Selectmen Leaning Toward Main St. Site For New Senior Center

By: Tim Wood

Selectmen seem to prefer this property at 1610 Main St. as the site of a new senior center, although they had some concerns which they hope will be addressed in an upcoming meeting. FILE PHOTO

Final Decision On Two Options Postponed

CHATHAM – Although they deferred a formal vote, several selectmen indicated Monday that they prefer a privately owned parcel on Route 28 in West Chatham as the site for a new senior center.

“I believe 1610 [Main St.] is the more functional area,” said Selectman Peter Cocolis. But, he added, echoing other board members, “I don't like the price.” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens was also leaning toward the West Chatham lot, currently owned by Eastward Companies.

“It's closer to town, closer to the action, closer to people” than the other option on the table, the town-owned Marconi property at 847 Orleans Rd. in Chathamport, he said. Although some have expressed concerns about putting the senior center on Route 28, he noted that the West Chatham Project is projected to slow down traffic in the area. “I think the traffic will be fine.”

Most board members rejected revisiting previously considered locations for the senior center, including the existing site at 193 Stony Hill Rd. as well as the community center, despite entreaties from some members of the public.

“I'm on record very clearly about the community center and don't see us in any way, shape or form looking at that again, and I don't think we should look at the existing site again,” said Selectman Cory Metters. Selectmen Dean Nicastro, while noting the board voted at a special meeting Oct. 10 to take redevelopment of the current location off the table, said he would consider looking at it again if there could be sufficient parking by acquiring “a sliver” of abutting property. An overture to a neighboring owner has been made, he added, but there has been no response.

Board members decided to hold off on a final decision for a week or two to allow them time to review information on the sites. As of Tuesday, a date for a vote had not been set.

Scenarios were presented for building a senior center at both the 1610 Main St. property and the Marconi land. Both parcels could accommodate a facility of approximately 11,000 square feet, sufficient to support existing and projected COA programs. Options were presented for both locations that addressed specific problems with each site.

The buildable area of the 1610 Main St. parcel is limited by a steep drop-off at the rear, said Architect Joel Bargmann of Bargmann Hendrie and Archetype, Inc. There is sufficient area outside of wetland restrictions for a building and parking lot accommodating about 55 spaces. Based on programming, between 55 and 60 spaces were recommended for the new facility; the existing senior center only has 24 paved spaces with 15 overflow spaces. Overflow parking for the 1610 Main St. property could be arranged at the Oppenheim Medical Center or Ocean State Job Lot, Bargmann suggested.

Two options were presented for the building on the West Chatham parcel. In one, the front of the building facing Main Street would be two stories, similar to the nearby Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen's Association building. The other shows a single story facing the road, with the lower level built into the hill. Because of the slope of the West Chatham property, the driveway to parking in the rear would be sloped; selectmen worried that could be a problem during winter weather.

The property's location in the West Chatham village center is a plus, Bargmann said, placing it close to restaurants, shops and other services.

Three options were proposed for the Marconi property. Two placed the building behind the existing Chatham Marconi Maritime Center structures, while a third possibility sited the senior center farther back on the parcel on a plateau of flat land.

The disadvantage of the first two options is that the buildings would be within the boundaries of the Marconi National Historic Register District which could trigger a higher level of review. The third option is outside of the district boundary.

The costs of the proposals ranged from around $6.7 million to $8.1 million for the Marconi options to $8.6 million for the Main Street parcel. That price includes the $750,000 purchase price of the 1610 Main St. property.

Selectmen had concerns about both locations. Board members were reluctant to impact the historical integrity of the Marconi historic district, which honors the ship-to-shore radio station that operated at the site from 1914 to the late 1990s.

“There's no question that both of them do intrude into the historic district,” said Historical Commission Chairman Frank Messina. If the commission deems the intrusion substantial enough, it could refer the project to the Cape Cod Commission, he said.

Traffic flow is also a concern especially regarding the access from Route 28, which the Marconi Center currently uses and which would be shared under two of the scenarios. Both would also add a second egress onto Old Comers Road; under the third option, the main entrance to the senior center would be off Old Comers Road, but that would also be on an incline due to the elevation of the site. The Route 28 access would also require those going to the senior center to cross the Center's parking lot; there is a pedestrian walkway there for those going between the two buildings, and it can get quite busy in the summer, said Marconi Vice President and Executive Director Bob Fishback.

“That's a problem for us,” he said.

Selectmen worried that the third Marconi option, while outside the historic district, was too isolated. That was a criticism of the previous site the board chose for the senior center on Middle Road, and a main reasons it was shot down at the May annual town meeting. The cost of that option is the lowest of those on the table, said Owners Project Manager Rick Pomroy, but the negatives include a lack of a connection to the Marconi campus—both Marconi and COA officials had seen the ability of the two entities to interact as a positive—and lack of access to the Old Comer's Road egress for the Marconi Center.

“This is the easiest project to develop at this point,” Pomroy said of the third option, which would cost about $1 million less than the other options and be more in line with the projected cost of the Middle Road site.

“The first thing that jumped out at me is that its isolated,” said Metters. He questioned whether voters would support the site given the reaction to the Middle Road location. Dykens said the Marconi property is “extremely dear” and should be held in reserve for the future.

Along with concern about the slope to the rear parking area as well as possible complications with the nearby wetlands, the biggest concern about the 1610 Main St. parcel was the cost. Selectmen asked Town Manager Jill Goldsmith to try to negotiate a lower purchase price with the owner.

“We don't have a perfect place for this,” former Selectman David Whitcomb said of the search for a home for a new senior center. But he supported the Main Street property, noting that in 2004, the town paid $650,000 for an abutting lot that is now conservation property. The town should consider acquiring the 1610 Main St. land whether or not it is used for a new senior center, he said.

“It's a tough decision, but I think it's important to move forward” and not waste time revisiting sites that were previously ruled out, he said. The council on aging board agreed; chairman Barbara Segall said the board met Monday and voted 3-1 to not recommend the current senior center location, the community center or any other site except the Marconi property or the Main Street parcel. “We didn't come to a conclusion” between the two sites currently on the table, she said. Judy Hanlon, president of the Friends of the Council on Aging, said that group's board supported the Marconi site, but had not seen the third option, which was presented Monday for the first time. The Friends, she added, felt the Main Street parcel was the best site, but the cost and parking issues were big drawbacks.

The Friends had pledged to contribute $250,000 toward the senior center when it was proposed for Middle Road. Nicastro said if that pledge still held, it would help reduce the cost of the Main Street property. Although he had concerns about the location, including zoning issues and its location in the historic business district, a Friends contribution “might help make [the Main Street property] easier to deal with,” he said. Hanlon said the Friends board had not discussed that.

Resident Elaine Gibbs pushed for reconsideration of the Stony Hill Road and community center sites. The latter would allow the new space to be repurposed for multigeneration use if demographics shift, she said.

“The reality is this building will only be used by 10 percent of the population,” she said. “We have to face what might happen if the demographics change” and the town's senior population drops. But resident John Whelan strongly opposed consideration of the community center site, noting that in the summer, downtown traffic backs up from the rotary as far as West Chatham, which will discourage people from going to a senior center at the location.

Parking remains a concern. A new facility with three program rooms and a function room would have a higher capacity than the existing center, which can only serve meals to 40 people at a time, said COA board member Carole DeCristopher.

“The parking is a critical piece. We need to be able to provide programs that are going to be able to serve more people than we're serving now, because our waiting list in most cases at this time is more than double what we can provide,” she said.

Selectmen asked Pomroy to make a presentation on the parking issue when it next convenes to discuss the senior center sites.

While board members wanted time to review information about the sites, a decision needs to be made soon, said Cocolis. He noted that a year's delay on the fire station added $1 million to the project.

“Costs keep going up,” he said.