Mckinley Site Controversy: Hill Park School Plan Draws Heated Response

Sometimes, the only good solution is to beat a square peg through a round hole.

Building a new McKinley School has become that kind of frustrating process, as designers indicated there is no easy solution, and members of the community are squaring off with equally valid concerns.

Monday night, a very lively School Building Committee meeting convened and the delicate situation soon erupted into frustrated and loud discussion between Mayor Dan Rizzo and the long-established Hill Family – mostly due to the possible use of Hill Park as the new site of the new McKinley.

The situation boils down to two things – there are too many school children and too little open space.

Matters got increasingly complicated this past spring when the state increased the original 540-student school to a mandatory 690-seat school due to increasing enrollments.

“Unfortunately, I can’t say we’ve come up with an answer to satisfy everyone,” said School Architect Scott Wooden. “All of the three options on the table have severe limitations. This isn’t an equation we can really solve cleanly.”

The preferred solution by everyone is to build the new school on the existing Harry Della Russo Stadium – a large tract of land that would permit the new school to have ample parking and indoor and outdoor recreation areas.

The cog in that wheel is that the stadium has to be replaced somewhere else within the City, and there is virtually nowhere in the City that is big enough to accommodate such a large facility. The only way to accommodate a new stadium elsewhere is to purchase land and build something new.

Unfortunately, that would add another $10 million to the project – none of which would be reimbursed by the state, unlike the school project that has a very favorable reimbursement rate.

“I definitely prefer the Stadium option,” said Superintendent Paul Dakin. “If we have a big enough piece of property in the City for the Stadium, we’ve nailed this down. It would be a huge win for everybody because we need a new stadium, we could use the old McKinley for other City uses and we get a large school with the proper amenities.”

Said Rizzo, “If I had my druthers, it’s the Harry Della Russo site. Find us the land. There isn’t any we can find that will work.”

And therein lies the predicament because the other two options are far less attractive.

Due to the 690-student designation, building on the current McKinley site is very difficult. Architects said that it would be a four-story building and would basically be built from sidewalk to sidewalk – also requiring eight eminent domain private property takings totaling more than $2 million. Additionally, the plan would have to have a parking garage built to handle staff parking.

There would be no outdoor recreation area, and the only play area for students would be a top-floor courtyard area surrounded by brick walls. The McKinley site plan is also the second most expensive option.

The positive about the McKinley site is that it has no current political obstacles.

The most economical site, unfortunately, is on Hill Park – which is named for Jim ‘Hoodsie’ Hill and comes loaded with a monster battle of political wills. Hill was one of two Hill brothers killed in World War II, and the park has bore his name for decades. Before that, it existed as a park as early as 1908. Building on the Hill Park site requires taking Hill Park and moving its softball field potentially to an area adjacent to St. Mary’s Ballpark in Ward 6.

Taking away or moving a park dedicated to a war hero has proved to be very unpopular with the Hill Family, veterans organizations and several City Councillors.

Representing the family, Attorney Larry Simeone told those at the meeting that moving the park or changing it in any way is a disservice to all veterans.

“If you take the park and stick it on the Malden line, that would be an insult non only to Jim ‘Hoodsie’ Hill, but also every veteran of World War II,” said Simeone. “You can’t figure in the value of when a community comes together…A great community has great schools, but every great community also has open space to gather and recreate and galvanize around.”

The frustration in the room was quite evident, and with seemingly nowhere to move, things got testy.

“If you take the emotion out of it and look at it from a land-use perspective, Hill Park makes sense,” said the mayor. “We have agonized over this since February. It would be easier for me to say, ‘Put it on the Della Russo site or at the McKinley site.’ That would be easier for me politically. You think I want a fight with the Hill Family? That’s the last thing I want. That’s not what we want here, but we have very limited options.”

That stoked Tom Hill Sr. to speak, who was Jim Hill’s brother.

“We’re on the same page,” he said, animatedly. “Give us something of equal value and we have no problem. This isn’t equal. If you can’t follow the law, leave it alone.”

Added Tom Hill Jr., “We just found out about this last week. Up to now, it’s been all about Della Russo and not Hill Park. Don’t tell us we’ve been part of this discussion because we’ve not been part of it. My Dad’s upset and you’re taking a war memorial. My grandmother was never right again after losing two sons, 17 and 19 years old who came out of RHS to fight in the war. That’s what you’re disturbing here.”

Retorted Rizzo, “We’re fighting for the children here and trying to keep the neighborhood school in the neighborhood…See what kind of ill will you’ll create when 200 more families are trying to drop off their kids at a McKinley site where there is no drop off space because the building goes up four-stories from the sidewalk.”

Rizzo and Dakin both said that leaving the current McKinley site is about equity and providing the kids in all parts of the City with an equal facility. With exquisite new facilities at the Whelan and Paul Revere Schools, both said it wouldn’t be fair to jam the kids in at the McKinley.

“When we build on the McKinley, the kids can’t even go outside to play on site,” said Dakin. “This is about equity. If we stretch the geometry in the McKinley, we’re shortchanging the neighborhood…As an educator, I’m not going to shortchange the Ward 4 area of a facility that is not the same quality as those we’ve built in other areas of the city.”

A deadline for a preliminary decision on the site is looming in the second week of August, when architects have to submit a rough idea to the state. A Building Committee meeting is scheduled for Aug. 7th, and there will be a vote taken on what site to pursue.

Cutlines –

Showdown1 –

Tom Hill Sr. passionately discusses his opposition to moving Hill Park to make way for a new McKinley School – a park named for Hill’s brother Jim. He is speaking directly to Mayor Dan Rizzo (back to camera), and joined by Tom Hill Jr., family attorney Larry Simeone, other family members and several city councillors.

Showdown2 –

Mayor Dan Rizzo explains the delicate situation the City finds itself in trying to figure out the best location for the new McKinley School.

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