As Senior Center Plans Emerge, Concerns Linger About Size, Location

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Aging , council on aging

Selectmen are now searching for a new parcel of land to host a new senior center, either a one-story version like this, or a two-story design that would require less land.

CHATHAM Officials last week unveiled scaled-down plans for a new 10,200-square-foot senior center proposed for town-owned land off Middle Road. But before bringing the plan to town meeting, proponents want to make sure they’ve answered questions about the cost and the location.

At a public meeting hosted by selectmen Saturday, architect Joel Bargmann of the Boston-based firm Bargmann Hendrie and Archetype (BH+A) showed conceptual designs for the senior center, which would feature a 2,000-square-foot multipurpose room capable of seating 156 people. Arranged around a central corridor, the one-story facility would also include two smaller activities rooms, a 470-square-foot kitchen, a conference room and other public spaces.

“Every space is intended to be a program space,” Bargmann said. The lobby, for instance, can be used for socializing or small activities, not just for waiting for appointments. The kitchen would be large enough for use by professional food service staff, and also for cooking classes. The design, smaller than the 14,000 square feet suggested by the council on aging’s needs assessment, aims to meet current and future programming needs.

The exception is an adult day center, which is proposed as an add-on, either to be built as part of the construction project or at some future date.

“With the exception of one area that we’ve cut out of here, we’re meeting the program goals for the most part,” owners’ project manager Rick Pomroy said.

The building is projected to cost between $6.2 and $6.5 million. A more definitive estimate is expected shortly, based on closer examination of the five-acre Middle Road site.

Designed by BH+A based on the needs assessment it conducted in 2016, the conceptual design has been the subject of regular meetings by a working group of staff and committee chairs, including representatives of the finance committee, the summer residents’ advisory committee and the council on aging board.

From the outside, the building as envisioned would have a broken roof line suggesting an assembly of smaller buildings. While a buffer of trees would be left between the building and adjacent houses, the center would be visible from Middle Road, with a winding driveway accessing the 60-car parking lot. The site is located in a valley adjacent to a wetland, and additional site investigation will take place this week to determine the best location of the building on the parcel.

Despite inclement weather, several dozen people attended the meeting to see the presentation and provide comments. Some said the compromise design was still too large, and others faulted the town for removing the proposed adult day center.

“The day program is one of the things that I had really hoped we would get right away, because it’s really needed,” COA board member Barbara Segall said. She said she also expected to see a design for a two-story building.

Bargmann said a two-story design not only included the expense of an elevator, but ended up not creating much more program space and was deemed inefficient.

As for the removal of the adult day center, Pomroy said the working group repeatedly heard from the public about the need to keep the senior center small. Adding the adult day center would have brought the square footage from 10,200 to around 11,800.

“The opinion that we’d heard was that the facility was too large, and that it was not desirable to be in that range,” Pomroy said. There was much debate about whether to shrink the size of the kitchen, but the working group decided to leave it large enough for cooking classes and access by people using wheelchairs or walkers. COA board member Carole DeChristopher agreed with that decision.

“The kitchen is the heart of our culture,” she said, and the senior center kitchen would likewise be a hub of activity. “Just think about this in terms of your own home,” DeChristopher said.

Resident Florence Seldin said a better approach would be to have a smaller kitchen and to schedule cooking classes with a smaller number of students. The design should be a lean one, Seldin said.

“It’s not a community center. We have one,” she said. The proposal needs as much support as possible to obtain the two-thirds majority at town meeting needed for the town to borrow funds for the project. “We want this to pass town meeting on the first try,” Seldin said.

Resident Anne Timpson acknowledged the work needed to create the compromise proposal, but said she has heard from some people who have said they won’t support the project because they see the site on Middle Road as too far removed from the center of town. Selectmen chose the location after some residents raised concerns about co-locating the senior center with the community center; they argued that the South Chatham site would also offer the opportunity for future expansion. Still, “it’s a pretty dramatic change to go all the way to Middle Road,” Timpson said.

COA Chairman David Speciale urged selectmen to push ahead with a warrant article and ballot question for the proposal, saying a delay of even a year could kill the project. “We don’t have the ability to put this thing off any longer than we have,” he said.

But Finance Committee Chairman Stephen Daniel said his committee still has concerns. He said studies show that the number of seniors in town will generally decline in the decades ahead, so the senior center shouldn’t be overbuilt.

“The majority of the committee thinks it’s too big,” Daniel said.

The working group will continue to refine the conceptual plans and will bring a new version to selectmen in time for possible inclusion on the annual town meeting warrant; the deadline for warrant articles is March 25. Members of the public are encouraged to send their comments on the plan to Town Manager Jill Goldsmith at