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Having just returned from the Parks and Recreation Commission informational meeting on the NewCAL proposal, I have several observations:

First, the high level of professionalism of the city officials was demonstrated throughout the evening. Josh Morse’s, Jayne Colino’s, and Bob DeRubeis’ presentations and responses to questions and comments were thoughtful, organized, clear, engaged, and patient.  Likewise, the commitment of the Commission members, chaired by Arthur Magni, cannot be questioned. Kudos to all.

Second, the Administration made a huge blunder in deciding to hold the NewCAL Working Group sessions as closed meetings, along with delayed publication of minutes. This lack of transparency has led to widespread cynicism about how the Group reached the conclusions they reached. For example, the credibility of going from 145 possible sites to 24 sites (predominantly parkland) to 6 (all parkland) and then quickly to one park is strained.  And now the backlash occurs.

Third, the standard of review in the P&R Commission Manual, i.e., “a compelling showing that there is no feasible and prudent alternative, including both publicly and privately owned potential sites,” holds real weight in the eyes of the Commission members. On the one hand, you could argue that the Commission could just accept the 145-to-24-to-6-to-1 Working Group process as proof that the standard of review has been met. That might or might not be a legally defensible approach. On the other hand, absent a detailed comparison of Albemarle to at least two or three other city-owned and/or private sites, the Commission would face a difficult political decision in choosing Albemarle for NewCAL. The precedent the Commission would set would also be very troubling.

Fourth, the question of what NewCAL is and is not remains an open question. Is it a senior center or is it a community center? The description given tonight was that senior programs would get priority, but then other users would be free to use the facility in second place. When questions arose as to how that would actually be implemented, the answers were less clear. This ambiguity translates into real choices about the size of the building and therefore the site requirement. If, for example, seniors do not need a full size gymnasium and could instead use studio sized rooms for dancing, yoga, and other physical activities, the building could be decidedly smaller–and more sites would be feasible.

Fifth, everyone wants a new senior center. There ought to be a way for the Mayor to build on that consensus in a positive and unifying way rather than in the divisive manner that has been in evidence to date.  Members of the public were saying, “Why do we have go through this turmoil?” The answer is, “We don’t.”