Wonderland Site Back on Table As Potential New High School Site

By Adam Swift

It’s a new year and a new city council, but for nearly three hours on Monday night, a familiar topic dominated the debate.

Early in 2020, the city began the process of bringing a high school building project before the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA).

On Monday night, new Mayor Patrick Keefe said it is time for the rubber to meet the road when it comes to moving forward with the project.

Much of the debate centered on the location of a new high school, as Keefe and the project team laid out the options for a new four-story high school at the site of a current school or building a new four-story high school on the Wonderland site.

Brian Dakin of owner’s project manager Leftfield said the council, the school committee, and the school building committee will have to decide upon a building option by the end of January in order to be in line for MSBA funding for the project.

Both proposed building alternatives could see the new high school open for students in the fall of 2028 if all goes according to schedule, according to Dakin. However, the project at the current high school site would require an additional year to rebuild fields at Erricola Park due to the new building being built on the current site of the fields.

Dakin said the current high school site alternative has a price tag of about $550 million, which includes a $40 million contingency for the replacement of a culvert on the site.

The estimated cost of building on the Wonderland site would be $522 million, which includes $29.5 million the city has already spent to take the 30-plus acre site by eminent domain. The owners of the property have filed suit against the city claiming that the property is worth more than they were paid in the eminent domain taking.

After accounting for the MSBA grants, Dakin said the total cost to Revere for building on the current site would be just under $311 million, while the cost to the city of the Wonderland option would be just over $288.5 million.

The buildings proposed for each site would essentially be the same, with a four-story academic wing and a three-story “heart of the school” area with the health and wellness, performing arts, and more public areas, according to members of the design team.

New City Council President Anthony Cogliandro moved the discussion to a committee of the whole meeting prior to the next council meeting on Monday, Jan. 29. Dakin and the project team are requesting that the council take a vote on the preferred option at that council meeting.

For some councillors and residents who spoke during Monday night’s meeting, one of the major concerns was a return to consideration of the Wonderland site for a new high school after that option appeared to be off the table.

The Wonderland site was initially selected as the preferred site of the new high school over a year ago.

However, a number of councillors raised concerns about the escalating costs for building on that site. Early last year, the council voted not to proceed with the schematic designs for the Wonderland site, and later tasked the school building committee and design team with drawing up alternatives for building on the current school site.

Councillor-at-Large Anthony Zambuto made his displeasure about a potential return to the Wonderland option known early in Monday night’s meeting.

“I watched the presentation of the (school) building committee,” said Zambuto. “I’m going to be polite and say it was one sided, and to use my religion, there were sins of omission when it came to the negatives at Wonderland.”

Zambuto has been a consistent voice against building at Wonderland, often raising the potential lost tax revenue to the city if it builds a school on the property.

“The point I’m trying to make is that we gave a dictate to the building team to bring us back a preferred schematic design for the existing high school,” said Zambuto. “That doesn’t include a new site selection, and that’s what’s being proposed.”

Zambuto said he saw cheerleading for returning to the Wonderland building option from the building team at the building committee meeting.

“My point of order is that what’s on the table is the schematic design for the existing high school,” said Zambuto. “If you want to start a new site selection, I don’t know if that’s going to work for the new timeline we are planning.”

Dakin said the building team was before the city council to give an update at the request of the building committee.

“We are at the point where we need to understand what to move forward with, which version of this project to move forward with in the next month,” said Dakin. “This decision has to be made once and for all of where this project is going to go and it has to have the backing of the school building committee, the school committee, and the city council.”

Over the past several years, Dakin said the building team has essentially done two feasibility studies for the two main building site options.

Dakin said the Wonderland option was back on the table because the school building committee requested that the option for building on the current site be compared to the prior option for the Wonderland property.

“I will somewhat reluctantly say that what you are going to see tonight is Leftfield and Consigli and Perkins Eastman and a number of other companies working on this (with their) professional opinion about what might be best,” said Dakin. “However, we are not trying to spin this in either way; we need to know what project we are working on. I would say that if either of these two options we are presenting tonight seems fundamentally better to you, it might just be because it is a better idea.”

As has been the case in past meetings and discussions, some of the issues raised with the current site included the disruption of building for up to five years on an active school site with staff and students, construction disruptions to the neighborhood, the uncertain future of the replacement of the culvert on the property, and issues with the loss of the playing fields and parking. Potential tidal area issues and the need for environmental testing were raised as issues at the Wonderland site.

Keefe, who has steadily supported building at Wonderland, addressed the council and said his office would provide any resources necessary in the coming weeks to help members make a decision on the project.

“Since January 2020, before we knew of the global pandemic, we started this process and now we are at a critical point where the rubber does meet the road,” said Keefe.

The mayor said the council will need to determine if it wants to continue with plans to build on the existing high school site, or if it wants to take the opportunity to return to the Wonderland site.

Keefe said the Wonderland option was back on the table because of an increase in MSBA reimbursement rates, which would lead to a lower cost to residents of building on the site.

“Every time you wait and delay, the cost of the project is going to escalate,” said Keefe. “If there are any further delays, I’m extremely concerned that we’ll be completely pulled out of the MSBA process.”

The mayor said he understands that most people realize he has been a consistent supporter of building at Wonderland and explained why he continues to back that option. For the nearly four years he has been involved in the building process, Keefe said he has listened to the experts.

“Every time we talked about different sites, we kept going back to the word Wonderland,” said Keefe. “I know it is a really difficult decision and I don’t want to force you on this. It’s a much different environment than we had last year, I think you can all tell.”

The mayor continued that the school building committee asked for an additional review of the Wonderland site because of additional opportunities in the city if the school was built there.

“Using the current site seriously constrains our environment and it limits our future growth and takes us to so many future bad decisions,” said Keefe.

If the new high school is built at Wonderland, school officials have raised the possibility of using the current school site as the home of a new middle school.

“I do understand the factor of lost tax revenues is serious,” said Keefe. “As the mayor, it would be easy for me to say stay at the current site, I want the tax revenue.”

During the debate over the presentation, councillors raised questions about the culvert and the ownership of the Wonderland property.

Ward 5 Councillor Angela Guarino-Sawaya raised questions about the Eastern County Ditch on the Wonderland property and how that could impact construction.

Councillor-at-Large Robert Haas, III raised concerns about potential construction disruptions to the neighborhoods near the current high school.

Councillor-at-Large Michelle Kelley said she was having trouble with being asked to select a location when the city still does not know how much it will have to pay for the Wonderland property, given the ongoing legal proceedings.

Councillor-at-Large Juan Pablo Jaramillo asked about the potential flood mitigation issues at both sites.

Ward 1 Councillor Joanne McKenna raised concerns about safety for students walking near the busy Wonderland site and asked about safety measures for pedestrians.

“One of my biggest concerns is how we are going to keep these kids safe coming from Wonderland,” McKenna said.

Ward 2 Councillor Ira Novoselsky said he believes there are negatives to both sites, but that there are more negatives to building at the current high school site, including the loss of the athletic fields for five years or more.

Councillor-at-Large Marc Silvestri reiterated that if the city builds at Wonderland, it gets to keep and control the property the high school sits on now.

Cogliandro raised questions about the funding for either project the city moves forward with with city finance director Richard Viscay.

“For me, that is the number one most important thing,” said Cogliandro. “The reason I am sitting here (as president) is because I want to make sure the council is protected and I don’t want to make decisions last minute. I don’t want to get numbers … even a week in advance. I want … the councillors to have this so that we can utilize the time that Mayor Keefe opened up with him and his staff so we can sit down and talk about this and really dig into it.

“We did not have that opportunity last time, and I am happy to hear that we are going to, but we do need those numbers, for me it is of the utmost importance.”

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