School Building Committee Delays Submitting High School Project, Looking Closer at Where to Put Temporary Site

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Ai3 Architects A rendering of what a two-story modular building could look like on Moxley Field. It could be the temporary location for Watertown High School while a new school is constructed.

The submission of the Watertown High School project to the State has been delayed in an effort to look at where the temporary location of the high school will be during construction. 

The School Building Committee had been scheduled to vote on submitting the plan for the WHS project, including the use of Moxley Field as a site for a temporary school site, on Wednesday. Instead, Town Council President Mark Sideris announced the delay of the submission of the project. 

“We have a number of things we have to work out. A lot of concerns have been raised, and we believe the prudent thing to do is to continue talking, continue investigating and continue to have conversations with people to figure out the best approach that will get us a good high school and a good plan to get to that,” Sideris said. 

The proposal called for building the new high school on the current WHS, and moving the students to a temporary school made up of two-story modular classrooms at Moxley Field. The school would also have use of some rooms and facilities at next-door Watertown Middle School. While the playing field would be covered by buildings and a parking lot for 119 cars, other grass areas, the basketball and tennis courts, and the playground would remain open.

The project will now be submitted in July, which would put it on the schedule for the Massachusetts School Building Authority’s August meeting. Even with delaying the submission by two months, the project could still get approval by the Massachusetts School Building Authority Board in December and be on track to start construction in June 2023, said Christy Murphy from the District’s owner’s project management firm Compass. If a different option is chosen, it will likely change the schedule, she added.

Council Vice President Vincent Piccirilli, who represents the area around Moxley Field, said he has heard from many people about the issue. While many supported the idea, he also heard from many residents who had concerns about potential problems associated with having the temporary location next to the middle school, and who said they had only recently heard of the proposal just a short time before the School Building Committee was scheduled to make the final vote.

“This committee needs to take time to truly understand what is truly in the best interests of the community, both in terms of the educational standpoint but also from a community development and planning standpoint and from a cost standpoint,” Piccirilli said. “I think all three of these are tied together. We need more time. This gives us an additional two months to do a deeper dive into this and continue to explore other options. I appreciate the committee allowing us to do that for the neighborhood.”

A group of 140 residents who live near Moxley Field, as well as park users, signed a letter asking the committee not to make the decision on using the location as the site of the temporary high school until their concerns have been addressed and alternative locations have been studied more closely. While the idea of the use of Moxley as a temporary site for WHS was first discussed by the School Building Committee in March, neighbors said they did not hear about it until much later, and the first public meeting for Moxley area residents was only a week before the Committee was supposed to vote. 

The letter had a long list of concerns including the fact that the area would lose use of the green space, not only for the immediate neighbors but for people living in the area who may not have access to other outdoor areas, such as residents of Senior Housing and affordable housing complexes. Among the other issues cited were: traffic would increase, cars parking in area streets, and the negative impact on people selling homes during the time that the school is located there. They also pointed out that the field is named for Richard Moxley, a Watertown Marine killed in Vietnam.

Resident Lauren Henderson, who helped organize the writing of the letter, said she and the other neighbors look forward to working with the School Building Committee to “find a way forward with this project.” She added that she hopes that the Committee takes into account the impact of putting the temporary high school at Moxley.

“That really puts a huge burden on the neighborhood because you are talking about two schools really close to each other. Other neighborhoods do not have to host two schools on top of losing a park,” Henderson said. “I don’t want  to say not in my neighborhood — I want to support students, too — but you have to keep in mind the traffic impact and the environmental impact of having two schools there.”

Members of the School Building Committee said they wanted to make sure that neighbors’ concerns were addressed, but they also wanted to make sure the decision focuses on what is best for the students. 

School Committee Chair John Portz said there is no perfect solution, and Watertown has a very limited amount of space for a temporary site. 

“We are not a community with a big field next to the high school, like Belmont, and you can build on that field and then you just switch. We don’t have that, that’s not an option for us. I think everybody knows that,” Portz said. “A nice plus to Moxley was it is adjacent to the Middle School. I think the superintendent highlighted this at the last meet: it gives an opportunities for students at the modular site to have a better educational experience, and that is really important for those students. We can’t lose site of that.”

School Committee member Lindsay Mosca said agreed that the focus should be on providing the best educational experience for the WHS students when they are in the temporary location. She worries that another site would not be able to accommodate the modular classrooms along with facilities such as a cafeteria, gym, and space for the career and technical education programs that would be located in the middle school if Moxley is the temporary site.

“How much more space are we have to have to take up on some other site in another neighborhood so we can accomplish this?” said Mosca. 

Town Council President Mark Sideris, chair of the School Building Committee, assured neighbors that the committee would listen to their concerns. He noted that neighbors of the elementary school projects also had major concerns, and some are now big fans of the projects.

“I think that that’s because we listened. That is what this committee does well, we will listen and we will find a solution to he problems at some point,” Sideris said.

The School Building Committee will continue its discussion of the Watertown High School project and the temporary location at its next meeting on May 5 at 6 p.m.

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