Thursday’s meeting of the North and Trahan School Reuse Committee was a lively discussion between chair Bruce Shick; members Kayla Biagioni-Smith, Lorna Garey, Mark Kratman, Bob Fowler and Kristin Smith; and two guests, assistant town manager Steve Sadwick and Select Board member Jayne Wellman, who brought insights from the Elementary School Building Committee.
Several residents also had questions and comments for the committee. Member Ken Duffet was missing.
The meeting began with community commentary. Resident Keith Anderson asked how long after the buildings are vacated would they be torn down, reused or sold. Anderson suggested that the sites could be used for affordable housing and said he hopes neither property is turned into a new park since we have a good recreation area already, and he’s concerned a recreation use would require the hiring of new maintenance staff.
Many of these questions and concerns were addressed later in the meeting by Sadwick.
There was a discussion about what happens to the properties once the schools are vacated. Kratman said that the School Committee would transfer them to the town, and the town would formally take possession. Wellman shared that she believes there is money in the new Center School contingency budget to cover the cost of tearing down the buildings. The current estimate is $3 to $4 million to demolish both schools and return the lots to open space, but Sadwick reports that Consigli Construction, which is completing the new Center Elementary School, is in the process of touring both schools and will provide a firm quote for demolition within a week or two.
A ballpark cost to maintain the decommissioned buildings, including insurance, is also expected in the next two to three weeks.
Kratman suggested that if either property is to be developed, that the town may not want to fully demo the buildings because developers can often get historical tax credits. Recently, Community Teamwork Inc. of Lowell, with community/economic development planner Alexandra Lowder, toured the schools and will report back on potential uses and tax credits available.
Wellman, who is also on the ESBC, mentioned that the Massachusetts School Building Authority suggested the town consider applying to build a lower elementary school in the future, and that the North St. site would be an ideal location as it’s centrally located and accessible for emergency services. Fowler added that he recently spoke with a representative from Soldier On, which is currently working on a project in town, who expressed interest in developing one of the sites for veterans housing.
Soldier On currently has a particular need for housing for female veterans; the Tewksbury location will be limited to males.
Sadwick was on hand to answer a variety of questions the committee had about what can be done with the properties based on their zoning. Under the new Zoning Bylaw, the North St. property is R40, which is for single family dwellings; the site could fit 17 homes on one-acre lots. The Trahan is a little more complicated, as it’s zoned South Village District. This zoning allows for up to 45 units of multifamily housing, municipal uses, assisted living and retail stores, among other possibilities; the full list of uses can be found in Appendix A of the Zoning Bylaw, column SB. One use not allowed is single-family dwellings. It was noted that building height is limited to 2.5 stories, or 40 feet.
Affordable housing was a big part of the conversation because the town anticipates falling below the required 10% threshold once the new federal census data becomes available; the town is currently at 10.7%. If some 300 new affordable units are built by Hanover Co. at Ames Pond, that will bring the town up to 11.4% which would create some breathing room.
Sadwick confirmed that the Affordable Housing Trust Fund could be used for demolition, if a property were being used for that purpose. Smith pointed out that any affordable housing cannot be earmarked for current Tewksbury residents, it must be allocated based on need and existing lists maintained by the state.
Another question was about the Trahan and North St. playgrounds, which were purchased for the schools with CPA funds and must be either kept on the sites or moved to a comparable location in town, at potentially significant cost.
The committee was curious if there was an appetite in town to build a performance venue or meeting/function facility, given that the Tewksbury Country Club is being sold. Sadwick could not comment on if there was an appetite, but notes that neither could be built on the North St. site, though the Trahan could accommodate indoor recreation. In response to a question from Biagioni-Smith, Sadwick did say that an outdoor bandstand could be added to the North St. site, and it could be rented out.
Both sites could house a solar farm with a special permit from the Planning Board. Kratman believes that the cost may make this infeasible. The North St. site could have a cell tower, and money received might be able to be earmarked for particular uses. Kratman noted that cell towers are rarely built anymore and that phone poles are mostly used for 5G.
Wellman shared that green space at the Trahan would be ideal. It would connect the surrounding neighborhoods to businesses on Rt. 38, and she points out that the new mixed-use apartment building on Main St. is essentially on top of the Trahan lot. A dog park would also be feasible. Or, the footprint of the school could be used for affordable housing and the playground and fields could stay as open space. Wellman also noted that traffic in that part of South Tewksbury is already a problem, and adding more housing will just make it worse.
The committee will review a survey to be sent to the other boards and committees in town as well as drone footage recently taken of the sites. The committee will meet next on June 30 to provide feedback and finalize the survey, with the goal of making a recommendation to the Select Board in time to bring ideas before residents at October Special Town Meeting.