February 15, 2017
By GAYLA CAWLEY
SWAMPSCOTT — Neighbors of the shuttered former Swampscott Middle School on Greenwood Avenue want to find a way to reuse the building instead of demolishing it.
The residents, as part of Citizens of Swampscott for Adaptive Reuse, have filed a warrant article for consideration at Town Meeting in May.
The group was formed “on the belief that careful and professional consideration of adaptive reuse of town-owned properties is the course of action most likely to result in public policy decisions that truly represent the best interests of the town,” according to information provided by the group.
“The potential to adapt this historic building to other uses of instead of simply demolishing it cannot be overstated,” said Richard Frenkel, who filed the article on behalf of the group, in a statement. “Affordable housing is just one potential reuse that comes immediately to mind. Certainly, the town’s track record in that regard is abysmal. What our group is advocating is that we have the building professionally evaluated for adaptive reuse. This is something the Historical Commission has long sought and really should have been done when this project first started.”
A feasibility study to investigate all possible uses for the site, including, but not limited to mixed affordable residential and public use, sole affordable residential use, or sole public use, would be conducted if the article is approved at Town Meeting. The study would cost up to $60,000, and would be raised privately, according to the citizens group.
Naomi Dreeben, chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen, said the board would not have to approve the article before it could be placed on the warrant for Town Meeting. She said the citizen’s petition got the required number of signatures.
Dreeben said the Request for Proposals for redevelopment of the property was released last week. She said the selectmen will be choosing one of the projects submitted by developers through the RFP process. Developers have until March 10 to submit proposals.
“It’s hard to imagine we would go back to rethinking the use of that property,” Dreeben said.
Dreeben said the condition of the building has degraded to the point where she doesn’t think reuse is possible. She said it would be more expensive to renovate the building than tear it down.
“I don’t think it’s realistic at this point in time to consider reusing the building,” Dreeben said.
Last month, the selectmen tabled a proposal from Groom Construction to convert the former middle school into 28 luxury apartments or condominiums, with three garage outbuildings on the site. The proposal was submitted through another RFP process.
Instead, the selectmen decided to act on the advice of Town Counsel, and issue another RFP, which would give developers an option to submit a plan that conforms to the zoning approved at Town Meeting last spring: Construction of a 28-unit structure with an affordable housing component, or for a Chapter 40B affordable housing project. Developers are also able to present proposals for both options.
The town is already in the midst of pending litigation with Groom, which initially won approval for a 41-unit condominium project on the site five years ago. That suit has to be settled before the town can proceed with the sale of the property.
The lawsuit stemmed from an initial zoning change approved at Town Meeting, which allowed for a multi-family unit on the parcel. That was overturned in Massachusetts Land Court after neighbors filed suit in 2014, and zoning reverted back to single-family housing.
Town Counsel recommended reissuing the RFP because the neighbors had been clear that they were intending to again bring litigation against the town if it went forward with Groom’s proposal. Neighbors have said that a 28-unit structure would be out of character with the existing neighborhood.
Selectman Peter Spellios said in a previous interview that a 40B project, in which about 25 percent of units have to be affordable, would give the town protection against a spot zoning lawsuit from neighbors, as it is exempt from zoning, and harder to appeal.
Since the town owns the land, Spellios said proposals would be solicited for a friendly 40B, where town officials would enter into a land development agreement with a potential developer, and would therefore, have some control over the property. If there is no legal settlement and Groom wins the lawsuit, the company could proceed with the 28 units zoning allows for or build a much larger 40B project, where the town would have have the same control.
Benjamin Agoes, a member of the citizens group, said neighbors and residents have only been given secondhand accounts that the building is completely dilapidated and full of mold. He said he’s heard from some people who have been in the old middle school that it’s not that bad. He said the group is interested in potentially taking the building down to how it looked before all of the additions throughout the years.
“One thing that’s plagued the process is it’s been a very top down decision process,” Agoes said. “Historically, the board of selectmen have come to the residents and said here’s the plan, here’s what’s going to happen. They have been looking for input but the foundation has always been laid. There’s always been this top down and … I know what we’re advocating for is making this a more level set process.”
Gayla Cawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GaylaCawley