from previous meetings can be seen at https://www.watertown.k12.ma.us/cms/one.aspx?portalid=190103&pageid=24094474. More information about the high school project, as well as the construction projects at Watertown’s three elementary schools, can be seen by looking at the “Building for the Future” tab on the Watertown Public Schools website, https://www.watertown.k12.ma.us.