The Wellesley Select Board this week devoted its regular meeting to a presentation and follow-up comments about a reimagining of the Wellesley Community Center property at 219 Washington St., as an arts center designed to meet the needs of the town’s large population of young people and address the lack of dedicated space for arts organizations.
It was emphasized that the property is owned by Wellesley Friendly Aid, which has not indicated it plans to sell the resource. However, Friendly Aid reps did say at the end of the meeting that they look forward to seeing where the town goes from here on this, and for the rest of Friendly Aid’s directors to get a chance to review the presentation.
Ed Chazen, a longtime Wellesley resident who specializes in real estate and teaches at Boston College, this summer conducted a $5K study paid for by the town. He explored alternative uses of the property—from the arts to workforce housing—taking both market needs and the site’s limitations into consideration.
Chazen has been on the town’s planning board, and a while back ran another study related to the Barton Road development in Wellesley. He also was on working group reviewing proposals to redevelop the parking lots near the Wellesley Square train station. He described 219 Washington St.’s plusses, such as lots of space with proximity to the train and without residential abutters, and minuses, including old buildings and tough traffic flows.
Any redevelopment plan would require the facility’s design syncing up with that of nearby buildings such as the Wellesley Hills Congregational Church and Hills Branch of the Wellesley Free Library. One benefit could be inspiration for tired retail strips nearby to spruce themselves up. The proposed development plan Chazen described featured a 2-story, 24,000 sq. ft. rectangular building with a glass and fieldstone exterior and accented by landscaped green space. It would need to fit into the town’s green mobility plans, perhaps providing shuttles between schools and the center.
The study involved lots of visits to the property itself, plus interviews with about 40 people, including those involved in the arts in and out of Wellesley, town government officials, traffic experts, and others. Chazen’s study looked at arts center projects in nearby communities such as Concord, Dover and Weston, as well as out of state, including in Buffalo Grove, Ill., to get a sense of how the projects were designed and paid for, among other things.
The proposed Wellesley development would address a host of uses, including black box theatre space (no fixed seating), rehearsal area, lobby and gallery room, classrooms and meeting rooms, co-working offices, art studios and prep space, and a cafe licensed to serve beer and wine. Moveable walls could provide flexibility at the facility, which would require a sophisticated scheduling system to rent space to artists and others. Having a central arts space used by a changing cast of characters would provide both variety and inspiration across tenants.
The proposed arts center would also include outdoor space for displays, gatherings, and refuge, Chazen said.
Such a center could provide a home for nomadic arts organizations. Artists wouldn’t have to count on empty retail storefronts, which hopefully won’t stay empty for much longer. The Wellesley Free Library would have place to point those seeking to use its spaces for purposes that don’t fit its confines.
Chazen says an arts center could address the largest age demographic in town, those between 10 and 34. He juxtaposed that with the town’s senior center, which accommodates Wellesley’s smallest age demographic and typically closes before evening. That younger group doesn’t have “a modernized facility for arts engagement of all kinds, meetings and activities for children and young adults…,” he said.
The presentation did cover possible ways to pay for such a project, which if it cost $18M might mean an extra $150 a year in property taxes to start via an override (a variety of overall cost scenarios for such a project could be considered). Other options could include private funding or a combination of private and public funding.
Among those excited about the prospect of an arts center is longtime Wellesley resident Darlene Howland, who is president of the Wellesley Players, a theatre organization without a home. “One of the real deficits I felt my children who are now in college almost suffered from was this lack of an arts community that I had growing up…Something like an arts center can bring everyone back together,” she said following the presentation.
One thing for sure is that such a center would need to generate revenue to sustain itself, whether via rental fees, ticket sales, or other means.
Chazen didn’t really get into the possible timing of any such project given all of the unknowns, including ownership of the property, the need for rezoning, funding plans, and community input. Design and construction alone would probably take a few years, he wrote in a follow-up email.
In the meantime, there’s plenty of time for the community to get creative about this.
View the entire presentation via this Wellesley Media recording:
Want to fund an arts writing stipend for a young journalist at Swellesley? Let’s talk: firstname.lastname@example.org