Opinion: Build Bridges, Not a Wall

Wildwood School. Photo: Art Keene

If the Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) chooses Wildwood as the site for the new school building, the designers and builders will need to undergo several contortions to fit a school building for 575 students onto a cramped and hilly site.

The ESBC has strongly signaled that the building will be all-new construction, meaning that the new building must be constructed adjacent to the existing school while it continues to function. The new building being proposed is the same for either site – the real choice is between the Fort River and Wildwood properties. Wildwood is surrounded by steep hills on three sides, which significantly reduces the buildable area and presents significant challenges. While it may be possible to make-do with a school at Wildwood, the resulting project cannot match the benefits to kids at the Fort River site.

The Wall
On the Wildwood property, the new building must be built in the southeast corner of the property where the outdoor play area is currently. In order to be back far enough from the ~20 foot slope down to the middle school, a portion of the wooded hillside would need to be excavated, and, to protect the entire eastern half of the building, a several hundred foot long retaining wall that will increase in height from 1 to 15 feet would be necessary. Aside from being an eyesore and limiting daylight to the classrooms on one side of the building, it’s hard to think of anything more tempting for elementary-aged children to climb. One would assume that staff would either be spending quite a bit of time trying to manage safety concerns, or some sort of barrier would soon be erected to restrict access. 

The Roundabout
Traffic analysis recommended the construction of a second driveway onto the Wildwood property to create unidirectional vehicular flow with a separate entrance and exit, and to better manage on-site vehicle queuing. The steep slope and poor sight lines at the northeast corner of the property, however, make this impossible so those mitigations will not happen. Instead, a roundabout at the entrance from Strong Street has been proposed. Additional improvements (improved signalization or another roundabout) may also be needed at the East Pleasant/Strong Street intersection to mitigate increased traffic due to the higher enrollment. These road construction projects are not eligible for state funding as part of the school project and so would be wholly borne by the town.

Fort River already has two access drives and ample room to provide for separation of vehicles from children on-site. Town roadway improvements recommended on South East St to mitigate northbound vehicle queuing are warranted regardless of which site is chosen for the school.

The Absence of a Field
The increased enrollment at the new school (from ~350 to ~575 students) will necessitate more parking and on-site driveways for additional car and bus traffic. At the smaller Wildwood site, this would result in the loss of any flat, grassy area leaving no playing field. There would be insufficient space to conduct more than a few classes outdoors, a resource that is critical to keep schools open during a pandemic. It’s also hard to imagine how a field day or any outdoor school-community gathering could take place here.

The Fort River site, with its many acres of flat land, is already host to several playing fields with plenty of room for as many students to be outdoors as wanted. Community members can also be found there most evenings, playing both organized and informal sports and activities. If the Fort River site were chosen for the school, these fields would receive the much needed improvements, including proper drainage, that have been talked about for decades. However, if the school were not located at Fort River, this well-utilized community resource could be lost. Several town officials have indicated their desire to remove the upkeep of this building and site from the town’s budgetary responsibilities if it were not selected for the new school. This short term thinking would deprive the town of valuable and irreplaceable assets.

The Disruption
At the most recent ESBC meeting, several members expressed concern about how disruptive construction would be to the students and staff who will be at the site chosen for the new school. Many favored weighting this factor heavily in their decision-making. 

Wildwood is a dense site, and the impact of two years of construction will be far greater here. A new school will be built on top of the current playing field and main play structure so it is unclear where kids would play during construction. Contractor lay down will take up another large chunk of the property. Although the need for phased construction has been raised because of the size-limited site, plans for managing access and parking have not been provided to date. The kind of visual, auditory, and physical disturbances that will ensue will directly impact some of the most vulnerable students in the district as the Intensive Learning Center program is located at Wildwood.

Fort River, on the other hand, has many more acres of space that would allow construction staging to be further away from the students and staff. Kids could continue to have access to outdoor play during the construction process and would have multiple improved playing fields upon completion. 

Conclusion
We could invest in improving several fields that would be a fantastic place for the kids to learn and play during the day and for the community to enjoy in the evenings and weekends. Or we could spend money on a wall and a roundabout on a site that can’t even accommodate one small field. A new school at Fort River is better for kids and better for the community. 

Drawing sent by the designer (DiNisco) to cost estimators showing the proposed 3-story building option at the Wildwood site. Notations identifying the wall, roundabout, hills, and lack of a playing field are by the author.

https://www.amherstma.gov/DocumentCenter/View/61680/_Wildwood-Option-2_3-Story-Concept

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