UPDATE 12/25: A rebuttal by Selectman Firenze to reporting in B2 on his statements regarding the Senior Center has been appended to the end of this post. — Paul.
This is the third installment of a multi-part post on my interview with Selectman Angelo Firenze. You can read the first part of the interview by clicking here, and the second installment here. In the final part of our conversation, Selectman Firenze and I turned our attention to plans to build a new main library in town, and a new senior center, as well as commercial development plans for Cushing Square and Pleasant Street.
B2: The town was supposed to vote on funding a building committee for a new Library at the last Town Meeting, but it didn’t happen. This would be to show good faith to the State that we are serious about building a new library and, therefore, to qualify for State matching funds. Do you expect the issue to come up again soon?
Angelo Firenze: No, I don’t. One way we get ourselves in trouble is to get ahead of ourselves. We need a comprehensive plan for what to do with town property. One preliminary recommendation is to build a new police station in the old library site. That was a $24 million projected cost (for the library), $6 million of which was associated with forcing the library onto that site. You’d have to tear down the building and build underground parking, and I just don’t think it will work. Those of us who have lived in town remember when that site used to be a pond. Now its my personal desire and wish, which is not shared by the selectmen, to build a combined library-senior center across the street. But as long as Paul (Soloman) takes the position he is — and I appreciate it and think he’s a reasonable guy — it’s not going to happen. But how can I support the building of a senior center across the street when I know we need a library? How can I support that when I know that we could end up with a much more cost and use effective (combined) building on bus line in the center of town. But with the new library, you really have to find a balance. It’s the most used building in town. But I think of a new library/senior center with an athletic support complex for the soccer and baseball fields and track with locker rooms, senior center, athletic suppt complex for field. with locker rooms all on that site. There’s no height limit. You could build it to four stories and not bat an eyelash. You could have a state of the art computer room, because everyone seems to need one, and have meeting rooms and a Dunkin Donuts in the lobby to bring some revenue back in. The town needs it. But it’s always cheaper to ignore a problem than fix it.
B2: Well…there are costs to ignoring the problem, also, right?
AF: Not necessarily. One option is to not have it at all.
B2: If you look around town, you notice a lot of empty store fronts. A lot of vacant commercial space. Clearly that’s hurting the town, also, when it comes to paying for some of these things.
AF: Not really, no. Because those owners are still paying property taxes.
B2: Well, those properties would be worth more if they were developed commercially.
AF: Except that we can tax them based on what the value of the property should be.
B2: What are your thoughts on a flat commercial and residential tax rate, as some other towns do?
AF: I’m in favor of that. What I’m in favor of is someone coming in and looking at the property on Pleasant Street and looking at what’s going on in Cushing Square — someone putting $50 million or $60 million into an overlay district in Cushing Square, which would allow us to raise taxes on the development, so instead of getting $60,000 in taxes, the town would be taking in $600,000 on Cushing Square and other underdeveloped areas of town. We could start to build our commercial tax base.
B2: What’s the role of the Board of Selectman when it comes to developments like that?
AF: The role of the Selectmen is to give developers the sense that they have support. So we can hire consultants and work with our director of planning and development.
Selectman Firenze responded in a comment to B2 on Monday which you can read, in its entirety, by clicking on the appropriate link on the right hands side of the B2 blog, where comments are listed. Regarding his comments on the desirability of a combined Senior Center – Library, Selectman Firenze wrote the following:
“I do support the need for a Senior Center in Town. I originally supported the construction of the Senior Center at the Beech Street site. However a lot of things have change since that time. The building turned out to be too big for the selected site, with insufficient parking and many other issues that required over a year to reach suitable compromises and now we have cost issues. In that time, additional land became available on Concord Avenue, and the plans for a new library solidified and the need to address the police station surfaced. These changes with the possibility of a public or private reuse of the current library building are what led me to the concept of building a combined facility.
I also believe my perceived lack of support for public education is totally misrepresented, but I am not sure I can set those straight in a blog.”