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As a long-time public administrator, I always take heart when an elected official has the creativity to propose a forward-looking project for the benefit of the public.  It’s not easy to go through the process of scoping, planning, designing, siting, and funding such ventures.  But it’s also not the case that all such proposals deserve to go through to completion.

We’re currently going through such a process in Newton—with a well-intentioned mayor with a big idea—but there are already signs that the proposal has fatal flaws when measured against other priorities facing the city.  I refer to Mayor Fuller’s plan to build a new senior center (“NewCAL”) to replace the current facility on Walnut Street.  After a series of scoping sessions, the plan has evolved into a 38,000 square feet building on a 2.5 acre site, with a currently estimated design and construction cost of $16.45 million, to be funded from the city’s operating budget.

The process has been through several phases since its initiation about a year ago: vision statement; data collection; program development; and determination of site and building metrics.  We’re now in the “pre-feasibility” stage, during which the project’s working group will identify possible sites in the city that can accommodate the proposed facility and then create a short list to be further evaluated.  This is all with an eye to complete the project by September 2023.

The rub is that, as noted by the Newton Tree Conservancy, virtually all the candidate sites under consideration would involve the loss of precious open space, whether it be passive recreation space, playing fields, or woodlands or other natural areas. This is not just a matter of using fringe space along the edge of a forest or athletic field.  To mention just a few examples, the new center would take up 72% of Ward park; 60% of Pelligrini; 50% of Burr; 46% of Warren Lincoln; 22% of Cabot; 17% of Weeks.

The Commonwealth has a strong commitment to the preservation of open space. Article 97 of the Massachusetts Constitution provides that property “taken or acquired” for conservation purposes “shall not be used for other purposes” without approval by a two-thirds vote of each branch of the state legislature.  In a 2017 case, the Supreme Judicial Court ruled that even a public playground is parkland protected by Article 97. 

Mayor Fuller understated the problem in a recent newsletter, noting, “residents who use . . . parks on the list are likely to have concerns.” The issue is not just those people who “use the parks.”  It is all the people in the city.  As asserted by the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, “our citizens have a right to the quality of life that clean water and undeveloped open space can provide.”

But there are specific issues relative to those who use the parks.  For example, there is already a shortage of playing fields in the city for the schools and youth sports programs, programs of importance to thousands of families.

Finally, there is the matter of using millions of dollars from the city’s operating budget without due consideration of other municipal priorities. For example, the Mayor has asked for and received initial City Council approval of $400,000 from the “free cash” account for just the next phase of the project, i.e., completion of feasibility, schematic design, and site plan approval.  These piecemeal expenditures create their own momentum: It’s the nature of things that, once initial money is spent, it’s very hard for public officials to put the brakes on and reconsider the wisdom of a project.

This administration and members of the City Council have rightly prided themselves on their environmental credentials and programs. That they would support a project that will conflict with legitimate and important environmental priorities is a troubling conundrum.

Paul Levy, 69, lives on Oxford Road in Newton Center. He chaired the City’s Blue Ribbon Commission for Financial Resources, in 2006-7. This column originally appeared in the Newton Tab. Reprinted here with the author’s permission because the Tab does not seem to have published it online.

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