Comments on Tobin VLUS “Campus” Project

The public is invited to submit comments on the Tobin Montessori Vassal Lane School project by 12/15. Comments will be posted on the project webpage.

There is a recap in Cambridge Day of the 12/2 roundtable presentation on the project during which was the first time most city councillors and school committee members had seen the proposed program expansion or the conceptual designs.

One good point that neighbors have raised is that the architects are describing and re-envisioning the entire 9-acre site as a school “campus” when, legally, it is comprised of a public park and playing fields with an adjacent school building. Language is important; the school sits on a parcel that serves two distinct purposes. The parcel’s ownership, use and zoning have changed over the past 80 or so years, and residents are asking for more clarity on the site’s history and current zoning.

Here are three letters that were received in the past couple of days that have not yet been posted on the project webpage. I have bolded the key points to make skimming them easier.

I. From a group of residents on Corporal Burns Road (which runs off Concord Avenue directly across from the current ball fields next to the school):

To the Honorable City Council,

We the undersigned, residents of Corporal Burns Road, have several concerns, listed below, about the planning process and plans proposed for the rebuilding and expansion of the Tobin School/VLUS.

We object to the City making any final decision on the Tobin School / VLUS rebuilding and expansion until these concerns and questions can be addressed and answered.

1. The City is referring to the land as a “campus” when in fact the space is a dedicated park (the Callanan Playground and Tobin Field) with an associated public school.  This labeling of the site as a “campus” is misleading.  The park is a community facility, enjoyed by multiple constituencies of all ages for a wide variety of purposes. Throughout the remainder of this process we ask that the city use the correct name for the site:  the Callahan Playground, Tobin Field, and Tobin/Vassal Lane Schools.  This will give the public a correct understanding of the implications of the school expansion proposal.

2. What portion of the entire parcel is dedicated and zoned as Open Space and what are the restrictions for building on Open Space?  

3. If the City plans to remove the land from its Open Space designation, what is the exact process for rezoning the land? Are there any state restrictions on the removal or reconfiguration of dedicated open space?  If so, what is the process that is required to remove designation or to reconfigure the open space?

4. Was public money ever used to establish, renovate, and/or maintain the park/open space? If so, what are the restrictions, if any, for building on or developing the land? For instance, if any money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was used to create/renovate/maintain the park, there are obligations to preserve the open space in perpetuity. If no LWCF money was used, was any state money used, and if so what are the obligations for preservation and/or restrictions on development?

5. We are all in support of adequate facilities for students and for promoting access to high-quality and much needed pre-school, self-contained special education and English language immersion programs. However, we are concerned about the significant increase in the number of programs and students and the associated staff. First, what was the process that led to this decision and was there any public input into the discussion around placing these programs in this location?  Second, what will be the total number of staff associated with the full programmatic build out of the schools?

6. Were any models considered for building(s) higher than three floors to conserve on-the-ground open space? Were any models considered that pushed the buildings as much as possible to the parcel boundaries where the abutters are commercial/non-residential (i.e. backed against the armory, gas station, car repair/sales shop)?

7. We are concerned about retaining and enhancing safe pedestrian access to Fresh Pond from the Concord Avenue neighborhoods. In the current scenarios, it appears that this connector becomes an alley-way.

8. Were any scenarios considered to use the rooftop as play space or for other outdoor uses?  We understand the City’s laudable desire to have a net zero building; however, there are other mechanisms to create an offset, such as exploring the possibility of erecting solar panels at the Self Storage site (approximately three acres of land) and/or the roof of the Armory?

9.  Because of the land’s past history, is there any requirement to undertake a formal environmental assessment (i.e., MEPA review) of any of the proposed actions to determine impacts and alternatives?  If the proposed project does not meet state thresholds for review, is there a similar formal city review process that includes public input and comment?


Eileen Woodford, Robin Bonner, Suzanne Hopkins, Wendy Wood, Carole Bundy, Alice Heller, Larry Childs, Lisa Camacho, Jessie English, Ang Thilatham, Tyler Giannini, Gina LaRoche

II. From a group of residents (a number of whom are direct abutters) on Alpine Street, Vassal Lane, Standish Street and Field Street:
Dear Mr. DePasquale-
We write to you as teachers, public health advocates, urban planners, architects, and much more; but most importantly as longtime Tobin/VLUS neighbors with a number of significant foundational concerns and questions about both the process and plans for reconstructing the school building, and reconfiguring Callanan Park and the public open spaces. A smaller group of us would like to meet with you to discuss those concerns.
We should start by saying this: we know the current school needs to be replaced, and for the sake of our children’s education and well-being as well as the city’s future, we are 100% supportive of a new building (frankly most of us don’t consider the option of keeping the current building and adding on to it viable, and the architects don’t seem to believe in that option either). 
To distill our concerns about the three options which were presented a few weeks ago for the first time:
1-Layout/footprint: It seems like with every passing day there is new research showing that to thrive in school (and life) children need to move, be outdoors, learn to play together, and experience nature. And, of course, the community benefits from space that fosters outdoor recreation and brings people together for recreational activity as well. Assuming some additional number of students will be attending a new Tobin/VLUS, if anything, the new design should increase open/recreational space, not shrink it.
2-Traffic/safety: The representation of how traffic patterns, drop-off, car/bus routes, parking, and more in the proposed three options seem to us to vastly underestimate the implications of a school that increases in student size by more than 50%, and faculty and staff size by x %. We say “x” because we haven’t even seen that estimate, which is a separate though related problem, as it is information that should have been provided.
3-Citywide holistic planning: Virtually all of us have been involved in some capacity with Envision Cambridge, with the Innovation Agenda, with Cambridge Digs DEEP, and more—all of which are supposed to inform decisions that are made about Cambridge’s infrastructure, including its schools and public amenities. The proposals for the various programs to be housed at the new Tobin/VLUS don’t appear to be connected or synchronized in any way with standing goals the city has committed to—and in fact at least some of it seems contradictory.
4- The process, particularly that related to the program expansions and the decision to permanently remove the ball fields, has been lacking in community input. We are aware of  two community meetings to date related to the design scope of the Tobin/VLUS project; the February 2019 meeting on the site conditions was purely informational. Questions posed by residents at the April meeting about projected enrollment and programs, the building footprint and siting, and transportation/traffic plan were left unaddressed until the architects presented their 3 conceptual designs in November, each based on doubling the school population and significantly reducing open space. Those predetermined assumptions surprised many people. 
Given the deficient public communication to date, we would like to speak with you directly and expedite the resolution of our concerns, so this project can move ahead apace. With so many questions having arisen about the very significant increase in the programs and population of the Tobin/VLUS that were offered for public consideration only a few weeks ago, we are concerned that the rush to choose a preferred footprint by the end of January will result in many people shut out of the decision process. That is not the right foot to start off on when proposing to spend $250 million and four years on a project that will disrupt many people’s everyday lives.
We will call your office this week to follow up on this request and schedule a meeting at the earliest possible date that is convenient for you with whatever smaller number of residents you think appropriate for a productive conversation.
Thank you very much for your consideration.
Janet Domenitz & Jon Scarlett, Jon & Betsy Damian, Jodie Siegel, Joy Hackel & Robin Lubbock, Bill & Guillemette Simmers, Norma Finkelstein, Noam Kirson & Dana Yalin, Mallory & Ylva Slate, Ann Robbart, Nancy Haslett, Wendy Zens, Scott Kenton, Doris & Jessica Engelman, Lynne Carvalho & David Adamian, Lucy Wilhelm, Liz Marran & Karl Baden, Jay Yesselman, Nancy Menzin, Ed Buck, Emmanuel Stefanakis, Julio Guerrero
III. From Bill and Guillemette Simmers of Alpine Street. (Note Bill is an architect)
As an abutter on Alpine Street who has been closely following the planning for this project by the architects and engineers, we would like to stress the following points:
1) The Zoning designation for the property has to be clarified. There are discrepancies in the various documents that obscure the designation and location of the Open Space zone. The true figure for the actual property will affect how much can be built on the site, and the leeway that the Planning Board has in granting a Special Permit. The site plan that the architects are using does not designate any zoning information. The Massachusetts 2017 Dirt and Development Law puts into question whether designated open space can be developed at all.
2) There needs to be a thorough traffic analysis for the proposed project, not just the one for current vehicular, bicycle and pedestrian use that the architects presented. The proximity of the jams at the rotaries and on Concord Avenue do not seem to be considered, as is safety. Realistic reduction of school vehicular traffic, either by program reduction or new drop-off
rules must be considered. Also, abutters’ concerns about side streets being flooded with traffic and parking must be addressed by this study.
3) Examining the three schemes proposed by the architects, using the School Department’s program as their base, the impression of too much mass in relation the open space is unavoidable. The current FAR is at 0.315, which is already over the 0.25 allowed (presumably a Special Permit was given for the 1971 construction). The proposed schemes raise the FARs to roughly 0.7, 0.75 and 0.8, more than double the existing. A Special Permit would allow it to go up to 1.25, but at a complete loss of community open space.
I understand the desire to get to the building phase as quickly as possible, but it seems to us that some succession of meetings need to be organized to resolve these, and other, issues that others are bringing up.
William Simmers and Guillemette Caron-Simmers

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Jan Devereux
City Councillor
Cambridge, MA