Credit: Georgina Arrieta-Ruetenik

Annual Town Meeting gave strong support Wednesday to four warrant articles that could lead to nearly a half-billion dollars in school and affordable housing construction over the next decade.

The 216 members in attendance gave overwhelming approval to three separate articles related to the Needham Housing Authority’s plan to redevelop its Linden-Chambers housing complex, and later gave unanimous support to fund a feasibility study for planned major improvements at Pollard Middle School.

The NHA estimates it will cost upwards of $85 million to replace the 72 studio apartments at Linden-Chambers with 136 new units, while the Pollard project is currently estimated to cost $313 million.

First up Wednesday was a continuation of discussion on the creation of an affordable housing zoning district at the 11-acre site on Linden Street across from the High Rock School. At Town Meeting’s opening session on Monday, members heard both from proponents of the new zoning and those concerned that the large, dense complex it would facilitate would exacerbate existing stormwater-management issues and generally overwhelm the residential neighborhood.

Town Meeting member Oscar Mertz, an architect and planner by trade, noted that the new zoning would lead to construction that would improve, not worsen, the existing conditions.

“It’s an efficient plan,” Mertz said of the proposed site and architectural plan. “It’s the best use of that site, which is a challenging site. They’ve been very mindful of providing additional open space, pulling the building back from the street and from the neighbors.”

“There’s also the benefit of the smaller building footprint and that there’s a 50% increase in open space. It’s a clever solution and it handles the problems of the wetlands.”

The article also received support from two non-Town Meeting members, Linden-Chambers tenant Jill Rutherford and Dave Herer, current chair of the Conservation Commission.

Rutherford, former treasurer of the tenants association at the complex, said the project has broad support among current tenants. “The residents I have spoken to want to live in nice, clean, modern, energy-efficient apartments where everything is healthy for them and everything works properly.”

Herer said the Conservation Commission has met with the NHA five times to discuss its plans and recently voted unanimously to support the zoning change.

 “We think it will be an improvement to the existing conditions,” he said, noting that the project as planned will decrease the amount of impervious surface area by 50 percent and lessen the encroachment on nearby wetlands.

Ed Cosgrove is a 26-year member of the Board of Health, another town body that supports the new zoning. He noted the current buildings are essentially beyond repair. “Their condition is encouraging the growth of mold. It’s creating unhealthy conditions for the residents of those units,” he said. “If this didn’t pass, we would slowly have to, as a Board of Health, do something we wouldn’t want to do, which is condemn those units one by one. And I don’t want to see that happen.”

When the article was put to a vote, it passed with only a single dissenting vote.

Town Meeting then passed the related map for the new zoning district. Later in the meeting, members unanimously approved a $5.5 million appropriation of Community Preservation Act funds that will be used to support construction, which would occur only if the NHA obtains nearly $80 million in non-town funding.

That funding will be sought from more than a dozen sources, including federal, state and private programs. Multiple proponents emphasized that the town’s $5.5 million will not be conveyed until the project is fully funded and constructed.

“This is a reimbursement mechanism,” said Jim Healy, who spoke on behalf of the Finance Committee. “No developer will receive any monies until those expenses are incurred and until we have inspected and approved them.”

Pollard feasibility study 

Earlier this year, the town was invited to participate in the eligibility phase of the Mass. School Building Authority (MSBA) grant program that would subsidize more than 20% of the cost of long-planned improvements to the Pollard Middle School, potentially saving Needham taxpayers upwards of $60 million.

The invitation comes with the requirement to complete an elaborate feasibility study estimated to cost $2.75 million. It would not begin until February 2025 and take approximately 18 months to complete.

The bulk of the funding, $1.65 million, would be used to engage an architectural firm to perform a preliminary design program, a preferred schematic report and a schematic design — all of which are required by the MSBA’s process.

The feasibility study will test the town’s assumption that the best approach is to do an extensive renovation of the current physical plant while the school remains open as a grade 7-8 school. The town would have to convince the MSBA that the construction of a brand-new facility is not the best option for expanding it to become a grade 6-8 facility.

Several TM members seemed incredulous about the estimated $313 million cost of the project, which is more than four times as expensive as the cost of building the Sunita Williams Elementary School in the 2010s.

Town Meeting member Kay Cahill offered a motion that, “The feasibility study shall include a distinct section reporting in detail on cost reduction strategies and innovations, and shall make recommendations for appropriate strategies to reduce construction costs for the renovation of Pollard Middle School.”

School Committee Chair Liz Lee noted the language in the article was approved by the MSBA. “My understanding is that it cannot be modified and, if it is, the MSBA will not allow us to participate in the program — which, of course, is a really big deal.”

Town Meeting voted overwhelmingly against the motion and then voted unanimously to approve the $2.75 million for the study. 

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