On November 13, 2019, the city’s project team and architects from Perkins Eastman shared three preliminary design concepts for the planned reconstruction of the Tobin Montessori-Vassal Lane Upper School (TM-VLUS). This was the first time the public or elected officials had seen the designs being considered; the materials were not posted in advance and no printed handouts were circulated at the meeting. The following day the presentation and the boards from topic-specific discussion groups were posted on the project page (you can sign up there to receive updates from the staff). Based on the feedback and questions heard during the meeting, the city manager’s office has decided to extend the feedback period until December 15 and to schedule another community meeting in December or January to further review the design options. We are also hoping to bring the architects to City Hall for a public briefing with the Council and School Committee in early December (we will be together for a joint roundtable meeting on Universal Pre-K planning on December 2 at 5:30pm). Public feedback will inform the refinement of the options and ultimately the city manager’s selection of a preferred design in early 2020. Next would be a feasibility study and then schematic designs could begin in the spring of 2020. Construction (site preparation and any demolition would begin until after the end of the current school year). The project is estimated to take four school years.
There is a lot of information to compare and contrast, so to make it easier for you (and myself) to provide feedback, I’ve created a spreadsheet.
The BIG Picture
At the beginning of the meeting Deputy City Manager Lisa Peterson explained that the existing site has 6.6 acres of open space (the parcel itself is 9.1 acres or 396,959 sf according to the assessor’s database). However only 5 acres of that is protected by Article 97, and based on what was presented it appears that there will be an 18-21% loss of open space Open space does not include driveways and the surface parking lot. There are three baseball fields and two playgrounds at the school; all three design options include a field area that can accommodate baseball or soccer but not at the same time. Little League baseball is being relocated to Glacken Field on Huron Avenue. All of the significant trees on the edges of today’s school grounds on Vassal Lane, Alpine St and Concord Ave would be preserved.
The new school will be substantially larger, both in the number of students served (enrollment rising from 624 to 1,164) and its size (gross floor area rising from about 128K sf to about 298K sf). New programs will add about 235 preschool students (in addition to the current 3-year-old Tobin Montessori students) and about 68 students with special needs in a self-contained K-8 program. Another addition is a sheltered English immersion program for about 75 students in grades 6-8. These programmatic additions bring requirements for higher adult-to-student ratios as well as for dedicated off-street pick-up and drop-off areas for the preschoolers and the special needs students that don’t exist in today’s site plan.
In addition, the enrollment in the Vassal Lane Upper School (grades 6-8) is projected to increase from 300 to 450. School Committee member Emily Dexter asked about this at the meeting; it was her recollection that when the Upper Schools were planned the goal was to create small school communities. Increasing the upper school enrollment by 50% is a big jump and would make VLUS significantly larger than the other upper schools.
There will be more adults working on the new campus (the number of teachers and staff was not stated) and even though an underground parking garage is planned for about 100 teacher-staff cars there still will be surface parking for about 50 cars (compared to 80 spaces today). These surface spaces would provide short-term parking for school and field visitors and room for some student drop-off/pick up.
Two of the three options include a new vehicular driveway that runs one-way from Concord Ave to Vassal Lane (parallel to Alpine St) that would be used only during drop-off and pick-up hours for school buses and private cars transporting students. At other times it could be used by student activities (maybe for bicycle training?)
Using even a sliver of the National Guard Armory site for parking would make the site design easier — could we negotiate a 30-yr lease for a small part of their parking lot along the lot line? The Guard could reclaim its parking on weekends for drills, if needed. In 30 years parking needs may have changed. I understand the federal government doesn’t want to sell us the site, but was a parking lease ever explored?
I’ll say upfront that think Option 1, which is the only option that preserves the existing building, was included to check that box, but I don’t think it is a serious contender. The field space is hidden from both Concord and Vassal and feels cut off from the neighborhood, and the site’s soil remediation would be incomplete if the existing building remains in place. Plus, based on what the architects said about the lack of windows and the awkward, angular layout of classrooms, I sensed they think that renovating the existing building poses a lot of design challenges. They noted that its systems are entirely worn out. All we’d be saving is a foundation (with dirty soil from a former landfill trapped below) and the load-bearing walls since they’d need to add windows to meet code. Below grade space is used in the current design, but on a site with significant vulnerability to future flooding it doesn’t seem smart to try to renovate basement classrooms in the new design.
The big overarching debate will be about the very significant increases in both building size and student population and the substantial loss of open space. Will there be enough remaining open space to accommodate all these young people of different ages and abilities as well as to continue to serve the neighborhood? Do all these different programs have to be squeezed onto one campus? The project budget is a jaw-dropping $250 million and at this early point there was no attempt to differentiate the three designs based on cost. The budget includes significant site remediation and sophisticated geotechnical engineering and the installation of a 1.25 million gallon stormwater retention tank under the garage which was planned as part of the sewer separation project. All three designs would be “net zero” from a building emissions standpoint; there could be solar arrays and/or geothermal wells.
Here are some of my preliminary comments and observations about the three designs options presented. I have not spoken with the staff, so I am basing these comments solely on what I could glean from the materials shared with the public. The designs are conceptual so elements of each may be revised in response to our feedback.
Comments may be sent to the City Manager (firstname.lastname@example.org) and to Kate Riley, the DPW community relations manager for the project (email@example.com). Please send comments by December 15.
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Jan Devereux City Councillor Cambridge, MA