Opinion: Choosing The Site For Our New Elementary School

Wildwood School bus departure. Photo: Toni Cunningham

Bruce Coldham

The Elementary School Building Committee (ESBC) is approaching three major decisions in June. Two of these decisions — the choice of building new over addition-renovation of the existing building, and then the choice of a three-story building over a two story seem rather straight forward to me: we build a new three story building. But the third decision — on which of the two available sites to build — is not so straight forward.

I am an architect, retired now after 50 years of advising clients on matters such as these. I have attended almost every meeting of the ESBC and have looked over the site analyses, the traffic impact studies, the evolving conceptual site plans, and other data that the project has compiled. From what I have seen and heard it seems clear that there is no insurmountable barrier associated with either of the two sites, and the architects DiNisco Design tell us that a functional solution can be achieved on either one. So the challenge is to evaluate the pros and cons for each site, and there are many factors for which such evaluation is necessary.

Some factors involve remediations of shortcomings that can ultimately be expressed in construction cost dollars. The Fort River site has a high-water table which has been the bane of the present school building since the day it opened. But this deficit can be overcome by importing fill and raising the lower floor elevation by approximately 2 feet. Drainage at the Wildwood site is easier than at Fort River (it is situated on a hillside), but the water table there is still high and part of the site, the part where the new building must go (south of the present building) is un-compacted fill. In the 1970s the material removed from the hillside to create “shelf” for the present building was simply bulldozed down the hillside. That is what the new building must contend with. But the construction costs associated with all of this can be predicted making the pro-con evaluation relatively easy.

The same is not exactly so for traffic impact considerations. Concentrating the elementary school population in one location has predictably adverse consequences at either site. Once again mitigation of these adverse impacts is possible with an infusion of capital, but this work falls exclusively into the realm of the DPW for which the town must bear the entire cost. And so far as the Fort River site is concerned, it is not clear that the most obvious solution (widening East Street to create turning lanes) is even possible due to historic preservation restrictions related to the common median. The Fort River site may frustrate all of the possible solution concepts to improving traffic flow during the morning and afternoon peak times. In addition to traffic flow there are safety considerations at the cross-walks which seem more fraught at East Street intersections than at Strong and East Pleasant Streets.

Then there are the factors that cannot so easily be reduced to a dollar amount. The Fort River site is spacious — far more so than the Wildwood site. This means that field activity can be accommodated at Fort River much more satisfactorily than at Wildwood. Of course, the Fort River fields could (and should) be preserved even with a new school at the Wildwood site, they can continue in use, but less conveniently so perhaps for the new elementary school. So far as outdoor education is concerned, each site has special opportunities; the fields and wetlands at Fort River, and the forest and potentially the Hawthorne Farm site at Wildwood.

But spaciousness is a factor with positive implications beyond supporting outdoor education and recreation. It affects construction. The Fort River site will allow construction to proceed more easily and perhaps more rapidly — and a shorter construction duration leads to lower construction costs. More space also allows less disruption to the ongoing and the (immediately) adjacent educational activity. The Fort River site has a clear advantage in this regard, but how to evaluate the degree of advantageousness associated with reduced disruption? For this I imagine the ESBC will be depending on school teaching staff and administration.

Finally, regarding spaciousness, the larger Fort River site can be more accommodating to future growth — a fact that, while not exactly predictable as to when and how much, must be imagined and prudently allowed for in what will become the Town’s focal elementary school.

And then there are factors that defy reduction to a common metric. One such is the perceived benefits associated with Wildwood’s co-location with the middle and high schools, and with the school department’s maintenance facility. This so called “campus model” is convenient for parents with children attending both schools, as well as for educational and administrative benefits associated with the proximity. The Belchertown schools situation is cited as an instructive example. Similar, is the claim that Wildwood is more “walkable” — meaning that it is nestled in a residential neighborhood more conducive to its function. And likely to be even more so if and when the long-planned sidewalk along East Pleasant Street is completed.

At last is the matter of the value to the town of the rejected site — a factor that is arguably outside the ESBC mandate, but which is certainly not irrelevant to the interests of the Town. Which of these two buildings offers the best prospect for reuse? Obviously, this is a huge, complicated question requiring a study all its own. The Community Safety Working Group have addressed this question and have proposed that the Wildwood site and building is the better rejection, but on what bases? These buildings are very similar structures having been constructed 50 years ago essentially from the same set of construction documents. We do at least have the existing conditions study reports of the two buildings, and they are not encouraging. But these building do have value and the rejected building must be adopted perhaps for an expanded senior center, perhaps for many other purposes. Competent architects can successfully reimagine fitting second acts. So probably the easiest immediate judgement should be rendered on the site rather than the building.

All this is to ask for sympathetic consideration for the tasks before the ESB and for as much constructive input as we can provide them.

Bruce Coldham is an Amherst resident and an architect, seven years retired from the firm Coldham & Hartman.

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5 thoughts on “Opinion: Choosing The Site For Our New Elementary School

  1. Thanks, Bruce. I appreciate your commitment to this process and your thoughtful comments and questions, as a long-time architect.

    Having followed every ESBC meeting since the start and read every report that has been produced to date, I have firmly come down on the side of Fort River as being the superior site for an elementary school. I’m with you on the all-new construction, and will go along with the 3-story option if that’s what educators prefer and it’s less expensive, but I do not think Wildwood is a comparable site to Fort River for a larger school.

    I also have been concerned by recent comments by town staff and some Town Councilors about their plan being to let the vacant school building and site go rather than to retain it for community use. They are instead counting on the reduction in utility costs and not having to pay for deferred building repairs, and the potential revenue from other uses of the site (for example, housing development).

    Regarding widening South East Street to help with traffic queuing, it looks like there are two options available: the Town Right Of Way has a number of feet to the east of the existing roadway, and when I asked the Planning Department about the strip of Common to the west of the roadway, they wrote “Town Council has full authority to modify the East Common.” There is no historic preservation that would restrict using it for the public way.

    Regarding traffic at Wildwood, as you know a second driveway was recommended but has been deemed not viable because of cost, steep grade, and sightlines. The roundabout idea at the entrance will not help with traffic flow and separation on site, and would be a significant cost wholly borne by the town. Crossing East Pleasant to me seems like it could be more dangerous than crossing South East Street because there is no signal there and so cars do not stop (there isn’t always a crossing guard there to help) but I would defer to the traffic people to weigh in on that.

    Re the Hawthorne property, nothing has been done with that for the past six years, even with a pandemic that required de-densifying the schools and keeping cohorts apart, so I can’t see the Town investing in that in the future. And to get there, the kids would have to cross the driveways and parking lot. Not the ideal play space for 5-10 year olds.

    Your spaciousness arguments are the ones I feel most strongly aligned with – for playing space both during and post construction, for future expansion, and for less disruption during construction. I weigh very highly having playing fields for a school for 575 young kids. A new school at Wildwood would have no playing field, not even one soccer pitch, and I cannot imagine where the whole school community could gather for events like the fabulous Multicultural Fair that took place there last week. Wildwood would also have a 15 foot retaining wall next to a bunch of classrooms.

    I hope the Building Committee will take to heart the many perspectives they have heard and make the decision on what is best for kids.

  2. Thank you, Bruce, for weighing in. I agree that the ESBC should, as you say, get “as much constructive input as we can provide them”. They are 13 people who are tasked with representing the best interests of the Town, now and into the future, with an expensive decision that cannot be changed once they take their vote. That responsibility includes taking into account the wishes of those who live here.

    While I agree that it is possible to build a school at either location, the major shortcoming of the Wildwood site is simply insurmountable. There just isn’t enough space on the site for open space and playing fields. We should keep the perspective of the kids top of mind, and I think that they would opt for improved and spacious fields like we can have at Fort River.

    The fields at Fort River provide more than outdoor play space during recess. They are where field days happen – and 575 kids need a lot of space for that. They are where the school community gathers for ice cream socials and other events. They are where kids can go who need to burn off some energy or take a moment to gather themselves. They are also where classes can be conducted when we need the students and staff de-densified and in fresh air. Having these spaces on-site, near the building, and away from the parking lot and driveways, is an advantage available only at Fort River.

    I also agree that the fate of the building and site not chosen is an important part of the calculus as many residents (seniors, youth, BIPOC, and more) have significant needs that are not currently being met. For them to have a chance at having adequate facilities in the foreseeable future, the vacated school must be retained and reused. It is now very clear that some in town (including some people who sit on the ESBC) are planning on letting go off the vacated building and site once it is no longer an elementary school in order to save money on utility costs and to avoid maintaining and improving the building. I encourage townspeople to watch the Finance Committee meetings held recently to hear the discussion on disposal of these invaluable resources for short term, modest gain [for example, 5/31 meeting from 2h18m: https://youtu.be/MLQFqyWFJ7g?t=8301%5D. The same people are reluctant to have a frank and open discussion about this with residents now, before critical decisions are made.
    Make no mistake – if Wildwood is chosen for the school, the community fields at Fort River are not going to be improved anytime soon and they face disposal altogether. Without action by the public and Town Councilors who do understand the value of a community center and that buying land and building new is far more unrealistic than improving what we already own, needed facilities for seniors and BIPOC and youth are unlikely to see the light of day, regardless of which site is chosen.

  3. Thanks to Bruce (and the previous commenters) for contributing to this discussion.

    One important challenge which Bruce points out is that the Wildwood site has an abundance of fill — some of it quite deep particularly, in the southeast portion — which will complicate any new construction.

    Another geologic feature of the Wildwood site is the Tan Brook, largely hidden from view as it runs in a culvert for much of its length which includes under both the aforementioned area of deep fill and also the ARMS building (see, for instance

    https://scholarworks.umass.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1004&context=tanbrook_research

    to get some idea of the situation.

    Older USGS maps show where the Tan Brook originates (fed by springs on or near the Wildwood Cemetery, and through small pond that takes runoff from parts of Orchard Hill area of the UMass campus), and although all the “engineering” a half century ago at the Wildwood site has altered the surface flow, there is still plenty of (flowing) groundwater there.

    https://www.etsy.com/listing/229985153/northampton-amherst-hadley-old-usgs-old

    One important thing to keep in mind about rivers and streams: only a (small) fraction of the water flow is on the surface, and often a (significant) fraction is in the gravels beneath the visible stream.So, even though the surface waters of the Tan Brook may have been culverted in large part through Wildwood (and Middle and High) School site, building atop or adjacent to an active stream can be a huge and expensive challenge – especially when the steam is hidden from view of the builders!

    If this has yet to be taken into consideration when comparing the Wildwood and Fort River sites, then it’s about time to so.

  4. Thanks very much, Bruce, for a balanced discussion of the siting options for the new school. It contrasts with other commenters who can only repeat their own arguments for one option, without acknowledging the potential shortcomings of their choice. I wish there were more people competent to assess the pros and cons related to this decision. I assume that the ESBC will find their way through this thicket with the help of their architectural consultants.

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