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9 minutes reading time (1853 words)

Let's keep working toward an AHS design compromise

UPDATED, Nov. 7: As an informed building committee and architect moves toward a new design for a rebuilt Arlington High School by February, those parties have been careful to listen to the public.

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The unhappiness over an initial design close to Mass. Ave., crimping open space and lacking white columns introduced in the 1930s, has been met with compromise, as this report of Oct. 17 meeting shows. White columns have been retained and green space is configured.

Now it is time for those who have opposed the current design since July to compromise.

Who controls the process?

Why? Because the state School Building Authority, which controls state funds coming to Arlington, has rules strictly limiting project delays. Certainly, it is too late to backtrack and consider renovation over rebuilding. 

Even so, the strongest voices favoring renovation and more Mass. Ave. green continue. They cite the fact that two town boards that guard our history and a statewide nonprofit have followed the lead of the group aiming to retain traditional features and green space in a rebuilt Arlington High School.

But what does that fact mean? Look at recent history.

After Carl Wagner, a 1987 AHS grad wrote a letter to the state in July and helped launch Save Our Historic Arlington High School, a series of steps took place in an effort to find a compromise between longevity and modernity.

In reaction to those steps, the architect has presented updated plans reflecting a view that the building committee is listening to community concerns.

That is insufficient for members supporting Save Our Historic Arlington High School. Some members showed up at the Nov. 6 building committee meeting. One member referred to support from three groups:

3 'historic' steps

-- In July, just 12 days after Wagner sent his letter, Steve Makowka, Historic District Commission chair, sent an appeal for the state School Building Authority to retain historic features, including white columns, and green space. Read the letter here >> 

-- On Oct. 2, the town Historical Commission voted, 4-0, with one member absent, to request to have the school listed on the state's Register of Historic Places

-- On Oct. 18, Preservation Massachusetts, a nonprofit historic-preservation organization since 1985, has added AHS to its list of most-endangered historic resources.

Take a closer look at what these actions mean: I believe they do not go beyond public relations or symbolic gestures.

State law gives the Historic District Commission jurisdiction to protect resources in town within historic districts. The town has seven. None encompasses Arlington High School. Properties outside the historic districts are overseen by the town Historical Commission.

Avoided demolition-delay bylaw

Thus, the potential import of the Oct. 2 Historical Commission vote to support the school's traditional look. Yet that would likely have no impact on the state process as it moves toward a firmer design by February. Significantly, the commission did not vote to pursue another available step -- seeking a demolition delay, which could stall the project for up to a year. Commission Chair JoAnn Robinson has not responded to two requests for comment.

The move by Preservation Massachusetts was announced in an Oct. 18 news release: "Arlington High School has been named one of Massachusetts Most Endangered Historic Resources." Since 1993, this list has been compiled and published by Preservation Massachusetts, the statewide nonprofit historic preservation advocacy organization.

The news release continues: "The situation in Arlington highlights the statewide threat to historic school buildings under current MSBA regulations which include rigid timelines and procedures which do not correlate with preservation review at the state level. In addition, once designs are approved by MSBA, no changes can be made. These policies result in the current trend of demolishing historic school buildings rather than encouraging municipalities to upgrade and rehabilitate existing and often historic facilities."

These comments are in line with those presented at public meetings and on the Arlington Email List by Dr. Patricia Worden, a Town Meeting and former town official, who has argued strongly for preservation of white columns and green space.

Patricia Worden responds

Asked what effect Preservation Massachusetts' calling AHS "endangered" might have by the MSBA process, Worden responded Oct. 26 that she could not judge that.

She wrote: "If the MSBA has any decency whatsoever, they will back off on not allowing a partial renovation of the Arlington High School buildings, and change their anti-environmental regulations to the way they were before, favoring restoration rather than demolition and new construction.

"I guess it depends on how much in bed they are with the architect/construction industry, since there is a lot more money for these groups in demolition and new construction than there is in renovation. The opposite is true for taxpayers, who would greatly benefit from the less expensive and masterful renovation procedures now available, such as those you can view at the Gibbs School and the two fire stations."

Worden continued, offering valuable background about MSBA rules:

"Current guidelines also do not score positively for the adaptive reuse of an historic school, leaving communities with little to no alternative than to build new and demolish old. Changes, which had been successfully made to the MSBA guidelines in 2000 and encouraged the preservation and reuse of historic school buildings, were amended in 2006, when the language was removed that had directed applicants for school funding to explore the feasibility of renovating existing school buildings prior to that of new construction.

"The case of Arlington High School is an example of why concerns over the impact of current MSBA guidelines on historic school buildings should be revisited."

'Important to Arlington's history'

In the Preservation Massachusetts news release, Jim Igoe, its president, said, “Clearly, Arlington has a responsibility to develop a 21st-century high school that will meet the needs of technology, classroom size and many other requirements that the school complex is currently not adequately meeting.

"However, there is a strong belief that historic portions of the school (the 1914 Fusco Building, 1932 Collomb Building) are important to Arlington’s history and deserving of preservation consideration in the school design. This is evidenced by the Historical Commission voting recently to include both buildings in Arlington's Register of Historically/Architecturally Significant Buildings.

"A multi-million-dollar project such as this should be a wake-up call to the very tenuous future our historic school buildings have if changes are not made again to the MSBA process. This is not just a preservation issue, but also one of environmental and ecological impact as well. A collaborative effort to once again reassert that preservation of existing historic schools is achievable and if not as a school, adaptively reused as many schools already have been. We look forward to working with our partners and other stakeholders on this important issue once again.”

The news release lists John and Patricia Worden a primary contacts for the AHS issue and offers a quote apparently attributed to both:

“We are most gratified that such a prominent organization as Preservation Massachusetts has seen fit to include Arlington High School on its 2018 list of Most Endangered Historic Resources. We hope that this designation will persuade the high school building committee to abandon their demolition plan (Option 3A) and revert to one of their earlier plans, called Option 1, which preserved the historic buildings and their spacious front lawn (also rated as 'best educationally'). We have lost so much in Arlington that the surviving items of the built environment are even more precious than they once seemed.'”

In an effort to learn the likelihood of that happening, Igoe was asked directly about the impact on MSBA process of his group's listing AHS as "most endangered."

Organization president defers

He passed the question on to Stacia Caplanson, preservation circuit rider for central and western Mass. and special projects manager. She wrote Oct. 25 that "this program works to shed a light on threatened historic resources and encourage parties to work together towards positive preservation outcomes. It is encouraging to see that the Arlington High School Building Committee is responding to community concerns and is revisiting the decision made in June 2018 to select a plan, which if implemented, would result in the demolition of historic buildings and destruction of historic green space.

"By selecting a plan that incorporates both the careful and sensitive rehabilitation of historic buildings and preservation of an historic green space/landscape with construction of new buildings, the 'new' AHS will provide a 21st-century learning environment that can serve as a model to other communities."

For a more concise answer to the question about impact on MSBA rules, YourArlington asked Town Counsel Doug Heim. He made clear that the nonprofit has no legal authority in the matter.

Town Counsel, Thielman respond

For his part, Jeff Thielman, AHS Building Committee chairman, deferred to Heim the question about the impact of historic groups on the project.

He added Oct. 25: "The committee is listening to many voices in the community. The latest design has the building set back farther from Mass Avenue than the previous design. As you know, there is more green space for student use in the new design, which is really exciting for teaching and learning. The architects are developing design options that reflect the historical facade as well as some new concepts.

"I don’t know if all of this will delay a vote or the building of a new school. A delay will be very costly and may negatively impact the quality of education we offer our kids."

Asked to clarify, Thielman responded the next day about whether the committee would revisit its decision to build a new high school rather than a renovation/addition: "We do not have plans to revisit out decision in June to select Alternative 3A, an all new high school. The committee believes that building a new school is the right thing to do for Arlington's students.

"There was a motion to reconsider the June decision to build a new high school at our meeting on Sept. 17, and that vote failed unanimously. If any member of the committee wanted to make another motion to reconsider our June vote, we would certainly discuss the motion."

The state School Building Authority was asked what impact the votes by historic bodies might have on its rules. Maria Puopolo, who deals with the press, wrote on Oct. 26: "[A]t this time I would refer you back to the [Arlington] district who would be more suited to answer these questions, as we cannot speak to hypotheticals."

Following up, YourArlington noted that one of its questions was not a hypothetical: "Once a project decides on a rebuild, can it change direction?" Puopolo has not responded.

There remains some time to seek compromise. If we want a 21st-century high school, there is little room for delay.

 Oct. 17, 2018: 4 AHS rebuild concepts aim to show architect is listening

This opinion column based on news reporting was published Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, and updated Nov. 7.

What questions do you have about this project? Ask at the Nov. 27 forum and ask them here, in the comment window below. You must provide your full name.

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