Opinion: Keep Wildwood as a Town Building


Wildwood School. Photo: Toni Cunningham

Michael Greenebaum

There has been a great deal of talk recently about what should happen with Wildwood School when it ceases to serve as an Amherst Elementary School, presumably in 2026.  (Some of the talk has claimed that it is too soon to talk about it, but that clearly has not been persuasive.)  The Finance Committee is reviewing and revising the town policy about dealing with “surplus” property.  Council President Lynn Griesemer has warned that the costs of rehabbing Wildwood for public use would be around $40 million (a contested figure).  And now Nick Grabbe, a member of the Charter Commission majority and a strong voice in support of local builders and developers (and my former editor on the Amherst Bulletin) has written urging demolishing the building and giving the site to private developers to build affordable housing.

This is an odd commentary for me to be writing because for years (almost since it opened in 1970) I have advocated demolishing the building – and the current Fort River building as well.  My reluctant support for the School Committee’s strange 2016 proposal to combine two schools in one building was based on my dislike of this physical plant model.

And yet I disagree with Nick and others who wish to remove Wildwood from the town’s inventory.  I think the town’s public needs are so many and so well-documented that to lose a space that would so well meet them would be truly sad and perhaps irresponsible.

The need for an adequate Senior Center has been much discussed, and Wildwood would be an ideal site for it.  It has safe onsite parking.  Public transportation can be easily re-routed to serve it and of course there is space for buses to discharge passengers at the front door.

Many have written about a youth center.  While there has been little agreement as to what this means, positing Wildwood as a site might help to focus the discussion.

The decades-long morphing of adult education to Leisure Services to Recreation might be re-examined with new space in the Wildwood building

My own idea, which I have written about over the years, would be to move the Jones Library circulating collections, family and children services and programs to Wildwood, thus eliminating the need for another behemoth building downtown.  The Amity Street building would house Special Collections, adult programming and classes and communal space for a variety of activities.  The Jones Library already has three campuses.  Why not a fourth?

The Wildwood floor plan is large and could accommodate several, perhaps all, of these ideas and even more.  The problems with Wildwood as a school site with open quads are not problems for the kinds of activities being discussed currently.  But rest assured that other ideas, including demolition, are being actively discussed right now.  If you are interested in keeping and improving this building as a public space, write to the Indy, your Town Councilors, and your neighbors.  What do we all want?

Michael Greenebaum was Principal of Mark’s Meadow School from 1970 to 1991, and from 1974 taught Organization Studies in the Higher Education Center at the UMass School of Education.  He served in Town Meeting from 1992, was on the first Charter Commission in 1993, and served on several town committees including the Town Commercial Relations Committee and the Long Range Planning Committee.

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8 thoughts on “Opinion: Keep Wildwood as a Town Building

  1. Thank you, Michael! I agree that the town’s need for community space is great and Wildwood would be an ideal location for many of the programs you list.
    Regarding the infamous “quads” – 4,000 sf square rooms that were designed to accommodate four open classes of students – they are no longer there. During COVID, renovations were undertaken to turn those six 4,000sf spaces into 12 rectangular 2,000sf rooms called “halfsies,” with walls all the way to the ceiling, separate ventilation, doors on both ends, and two sets of windows, one to the outside and the inner set looking onto a small courtyard. Despite prior claims that renovating these spaces was not possible, the work was done for about $150,000, covered by Covid relief funds.
    When town leaders don’t want to do something, they claim it’s going to cost an exorbitant amount of money. Be skeptical when you are told something is impossible or impossibly expensive. Look at what other towns are doing with their old buildings. In Granby, for example, they are completely renovating an old single-story elementary school building for $5.6 million.

    There is also a significant amount of capital funds that has been approved over the past few years for elementary school building repairs that has not been spent – perhaps more than $1.7 million. That could go a long way to paying for priority deferred maintenance needs in the Wildwood building. In addition, there is federal infrastructure money available to get old buildings off fossil fuels. I would like to see Amherst prioritize converting oil (and gas) -powered buildings like Wildwood to Air Source Heat Pumps, availing of state and federal incentives and energy rebates, and add insulation. It would lower annual utility bills (operating costs) and provide a better interior environment while reducing the town’s carbon emissions.

    Prior to discussing whether any town building is “surplus,” I believe the Town leaders need to undertake a SPACE NEEDS ANALYSIS so it is documented how much and what kinds of space each program would need (Senior Center, Youth Center, Early Childhood Center, Recreation offices, DPW offices, CRESS, etc…). Wildwood offers an unmatched 82,000 sf of ground floor space close to downtown and the regional schools, with ample parking, a gym, kitchen, four 1,200 sf cafeteria spaces, eight large classrooms, the twelve 2,000 sf “halfsie” classrooms, a 4,200 sf open center space that is currently the library, many offices, conference rooms, and storage. To think of it is superfluous is myopic. What happens when the town needs swing space during a construction project? What if at some point in the future we need another school? Where else could a Senior Center or a Youth Center go in town without having to buy land and build from scratch? Like any old building, it can be repaired over time, with the most critical repairs done first. There is no need to do everything in one go. If it can be used as a school now and for two more years, there is no reason it can’t immediately be repurposed for other town needs.

  2. The even-older Marks Meadow School building was nicely retrofitted (I don’t know the cost, but there should be public records since it was a UMass project) over a decade ago, and now houses a large fraction of the UMass College of Education.

    Why a similar makeover of the Wildwood School building would not be considered along the lines Michael and Toni suggest is truly mind-boggling!?!

  3. Well said, Toni. I’m getting to the point of not believing a word out of the mouths of some of our Councilors.

  4. What Toni said: “When town leaders don’t want to do something, they claim it’s going to cost an exorbitant amount of money. Be skeptical when you are told something is impossible or impossibly expensive.”

    Town residents need information and real numbers, always. Decisions need to be made on verifiable facts.

  5. I don’t think floors can be added on top of the Wildwood school building. When it was built in 1971, up to 10 feet was excavated from the site to make a level surface, and a bunch of fill was brought in to go below the building and athletic fields. The soil is not solid enough for additional weight of more floors, iirc. When the designers for the new school were looking into what was possible at Wildwood, they proposed either demolishing the cafeteria end and building a new 2-story addition in its place, or else building a new 3-story school to the south east of the current building. A new school building at Wildwood would have required extensive earthworks, adding rammed aggregate piers to reinforce the new soil that would have to be brought in, and building a large retaining wall to the east. The remaining unpaved land was minimal after adding parking and paving. No athletic fields would have remained.

    In my mind, repurposing the existing Wildwood building for community uses makes most sense for this site as we are very short on space for needed programming and we have nowhere in town to use as Swing Space when something else is under construction (like the DPW or fire station or middle or high school, etc.). Phasing construction to accommodate continued use makes things so much more complicated and expensive. We need to identify and earmark a town property for future Swing Space. The Wildwood building will need repairs which can be done over time, similar to every other town-owned property that has equally been neglected, but the bones of the structure are in decent shape according to the reports done in 2016 and 2021.

    Perhaps the adjacent town-owned Hawthorne Property could be a location for more affordable housing. I believe the Habitat for Humanity duplex condo property on East Pleasant was built on part of it. See here: https://www.amherstma.gov/1487/Hawthorne-Meadow-Public-Process
    $835,000 per unit seems very steep!

  6. The $835K per unit problem reminds me of an old story.

    There was a fellow who needed a new suit, including a vest. He got some cloth at a good price, then went looking for a tailor.

    The first tailor he found measured the fellow and the cloth, went into the back room, did some figuring, but returned with the bad news: There’s not enough cloth for the vest; as for the trousers, would shorts be OK?

    Simultaneously incensed and amused, the fellow walked farther down the road to the next tailor, who measured and figured, and again delivered the bad news: There’s enough cloth for the jacket and long trousers, but not enough for the vest.

    Now more puzzled than incensed or amused, the fellow continued down the road. But before he reached the next tailor, he dropped into a pub to quench his thirst and share his story. The publican had heard it all before, and advised: The first tailor has three sons, and the second has two, but the next tailor down the road has only one!

    P.S. The same story applies to libraries 😉

  7. I agree with the comments above regarding repurposing the Wildwood School building. The school on the South Common remains empty and poorly maintained as does the Hickory Ridge clubhouse. Why doesn’t Amherst maintain and use what it has rather than tear down and rebuild at way above average cost? The Jones library is a perfect example of this attitude. Rather than repair a roof and remodel, tear the whole thing down and build something that is expensive and ugly.

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