CHATHAM – At a recent luncheon for veterans at the current senior center on Stony Hill Road, participants gathered for a group photo. But before that could happen, tables and chairs had to be moved out of the way, and one guest stumbled and nearly fell to the floor.
“At the end of the day, I saw that as a perfect anecdote” for what's wrong with the current council on aging building, said COA Director Mandy Speakman, particularly the lack of access and ease of mobility around the 8,600-square-foot building.
The search for a site to build a new senior center to serve the 55 percent of town residents over age 60 took a step forward last week when the board of selectmen directed staff to draw up a funding article for the spring annual town meeting to conduct a feasibility study and hire an owner's project manager to develop concept plans for a new COA building.
The board also tentatively endorsed a town-owned site off Middle Road and told staff to issue a request for proposals to find out if there are any privately owned parcels available that meets the criteria for a new senior center location.
There were some immediate concerns about the Middle Road site. Bernard Pfeifer questioned the location's proximity to the transfer station and wastewater treatment plant, both of which are on the other side of Middle Road. The location shouldn't be considered because of the odors from those facilities, he said. Selectman Amanda Love said she was also against using the Middle Road property, which is now open space.
“It's cutting down trees,” she said. “It's not necessary, in my opinion.”
Last Tuesday, selectmen also accepted a space needs study that recommended a new senior center be 14,000 to 16,000 square feet; the latter would be the necessary size to accommodate a senior day care facility within the facility. The study by Bargmann Hendrie and Archetype, Inc. (BHA) took the findings of a comprehensive needs assessment conducted last year for the COA by the UMass Center for Social and Demographic Research on Aging Gerontology Institute and developed building program and block drawing concepts showing what a new senior center might look like. The BHA recommendations were released this past summer.
Rough estimates for the cost of a new senior center range from $7 to $9 million, depending on the configuration, programs and inclusion of a senior day care. The costs do not include “soft” costs such as equipment, furniture or land acquisition, if necessary, said Joel Bargmann of BHA.
To accommodate a one- or two-story building and 70 parking spaces, a minimum two-acre site is necessary, Bargmann said. (Fewer parking spaces are possible if the facility is located close to a public parking area or a private property such as a church that could be used for additional parking, he added.) The current senior center location on Stony Hill Road is just under an acre, said Principal Projects Administrator Terry Whalen, so even if the current building – which is inadequate – is removed, there's not enough space at the site to accommodate a new facility.
Several other town-owned sites were examined but rejected. The former water department property at 127 Old Harbor Rd. is deed restricted to use of the existing buildings, which are not adequate. The Grange property on Depot Road and a lagoon area on the Marconi property are too small, Whalen said.
Four sites met the minimum area requirement: the beacon area on airport along George Ryder Road; the little league ball field behind the community center; and two locations along Middle Road.
The George Ryder Road land was rejected because of potential future conflicts with the airport, Whalen said. Using the community center property would eliminate the ball field, create program conflicts with the existing facility, and also require that the existing parking area be “decked,” he said, essentially creating a second level of parking above the 108 spaces there now. That would be cost prohibitive.
Chairman of Selectmen Cory Metters objected to removal of the ball field and said putting a senior center in the location would add to downtown congestion.
“I think it would be an absolute nightmare in the summertime,” he said. Selectman Dean Nicastro agreed. “Seniors may not want to come downtown in the summertime,” he said.
That left the two Middle Road locations. One fronts along the road, Whalen said, while the second is located north of the road and would be “somewhat remote.” Staff recommended a 96,608-square-foot parcel fronting on Middle Road. Originally acquired for general municipal use, the land has several times in the past been identified as a possible site for affordable housing, according to Whalen.
With few town-owned options, it would be worthwhile exploring private land that might be available, Whalen said. A request for proposals would seek interest from private property owners and specify a minimum size lot area.
“We don't have a big menu here,” said Nicastro, agreeing it would behoove the town to explore private property options. “I'm not sure what's out there, but maybe we can find something.” The other board members concurred; Metters said soliciting the private market would be helpful “just to see what our options are.” Board members agreed to seek available of parcels 1.5 acres or more to broaden the field of possibilities.
A cost figure for the feasibility study and owner's project manager is not yet available, Whalen said. Selectmen endorsed that approach, however, because it was used successfully during construction of the town's new fire station.
Resident Elaine Gibbs warned that costs of a new senior center, including staffing, are likely to be higher than anticipated. “I think this needs some work before it moves forward,” she said.
Norma Avellar endorsed inclusion of a senior day care facility. Currently, Chatham residents can attend a senior day care program in Orleans, which the town subsidizes, Speakman said. Such a program is just as important for caregivers as it is for participants, said Avellar, whose husband passed away after suffering from dementia for seven years.
“The respite program is just as important as a good kitchen,” she said.
While many of the details – from building configuration to site selection – are still in flux, there's no disagreement about the need to replace the current senior center, which Selectman Jeffrey Dykens characterized as a “totally inadequate...rabbit warren of spaces.”
“The current facility is an abomination, in terms of risk to safety,” he said.