Bargain Center: Selectmen to package twin schools to entice developers

Abington selectmen are offering developers a deal. A two-fer. A BOGO.

Buy the Center School and they’ll throw in the North School for a low, low price.

Selectmen Monday night gave the green light to solicit proposal for the two properties. They are hoping the sites can be turned into new housing developments that include subsidized units. Ideally the developments would be geared toward seniors, but as Town Manager Scott Lambiase advised, the more restrictions the town places on the properties, the less interest the town may receive from private developers.

The alternative is asking Abington taxpayers to spend $3 million to raze the buildings, and haul away the asbestos and other unsavory materials in the twin Roosevelt-era structures. That price tag does not include whatever the town would want to do with the sites afterwards.

“We don’t want to tear buildings down and leave holes in the ground,” Lambiase said.

During a July presentation to the Board of Selectmen, a consultant hired by the town said that the Center School building could support about a dozen residential units, while warning that any successful redevelopment effort would likely require expanding the footprint of the current building. The consultant pointed to other similar school reuse projects, such as the McElwain School in Bridgewater, which involves rehabbing the old school structure into 18 units, but adding a second building out back containing another 38 units.

However, town officials appear ready to side with neighbors who are concerned about the impact a residential development will have on traffic. The request for proposals will require developers to remain within the existing Center School footprint. (Much of the abutting wooded area, as well as Murphy Field, would be split off and preserved by the town.)

To attract more interest, selectmen are willing to trade loosened rules for any redevelopment of the North School, allowing builders to go beyond the existing footprint.

“I think we’re restricting too much if it’s just the footprint at both schools,” Selectmen Chairman Alex Bezanson said.

Traffic will be an issue at the North School site; the Adams Street/Route 58/Birch Street intersection is considered one of the town’s most dangerous, according to town crash statistics.

Any redevelopment proposal would transfer demolition and hazardous material cleanup costs to the developer. The projects could be built as a “friendly” 40B to streamline the permitting process, Lambiase said.

State and federal funding sources that at one time allowed communities to build their own subsidized housing projects has long since dried up. Most subsidized housing developments now are built by private developers who receive some combination of reduced interest rates, tax credits, and other subsidies.

Selectman Alex Hagerty asked why the town spent more than a year studying what to do with the Center School, but was now just throwing in the North School without the same public process.

Selectman Tim Chapin pointed out the school has already been closed 10 years.

Bezanson said creating a new study group means it would be at least another year before it could solicit proposals.

The North School at one time was eyed as a possible location for a central fire station, but a study group determined the space was too small to house all the department’s needs.

Lambiase said the board will have the chance to review the bid documents before they are officially put out.

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