WALTHAM, MA —A group is planning to picket while city leaders, community members and school officials hold a groundbreaking ceremony for the new high school Friday morning.
The residents say they want to protest potential environmental damage and loss of green space and trees, because of the project.
“It’s tragically ironic and hypocritical that the city is destroying acres of green space to build an environmentally friendly building,” said Waltham resident Rachel Weinstein, who lives near the the old Stigmatine property, where the new high school is set to be built.
The activists say the site should have been vetted by an engineer or determined to be feasible for the high school before the city acquired the land. Although the city recently submitted the final environmental impact report to the state, some also worry about potential damage to the wetlands, watershed and area hydrology.
They are also concerned that the city will lose some 20 acres of woodland, will be subjected to a full year of blasting ledge and the carting away of rock that comes with it.
Then there is the matter of the city owned open space nearby at Jericho Hill, which is slated to become parking. Open space advocates say they’ve been under the impression from local planning documents and past use that the land is to remain as open space or conservation land. The city has said upon further investigation it is can be used.
Recently, the mayor proposed and the city council agreed to only protect a narrow buffer of nearby Chesterbrook Woods. But open space advocates say this leaves the rest open to development.
Some of the residents say the city should revert the project back to the current high school site—as originally the School Building Committee recommended in 2016 before the city acquired the Stigmatine property —and then use the Stigmatine property for fields, satellite parking.
“This would also allow Jericho Hill to remain as open space and wildlife habitat,” Jennifer Rose said in a statement. “It’s not too late to turn this Titanic around.”
For years, the superintendent’s office has been beating the drum about a need for an upgrade to the high school in order to accommodate increased enrollment and upgrade from deteriorating building conditions.
The current high school building is 449,700 square feet and was built in 1968, with additions made in 1998 and 2002. The current state of the high school falls below standards, and raises the prospect that the city could lose accreditation of its high school over the next few years, unless significant progress is made on the building.
After back and forth between the school district and the city council about a site, the MSBA, which helps pay for school building projects, imposed a timeline for the city if it wanted to get money from the state to help pay for any of it.
The City Council and the School Committee voted to go with the School Department’s preferred location about a mile away on the Stigmatine property, in large part because of the size – it’s 43 acres. At one point the owners, a religious order, put the property on the market, according to court documents. The city-owned Fernald property was a strong contender but fell out as an option after officials said they realized environmental issues were bigger than originally thought.
When it became clear that the religious order that owned the Stigmatine property was not interested in selling it to the city, a number of city council members voted against taking the property. But, with the deadline looming last year, the city council changed course and voted to take the site by eminent domain. The issue polarized the city, but eventually the two sides came to an agreement and the city moved forward last year. Then, as plans showed there would be significant blasting of rock during construction that would last years, some neighbors have raised concern about what that might mean for them.
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