Tobin-Vassal Lane School Reconstruction: 3 Design Options (5 Responses)

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.

  1. Option 1 would be by far the largest building (316.9K sf) with the largest footprint (116.7K sf) and the least vehicular space (46.6K sf). The presentation chart shows the school’s existing GFA as 128,170 sf and the proposed new GFA (exclusive of the 55K sf garage) as 298,380 sf (more than twice as large). Option 2 building size is 278K sf with a 106.5K sf footprint. Option 3 is 297.4K sf with a 108.8K sf footprint. Is usable programmatic space lost in Option 2, or is the layout of Option 2 simply more efficient? As I said above, they’re aiming for a building of 298K sf, and of the three options shown, Option 3 is the closest to delivering 298K sf (it is listed as 297.5K sf on the boards), which to me indicates this may be a preferred option (I’m only speculating here; I have no inside information).
  2. Current open space configuration with two playgrounds next to the playing fields allows families with different age kids to be closer together — one kid can be climbing on play structure while an another kid plays baseball; parent can be within sight of both kids. Option 3 appears to have two smaller playgrounds tucked next to the fields; Option 2 does not have play areas within sight of the fields. However Option 3 has the least total open space (5.2 vs 5.4 acres).
  3. Home plates shown for baseball field in the three options have three different sun exposures, and none has its home plate at the north where the “main” field has its home plate today. Which is preferred from a pitching/hitting and from a heat/shade standpoint during the spring/summer/fall season? Option 3 has its home plate facing NE, which is the only orientation that is not used on the three current fields (is there a reason why it wasn’t used in the current field layout?).
  4. There will be a tall fence behind home plate and presumably some bleachers nearby — where do we want the fence and the “dugout” and spectator activity to be centered? In Options 2 and 3 the home plate area would be on Vassal Ln, though in Option 3 it would be over by the auto businesses on the parkway (is that preferable from a noise/activity standpoint?).
  5. If noise from the fields is a concern, then Option 3 is probably preferable for most residential abutters on Alpine and Vassal because the fields are closer to the parkway. In addition the proposed bike connection between Vassal/FreshPond and Fern St/Danehy would run right by the fields in Option 3, which would be good from an open space connectivity standpoint. On the boards the sun and wind analysis have been done with home plate in the position it’s in in Option 3 (a clue that could be the frontrunner?).
  6. Option 3 is set further back from the Alpine abutters (85′-90′) than it is today and for abutters on Vassal the minimum setback is equal to today’s (90′). In both Options 2 and 3 the building is still set back further from Concord (140′-150′) than it is from either Vassal and Alpine, but not as far back as today, obviously.
  7. Option 3 appears to have the most direct bike route between Vassal/Fresh Pond and Fern St/Danehy. There’s a little zigzag in the path in Option 2 when it approaches Concord — it should line up straight with the Fern St and Concord Ave crosswalk, which it does in Option 3. 
  8. Option 3 has both teacher-staff and service vehicles entering the underground garage and loading bays from Concord; Option 2 sends both staff and service in and out of the Vassal driveway along with some caregiver drop off & pick up; all these uses would be using the same driveway off Vassal that the bike connection is also on. I think Option 3 does best job of separating the three vehicle streams, probably because it devotes more space to vehicular circulation (62.6K sf vs 58.4K sf). The tradeoff is loss of open space but maybe improved safety and less congestion at the entrances/exits be worth losing 0.2 acres (that’s about 8,700 sf less)
  9. Option 3, which has the least open space (5.2 acres vs 5.4 acres), seems to have an additional (3rd) parking area near its fields. I think residents using the fields may park on the neighborhood streets rather than driving onto the school campus, especially for the Option 3 where the parking is not visible from Vassal and the field is not visible or accessible by car from Concord. 
  10. There are no massing views or elevations of the options from Vassal side. These should be included. We need to see these options from all angles.
  11. The amount of space devoted to “district uses” has almost tripled (from 8,317 sf to 22,300 sf) — what are these uses? Is the Office of Student Services for the district or only for this school?
  12. The limited use, bus/car drop-off/pick-up lane parallel to Alpine is a feature in both Options 2 and 3 — we need to see more detailed renderings of how that would look and function. The staff indicated it could be used for play during school hours. In Option 3 it seems to jog to the right as it approaches Vassal (to give buses more turning radius?).
  13. A large stormwater retention basin or rain garden is a more prominent feature in Option 2 and is located very close to Vassal near Lakeview. In the other designs there are smaller scattered rain gardens. What’s ideal from a stormwater standpoint?
  14. The maximum height is 3 stories (based on responses to questions, it seems going up to 4 floors isn’t ideal for the program uses and wouldn’t free up all that much ground space). Will the foundation be raised a few feet for flood protection? Can we see some elevations from the perspective of people walking rather than birds flying above?
  15. Option 1 is the only design that puts a playground near Concord Ave. The Children’s Village daycare on Bay St Rd uses the existing tot lot daily. It would be a longer walk to a reach the tot lots in the other two options. Maybe the plan is to steer the daycare children to the new universal access playground on Field St.

Comments may be sent to the City Manager ( and to Kate Riley, the DPW community relations manager for the project ( Please send comments by December 15. 

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    Jan Devereux
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