Over two dozen Wellesley residents lined up virtually to be heard last week during the final of three community forums regarding the Hardy/Upham project. Hosted by the the School Building Committee (SBC), the webinar featured an update from Compass Project Management representatives on the status of the Hardy/Upham feasibility study.
School Committee (SC) member and chair of the School Building Committee Sharon Gray noted, “This has been a hot topic for many years,” as she welcomed webinar participants.
Overview of the Hardy/Upham project
The SC’s plan is to build one new school at either the Hardy or Upham site, with a construction start date of summer 2023. The school that is not chosen for a rebuild would be closed until elementary school enrollment increases to the point when a seven-elementary school model is once again needed.
On Thursday, Sept. 24, the SBC is expected to make a recommendation of whether to build at Hardy or Upham. The recommendation must then be approved by the SC, the Board of Selectmen, and the Massachusetts School Building Authority board of directors.
Alex Pitkin from architectural firm SMMA gave a brief summary of each site. He characterized the 12-acre Upham site as rectangular in shape on which ledge, a hill, and a forest are primary elements that have been taken into account during planning. The site can be accessed from all four sides.
Pitkin noted that the 9-acre hourglass-shaped Hardy site has no ledge, but there are soil compaction issues that will have to be addressed when building. There is a stand of mature trees, but the site overall is less forested than the Upham site. In addition, Hardy’s close proximity to Route 9 and busy Weston Road present traffic-related challenges.
Construction on the Hardy site would start during summer 2023, with a targeted move-in date of February vacation week 2025, a period of 19 months.
Construction on the Upham site would also have a start of summer 2023, but the targeted move-in would be during April vacation of 2025, a period of 21 months.
People are talking about environmental issues
When it was time for community members to speak, Bob Richards, a near abutter to the Upham site, asked, “What happens if Upham is selected and you get into the actual site work and you discover that there could be 5% variance in the numbers because of the ledge” and other issues. “Are we stuck with an imperfect, expensive project,” he asked, “or do we swing over to Hardy if there’s a sizable problem” with the Upham site? Richards also expressed concerns about potential for damage to area homes due to ledge blasting, as well as the neighborhood disturbance that would result from the 2K-3K truck trips that could be required to remove ledge and other materials.
Compass representative Jeff D’Amico took that question, saying that once a decision is made on the site and the actual footprint of the building plans have been OK’d, there can be no abandoning the Upham site to switch over to Hardy. “Once the building committee makes a recommendation and the boards and the MSBA endorse it, we wouldn’t be able to switch to another site. We’d have to work within the site you have and adjust the costs or the geometry of the building.” D’Amico said pricing contingencies have been built into the project to handle unforeseen problems.
Lisa Moore from the Hardy area stressed the environmental impact of the Upham site as compared with the Hardy site. She noted that 1,200 trees will have to be removed from Upham, “along with the ledge and other habitat destruction.” She wanted to know what the plans were for reforestation of the area.
Pitkin said that the plans do not call for full restoration of 1,200 trees to replace the amount that would be felled, but “There are plans to put in trees.”
Raina McManus, chair of the Natural Resources Commission but speaking as a resident, spoke of her concerns about global warming and said she wanted the trees preserved on both sites. She encouraged the SBC to choose the Hardy plan, which would preserve the Upham trees, and added that despite the challenges of swing space, the Hardy trees should also be preserved. “The consequences of removing trees is a problem and will release carbon into the air,” McManus said.
People are talking about traffic issues
Speakers at the forum skewed heavily toward residents concerned about an increase in traffic on Route 9 and on Weston Road should Hardy be chosen as the site for the new school.
Morgan Norris said, “A neighborhood school means having schools where students can walk or ride their bikes.” He favors building on the Upham site because “1% would have to cross Route 9 to get to school. If we choose Hardy, it goes up to 19%. So 1 in 5 wouldn’t be attending a neighborhood school.” Norris said the Upham site can handle the traffic, but that Weston Road is already extremely busy. “This isn’t about whether or not we’re cutting down some small trees in unhealthy soil behind Upham. It’s about how do we get cars off the road. That’s how we get a more sustainable town.”
Another speaker concurred saying, “People talking about environmental impacts need to think about the next 50 years of all the traffic and idling on top of the safety issue.” Another resident against kids crossing Route 9 to get to Hardy echoed the concerns of many other speakers when he said, “The only issue in this is that of child safety.”
Richard Howes, however, took a risk assessment view of crossing route 9, saying that traffic statistics along Route 9 in the Hardy area “show there have been zero traffic incidents with pedestrians of school age during the school commuting hours since the statistics began to be kept in 2002.”
People are talking about keeping it IMBYP (in my backyard, please)
Many families called in to say that children should not cross Route 9, and that closing Upham would harm the Upham neighborhood. Redistricting came up as well with Michael Ryan, a Bates parent. Ryan asked if there would be an appeals process if a family was redistricted but their home was really near the school their kids have always attended.
Superintendent David Lussier answered that tough question saying, “Unfortunately, anytime you redistrict, someone’s assignment is going to change. People come to love their new schools.” and “we’re going to have great community at either one of these sites.”
Overall, those who called in to speak in favor of building at Upham characterized that district as “a gem of a neighborhood,” and said they were willing to deal with the inconvenience of a major construction project. One resident said he believed that controls are in place and said, “I support the short-term nuisance for the long-term benefit of our town.”
People are talking about blasting
A commenter said building at Hardy would be $5 million cheaper than building at Upham due to what he called the more favorable topography at the Hardy site. He foresaw fewer potential uncontrollable costs at Hardy than at Upham such as abutter litigation, insurance claims, and potential groundwater issues which he said would be the results due to the ledge removal at Upham.
Tom Ahern a Great Plain Avenue resident, pointed out that not everybody in town walks to school. In Ahern’s view, a school community forms based on friendships,”not necessarily on whether the kids take the bus, as ours did, or if you drive or you ride a bike. The school is made up of the people and not the transportation mode.”
Ahern, who lives in proximity to the Fieldstone Way development, said, “The blasting and the ledge removal impacts to nearby houses are likely going to be greater than has been discussed or than you’re going to hear from a blasting company or an engineer.”
People are talking about equity
Resident Erin Reilly saw the Hardy site as a “no-brainer” from a construction point of view, but her main concern was the potential for Route 9 to become “a social barrier. We don’t need to send a message that the houses with the biggest lots and most expensive houses are the ones who are going to get the brand-new school.”
Michelle Chalmers spoke as a member of the World of Wellesley and said racial equity and diversity should be key factors in rebuilding at Hardy or Upham. “Wellesley needs to both acknowledge and dismantle the racial inequities that continue when major decisions about school and neighborhood improvements are made.”
Chalmers said that white students make up 78% of the school population at Upham, while Hardy has the most students of color at 47%. “Wellesley’s 2019 Unified Plan states that diversity is a core value in the community,” so therefore should be a central factor in all decision making. “Closing Hardy would disregard people of color and sever their sense of belonging and erode trust.”
Hardy supporter Tanya Auger, the mother of a Chinese student at the school, took umbrage at the comments of an earlier caller. “I am offended by the Norman Rockwell reference that an Upham supporter shared tonight in his portrait of picture-perfect Wellesley. Why? Because a Norman Rockwell painting in 100% white. When my daughter looks around the classroom and the Hardy school as a whole, she sees many faces that look like her own. Hardy’s diversity is something to be valued and protected.”
Almost all callers thanked the School Committee and the School Building Committee for their years of time, work, and meetings in service of Wellesley schools and families. “I wouldn’t want to be in your shoes for anything,” was a common consensus.