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Tough decisions about old Walpole Library

January 9, 2012

In a town that has a history of making rash and short-sighted decisions regarding buildings and land, residents have every right to be cynical about the ongoing discussion over what to do with the old Walpole Public Library.

But with time running out and neighbors wanting a plan in place as soon as possible, Selectmen made the right decision this week to re-examine putting a senior center at the library site, while also putting an article on the Spring Town Meeting warrant to demolish the existing facility.

The Common Street building that has housed Walpole’s atheneum since its construction in 1903 will soon be vacated when the library moves to its new location near Town Hall later this month. A neighborhood committee, appointed by Selectmen in August to come up with re-use proposals, met several times during the fall and winter and circulated surveys of area homeowners. They told Selectmen last week that they saw demolition as the best option for the facility, with the town either retaining the land or selling it off.

But after hearing the group’s recommendations on Tuesday night, Selectwoman Nancy Mackenzie still didn’t seem satisfied and said it was “unfair” to Council on Aging members that using the location for a new senior center wasn’t one of the top options.

Committee members responded that they were under the belief that a senior center had been ruled out months ago, and therefore hadn’t even considered it. That belief appears to have come from the Board’s first meeting with residents in August, when Selectmen expressly implied that the town didn’t need more municipal offices, and that the cost of renovating the existing structure would be too high. Additionally, one of the consistent arguments that had been made in favor of building a new library had been that renovation costs at the existing building would be more expensive than just building brand new.

Nevertheless, when a downtown parcel like the old library becomes available, it is perfectly understandable that Mackenzie would want to take a closer look at putting a senior center there. Beginning over a year ago, in fact, this blog was itself a vocal proponent of the very same proposal Mackenzie is now pushing.

Unfortunately, developments in recent months have shown that this plan might not be feasible.

In the fall, the Master Plan Implementation Committee released an exhaustive report that backed up the notion that the library site was too small for a senior center.

The MPIC spent months speaking with department heads and reviewing current town buildings and released a 92-page report in September that prioritized the town’s facilities needs. The study recommended that a senior center be located on at least a four-acre site, with between 15,000 and 20,000 square feet of space.

In contrast, the old library is located on a site smaller than an acre, and has about 14,000 square feet, according to the online Walpole assessor’s database.

Meanwhile, while the re-use group was reviewing possible uses for the old library, nobody from the COA ever approached officials requesting to turn the land into a senior center.

In this case, the COA’s silence speaks volumes. After complaining for years about the need for a new facility, their lack of interest in the first town building to become vacant in over a century is quite noticeable.

COA Chairwoman Joanne Damish told 180 after Tuesday night’s meeting that the silence is because, as the MPIC report noted, the site is simply too small.

“There would not be enough room for parking, handicap parking, and van parking,” Damish said. Barring the acquisition of a neighboring residential property, the site would also be too small for future expansion, she said.

“Although I am speaking for myself, I don’t believe that you would find anyone from the Council on Aging interested in pursuing the idea of the old library as a senior center,” she said.

On the other hand, Mackenzie urged Damish and others to wait for a specific proposal before drawing conclusions. “To say no right away is irresponsible,” she told 180 last week.

Mackenzie said she doesn’t believe Walpole needs a large senior center, because expected growth in the number of seniors in town isn’t enough to warrant it.

“Once we get past the baby boom, the [senior] population drops,” she said.

Mackenzie said that while most of the communities bordering Walpole have large senior centers, towns closer to Boston have them on smaller acreages. Indeed, Brookline and Milton are two towns that have facilities on lots only around one acre or less, according to the assessors databases in those towns.

Mackenzie is also hoping the site would qualify to receive downtown block grants from the federal government, helping to defray the cost of a senior center.

“Bigger is not better anymore,” she said, pointing out that the library site is still significantly larger than the current senior center in a room at Town Hall.

Additionally, she noted, the library was big enough to serve the entire town population for over a century. She doesn’t see any reason why the site would then be too small to serve a smaller subset of the population.

The MPIC report released in the fall estimated that 62 percent of Walpole’s 4,960 seniors utilize senior center services in some form, although never all at once. The Common Street library, meanwhile, had the capability to serve almost 12,000 active library card users and attract over 2,000 people to 126 events last year, according to the 2010 annual town report.

Mackenzie said she doesn’t see a problem with seniors continuing to hold large functions at local restaurants like Finnegan’s Wake and Raffael’s. When it opens later this month, the new library will also offer expansive space for events.

In this sticky situation, both Mackenzie and Damish make reasonable points.

But ultimately if the seniors don’t want the library site, and if they are prepared to raise money on their own to build somewhere else, Selectmen shouldn’t ram this plan down the COA’s throat.

Also, Selectmen are not in a position to be throwing the MPIC report’s recommendations away with the same short-term thinking that got the town into their current municipal facilities mess in the first place. The MPIC study was done with painstakingly thoughtful effort and care, unlike many of the previous decisions this town has made regarding new facilities. For the past several years, the town has gone about proposing new buildings in places that just didn’t seem right for many voters, and pursued an expensive plan to purchase the Woodworkers property on East Street without any idea what they were going to do with it.

In essence, the MPIC report takes the town away from its reckless piecemeal strategy, and instead lays out specific, reasonable proposals to address the town’s facilities issues. Ignoring that report because Selectmen feel their opinion is better than the opinion of both the COA and the MPIC could create a host of new problems. The town does not want to invest time and money in putting a senior center on a piece of land that will, within only a few years, be once again too small.

The MPIC has been wrong before, of course, most notably with their unanimous vote last year in favor of purchasing the Walpole Woodworkers land on East Street to avert a mythical 40B armageddon. But this report should carry some weight, because it is the first major town study that actually lays out a comprehensive plan for new buildings.

Until Selectmen can find out for sure whether a senior center is feasible and whether there is support from seniors for such a project, the best solution to the problem is to tear the building down and NOT to sell the property off.

The building itself is in disrepair, out of handicapped compliance, and the whole point of building a new library was because the old library supposedly costs too much to remodel. If the building is now all of a sudden usable and can be converted into a senior center or other municipal uses overnight, serious questions need to be asked about whether the community was duped into supporting a new library. A lot of people in Walpole are already experiencing buyer’s remorse and wondering why they supported the new library project. These people shouldn’t have more reason to be upset.

This town also has a long history of selling off land just to make a fast buck and then regretting that decision later on. Selling off the library lot may generate more than $150,000 in profit for the taxpayers, but it would be quickly swallowed up in the cavernous town budget during a year when tax overrides and calls for more spending are in vogue at Town Hall.

Instead, after demolishing the library, the town should keep the land under its control and carefully ponder what to do with the site. If a senior center doesn’t work out, leaving it as green space might be a reasonable idea. The site is one of the first things motorists see when they come into downtown Walpole on Common Street. So many of the other routes into Walpole Center go past eyesores and uninviting buildings, whereas the town has an opportunity to spruce up the library lot and perhaps install a “Welcome to the Downtown Walpole Business District” sign.

In the long-term, if a senior center doesn’t go there, it is quite likely that the library lot could come in handy for school offices or other municipal functions. The town shouldn’t be selling off land so quickly, when they seem to have a perennial need for more land and more buildings. Selling it to the highest bidder for money that will disappear in just one fiscal year doesn’t make sense.

Selectmen are in a tough situation deciding what to do with the library site. Perhaps if the Board had started this re-use process earlier, immediately after the new library was approved in an override vote in June 2009, they would have had a firm plan of what to do by now. The Board didn’t have their first meeting with neighbors until August 23, 2011, exactly 785 days after the override vote and almost one full year after the new library groundbreaking.

I live near the old library.

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