Residents Disagree Over Spot for New Watertown High School

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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.

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.

Potential Sites

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.

An illustration of where a gymnasium and health and physical education facility 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.

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.

No Consensus

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.”

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.

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.

Next Phases

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.

13 thoughts on “Residents Disagree Over Spot for New Watertown High School

  1. How about the land behind McVey Monument on Arsenal Street? Yeah it was supposedly cleaned up by the Army Corps of Engineers and is owned by the DCR but it’s pretty evident that the DCR will never use it for anything. Why couldn’t the DPW go there?

    Why didn’t the town jump on the Sterret Lumber property? A DPW could go there.

    Almost every town I know of has a high school and athletic fields as a singular campus.

    Enough mistakes have been made over the years. Lets not do it again.

  2. “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.”

    Well maybe stop allowing developers to build on every square inch of this town. Certainly below the amount of other communities because our laughable town leadership allowed it to get to this point.

  3. The Sterret Lumber site would be perfect for a DPW Building. What about using eminent domain to get it?

    All of this points out the complete lack of vision our town officials have had for many, many years. This high school should have been done way before the DWP building was done and way before we built the new police station. The DWP building should never have been put in that area where it is primarily residential and prime RE.

    It’s seeing how bad things have become in this town and how many mistakes that have been made at the residents expense that makes me lean towards voting NO for a tax increase for a new school.

    • Yes, I agree on all fronts! Because of a lack of vision and planning, we now have a huge, fancy DPW structure in the center of our town (the Garage-Mahal) in the midst of a neighborhood and recreation area. It is a completely inappropriate building for it’s purpose and when I went inside years ago, I was amazed by how much empty and wasted space there is in this building. So, yes the DPW should never have been put in that spot. If DPW were relocated to the Sterret Lumber site, the current area could be redeveloped to include a new high school, while retaining Victory Field as is, with wide open field and tall mature trees between the field and neighborhoods.

      • I too agree about the old Starrett Lumber site being best for the DPW.
        It seems to me that some kind of deal or trade could & should be made for that site. That said, is the current DPW site big enough for the new high school?

        • The Sterritt Lumber site is roughly 2.7 acres and has been sold to a developer who is proposing a 40B housing development (Watertown meets Safe Harbor status & the area is not presently zoned for housing) or another biotech building. The DPW site is too small for the high school and it is very costly to move DPW facilities. A delay in the present schedule would probably result in Watertown losing its place in line for MSBA funding. These materials are on-line. It would helpful if folks read the materials before they make assumptions. Be careful what you wish for.

  4. This has now become a dire situation for the taxpaying residents of this town. The elected and other town officials have placed the interests and lure of quick revenues from development over the basic needs of the people. They have failed those who have roots here and have lived in this community for many years. They (many town officials) are the ones who are responsible for painting this town into a corner. Short sighted planning if any at all, along with no long term vision have ruined a once very nice place to live. It has been ad hoc property management for decades and now it has come home to roost. This town has squandered many opportunities to purchase land over the years and has never taken advantage of them and instead has sold off much of the towns properties. The town has repeated the same mistakes time and time again. The 55 acres at the Arsenal that were sold to Watertown in 1968 were all sold off to developers without any hesitation. All of the closed elementary school properties and the East Junior High School property were foolishly sold off. Keeping just a portion of all that property would have given so many options for the future. Now its too late, that ship has sailed long ago. Now we have been left with severe overdevelopment, dwindling scarce open space, and very few options.

    • Please look up Doherty High school in Worcester
      Although built in the 60 s
      Asbestos and other issues
      The design was forward thinking
      And could be adapted to the sparse available spots for a new HS
      Best of luck for the future of the Watertown youth

  5. Watertown needs a mayor. At this point part time elected officials in a city as populated as Watertown is not working for the citizens. Someone needs to be held accountable and that is not happening. Our form of government in Watertown is antiquated. I can only hope the people working in the town charter recognize this.

    • Steve… you couldn’t be more correct. The Town Council is not working. Our representatives are not equiped with the skill set required to deal with the level of growth Watertown is experiencing. I think we as residents need to come together for change.

    • The charter review committee will consist of the Town Council (TC) and six appointments made by the TC President. Without a neutral party, who possesses deep knowledge of best practices in government for a city of of our size budget-wise and under ongoing an onslaught of development pressure, what will change? There was no competition for the School Committee (a candidate walked in), the Library Trustees (a candidate collected 2547 votes without so much as a letter as to why she was running or an interview on WCATV, and then left town) which now needs to fill a slot by special appointment, nor the District Council races. The TC President mentioned that there have not been many applicants for the Charter Review Committee. Why would there be? Many feel the deck is stacked. Count the votes. Is any real change possible? Does anyone in our city called a town believe it’s time for a serious change? If so, let’s hear your ideas – not just a lot of bitching and moaning. We can’t wait another 10 years to change things up.

  6. The town needs land, take the 40B project on Waltham st. and purchase it through eminent domain…its a slippery slope to initiate but it would give the town some much needed space and the price paid for the Steritt lumber lot was 6.2 million. A drop in the bucket compared to building three elementary schools, a high school and everything else in between.

    People need to get engaged and go to all these meetings or it will remain the same.

  7. If you feel strongly about change in Watertown, apply to be on the Charter Review committee. This is the biggest chance we have to effect change. Let’s hope that the TC recognizes this and hires the appropriate third party, neutral help we need to guide us in making changes. The Review Committee will not be able to do it alone.

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