Many people have written comments here or to me directly in agreement with my article suggesting that parkland, open space, or other protected land should not be used for the proposed senior center, aka NewCAL.  But we all recognize, as well, that the current facility on Walnut Street needs replacement. How do we thread the needle between these two desires?

One of my heroes, long-time developer and philanthropist Norman Leventhal, always used to ask me and others considering a new project: “What’s the program?” He would follow this question by saying, “The program will drive the design.”

In the case of NewCAL, the process for determining the program was flawed. I’m not saying that those working on the concept were poorly intentioned. I’m saying, instead, that their charge was wrong in that there were too few constraints placed upon their imagination as they proposed ideas for the center. (I’m basing the following discussion on my reading of the publicly available documents from the project working group.)

Following the lead of the Mayor in her inaugural address in which she promised a: “top-notch Senior Center with a rich, all-encompassing program,” the Advisory Building Committee was charged: “To make sure we are looking at every aspect of the program, so that this project can serve the needs of all seniors, as well as fully analyze what other community needs might be able to be addressed as part of this initiative.” (Emphasis added.)

Steffian Bradley Architects were brought in to help. They held listening sessions, collected input questionnaires, and otherwise engaged in making sure that no possible idea was left out of consideration during the project’s planning phase. They also viewed successful senior centers in nearby communities for comparison.  (Interestingly, not one of those was of the physical scale currently under consideration here.)

The theme of a “culture of healthy living” envisioned for the center led to a series of programmatic desires: Social spaces; piquing our curiosity (speakers, education, lifelong learning); exposure to nature (gardening, terracing, roof gardens); outlets for creativity (art classes, workshops, gallery shows, music, theatre); physical activities (fitness classes, fitness equipment, walking, tournaments, integrated fitness); nourishment (dining, food pantry, teaching kitchens, space for a farmers’ market); accessibility to services (SHINE, veterans, health, finance and tax guidance, volunteer matching). Each one of these had components that required more and more square feet. For example, a 14,000 square foot gymnasium was envisioned, complete with retractable bleachers, along with showers and dressing rooms. A swimming pool was mentioned as a possibility, depending on the site chosen. It was not included in the 36,888 square foot projected building size.

Well sure, who can be against any of these items? Indeed, many of these services and programs are already offered at other places in the city, by a variety of organizations. But is there really a need to provide all of them in one city-owned facility? Only if you believe that the purpose of the center is to serve the needs of all seniors, as was set forth in the charge to the working group.

The scoping problem is simply this: There was no directive to those involved to consider the extent to which the needs of Newton’s seniors are currently being met—or might be met—elsewhere in the city by cooperative programs with the numerous other institutions in town, by linkage with private developers, or otherwise.  Instead, we had a process that was additive: Good idea? Include it in NewCAL! For example, of the 106 requests for specific facilities/programs collected by SBA from listening sessions, office hours, and questionnaires, only 3 or 12 (it’s unclear) were received for a gymnasium. Yet over a third of the proposed building is devoted to this feature.

It is not even clear from the papers produced by the working group whether a full analysis was done as to the possible use of the existing site.  What is feasible there if a new building is constructed?

The plan prepared by SBA has now been turned over to another architectural firm, Bargmann Hendrie + Architype, which is unlikely to suggest any reduction in the project’s scope. Meanwhile, based on the SBA report, the city’s Working Group has adopted a matrix of 20 categories to refine the 24 potential sites down to three for more detailed review. As someone who has managed many facilities siting processes, I can tell you that a review based on 20 criteria is likely to be vacuous. Such a review offers the impression of precision, but can simply be a way to justify the pre-ordained desires of the project proponent.

Let’s start over before we fritter away time and money in what will turn out to be a classic case of “mission creep.”

Paul Levy, 69, lives on Oxford Road in Newton Center. He chaired the City’s Blue Ribbon Commission for Financial Resources, in 2006-7.



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