Mckinley School Project Needs Fernwood Place

City officials indicated it has nearly become a necessity to take three properties on Fernwood Avenue in order to build the best possible new McKinley School on the Hill Park site.

The announcement came from the school’s architect and from Mayor Dan Rizzo during a heavily attended update on the project in the Council Chambers Monday night. Both men said traffic and parking would be unbearable if the properties weren’t included.

“The site will accommodate 75 parking spaces, which is less than what we need,” said Scott Wooden, the school’s architect. “We started discussions with the mayor and superintendent about acquiring property on Fernwood Place and we feel that is critical more and more to the plan. Can it work without it? Yes. But we’ll have inadequate parking for the school…Also, it becomes very difficult to navigate the site without this added circulation.”

He added that connecting to Fernwood Place without taking the properties will only allow for a one-way street because the road is too narrow.

Mayor Dan Rizzo said he would rather not take the properties, but he doesn’t see a way around it.

“If I had my druthers, I’d rather not take the properties,” he said. “We’d save the City money. However, it’s become totally clear in the last weeks that it’s becoming more of a requirement than a nice thing to do.”

Rizzo said that they have spoken with property owners in two of the three dwellings so far, and all have been “more than receptive.”

As for the timeline, Rizzo said that he would be back to the Council with three pieces of business in January.

First, the Council would need to vote on transferring parklands due to the taking of Hill Park, which had been rehabilitated with federal funds some years back and so it required such a vote.

Second, he would be asking them to vote on replacing the parklands on Hill Park with new parks that will be acquired off of Washington Avenue on the St. Mary’s Church property.

Finally, he would be asking the Council for the all-important Bond Authorization.

“I hope we accomplish that all at one meeting at some point in January,” he said, noting that the construction project will receive 80 percent reimbursement from the state.

Councillors, however, weren’t feeling too enthusiastic about the mounting costs of the project – a discussion that was triggered by the news of taking property on Fernwood Place, buying property at St. Mary’s, renovating the old McKinley School for City offices, and rebuilding ball courts at Della Russo Stadium. All of those additions would not be reimbursable from the state.

“We’ve gone through an entire presentation and we still haven’t talked about the costs here,” said Councillor Brian Arrigo. “It was a $34 million project in August and now I hear it’s a $41.7 million project and that’s just the school costs. That doesn’t include taking these properties, renovating Hill Park or the renovation of the old McKinley, all of which aren’t reimbursable from the state. I’d like to get some answers on the costs some time soon…I’m told we don’t have money for this or that, and that makes me question whether we have the money for this school.”

Councillor Arthur Guinasso mirrored that concern, as did Bob Haas, Ira Novoselsky, John Powers and Charlie Patch.

“I’m concerned about how much money this is going to place on the taxpayers,” Guinasso said. “We need to know exactly what this is going to cost, including additional acquisitions and if those acquisitions are totally necessary. You need to roll all that out with the financial package.”

Added Haas, “I don’t want to find out this complete cost in January when the mayor comes up for a Bond Authorization. We need to analyze this in our Ways and Means Committee. We need a McKinley School, but cost is something we have to look at.”

Rizzo said he didn’t want the financial package to cause the Council to be shortsighted.

“The one thing I don’t want the City Council to do is that it is shortsighted to the extent that we have to live with this project for 30 years or more,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to see the City Council vote down a proposal that, relatively speaking, is going to be relatively miniscule to the overall budget of the project and then have residents, neighbors and parents stuck with a traffic mess.”

The part about the Council being shortsighted really rubbed a number of councillors the wrong way, and more than a majority were talking about it after the meeting.

It was definitely a choice of words that set the crew off.

Yet it didn’t concern Ward 4 Councillor Stephen Reardon, who told the crowd of about 200 parents and teachers that he was fully behind the project and he hopes the Council gets in line to make the project happen.

“We have to spend some money,” he said. “We knew we would have to spend some money. It’s not like we’re going to get it free some other way. There are going to be costs. In this new cafeteria, the old cafeteria, or any cafeteria, there is no free lunch. We need to see how we can make the very best Hill School that is possible, with all due respect to the late President McKinley.”

His comments were followed with a rousing round of applause. Project Manager Dave Billings said they would be presenting the school’s schematic design to the state School Building Authority (MSBA) on Jan. 30th. At that time, he said, they would have a better feel for the final scope and the budget. He predicted the full design would be done by the fall of 2013 and the construction would be done by the fall of 2015.

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