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Giandomenico’s proposal shows flawed reuse process

March 19, 2012

An inquiry by a well-known local businessman into converting the old Walpole library into commercial use has thrown Town Hall into a bit of a tizzy. The resulting mess has become a case study in exactly what happens when town officials completely botch what should have been a simple process of determining the re-use of a town facility.

Albert (Albie) Giandomenico, owner of the Export Insurance Agency on Front Street, reached out to town officials earlier this month suggesting he might want to built an office complex at the old Carnegie Library at the corner of Lewis Avenue and Common Street. Giandomenico’s family has deep roots in town, and he currently owns, through a trust, the Liberty Village Shopping Complex at the old Foundry on East Street.

Giandomenico’s inquiry apparently took Walpole town officials off guard, and Selectmen are now scrambling to review the idea. The Board had already voted to put two different articles on the Spring Town Meeting Warrant, to be taken up in May, to first demolish the building and then sell the property. Selectman Eric Kraus said Giandomenico’s interest throws a wrench into what has now become an “awkward” process just weeks before Town Meeting.

Town Administrator Michael Boynton first brought up Giandomenico’s proposal publicly at the March 6 Selectmen’s meeting, saying he was surprised there was any interest from a business owner in purchasing the property.

“The fact that there is a heightened level of interest in that building to use for potential commercial purposes is intriguing,” Boynton said.

“Intriguing” is apparently the only word Boynton can muster to describe the notion that, as it turns out, the entire library re-use process that lasted for months starting in August has turned out to be flawed. This was a process that started too late, from the beginning had no clear direction, and ended with residents and officials still in disagreement as to exactly what to do with the facility. Boynton’s genuine surprise at this fact seems odd, because it was clear from the get-go that something was wrong.

The new library was approved in an override vote in June 2009, almost three years ago. It was at that point, after a contentious recount, that Selectmen knew that they would soon have a vacant building on their hands.

And for over a year from that vote, the Board did nothing.

It wasn’t until late 2010 that Selectmen took their first official step in determining the building’s reuse, and asked the Walpole Housing Partnership to commission a study to determine if senior housing would be feasible. A state-funded study found a few months later that housing would be cost-prohibitive unless officials were willing to pursue an override or other revenue options to finance it.

In August 2011, more than two full years after the override vote, Selectmen finally called together residents of the Lewis Avenue and Common Street neighborhood, for the first time, to formally hear residents’ ideas for the site. Most were vehemently against housing, while others favored municipal use or open space. Selectmen formed a committee of neighbors to examine possible uses, and residents were asked to take a survey to weigh in on the issue.

Although both Boynton and Assistant Town Administrator Jim Johnson were supposedly steering the committee’s work, group members came back to Selectmen in January seemingly confused about their charge.

Committee members David White and John Garrity, both Lewis Ave. residents, told Selectmen in January they thought the best option for the town was to tear down the existing structure and either sell the land for a one-family house or retain the land for potential future use. Selectwoman Nancy Mackenzie, though, questioned the group about why a senior center hadn’t been considered. Other neighbors who weren’t on the committee had similar questions about why municipal use apparently wasn’t part of the equation. Selectman Mike Berry joined in the muddle, suggesting that commercial use should have been given a closer look.

The response to Mackenzie, Berry, and the other residents was that the committee hadn’t known that municipal or commercial use was on the table.

“Those of us representing the neighborhood did not say no to a senior center or municipal use,” committee member Mary Abplanalp told Selectmen. “In August you said there was no money. We went into our meeting thinking that. We were told that [a senior center] was off the table,” Abplanalp said.

And so it was that a Selectmen-appointed committee that had been asked to propose a potential reuse for the library hadn’t even considered some key potential uses. As Selectman Mike Berry said, “we didn’t really give commercial use a lot of thought.” If the committee had known it was okay to reach out to the business community months ago, it’s quite possible Giandomenico would have made his offer sooner and allowed for more time to consider what he is proposing. Other business owners could have stepped forward at the same time to propose their own uses for the site, and the residents’ group would have had time to consider which proposal would fit best in the neighborhood.

Instead, it is quite evident that the Board of Selectmen simply has not done its homework or due diligence to ensure that the library site will be used in the best, most affordable manner for the town. The simple fact is that residents can not be certain that Town Meeting will make the right choice for the old library, because the leading proposal going into Town Meeting came about after a delayed process that was evidently mishandled and grossly incomplete. That’s not to mention that at least one current Selectman is going rogue to pursue an entirely different proposal to put a senior center at the site.

This mess is exactly the type of poor facilities planning that occurred during the 1980s in Walpole. Thanks to a number of shortsighted proposals during the early part of that decade, several town properties were sold off for a quick buck, while the police department was shoved into a building that has now become much too small. There was no vision and no long-term facilities planning. It seems Town Hall hasn’t learned much from that experience.

I live on Lewis Avenue, directly across from the old library.

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