In filings submitted to the state School Building Authority (MSBA) late last week, Chelsea School officials revealed that the preferred option for the Clark Avenue Middle School was to tear down the old structure and replace it with a completely new building.
The historic building is now a middle school, but for decades was the City’s high school.
“Our preferred option was to build a new school on the same site,” said Gerald McCue of the School Department. “There were a couple of reasons. It had a lower cost because it would be accomplished a little quicker than a renovation. Because the new school can be fit to our educational needs, it would also support the educational program better. If we renovate, we have to adapt to existing spaces and we would always have to live with those constraints. The school was designed 100 years ago and if we renovated the old school, there would be shortcomings we would have to live with.”
He said another reason was due to maintenance costs and improved utility efficiencies in a new building.
“From a maintenance perspective, the new school would bring lower costs because it will be more efficient,” he said.
The current estimate for a new building on the site is around $60 million and the school would be built for 670 students. McCue said the City would qualify for state reimbursements, but they would only equal about 60 or 70 percent of total costs due to caps on construction.
“They do have a lot of caps and the biggest cap is they have construction costs at $275 per square foot,” he said. “New construction is coming in closer to $320 per square foot or higher right now. There was a time during the recession when costs were down because there wasn’t a lot of construction. Now, there is a lot of pent up demand as things pick up and costs have gone up.”
The Clark Avenue Building Committee and the Chelsea School Committee have also endorsed the plan.
One option that was being seriously considered last month was a combination of building new and renovating the old building.
That, however, proved too costly and would have resulted in trying to figure out what to do with students in the school while renovations were being done. With the new-build option, he said the building would be demolished and built in phases – just as was done with the Williams School.
He said they would likely concentrate on the classroom and teaching spaces first, and then move on to amenities like the gym, cafeteria and science labs.
One issue brought up at last Thursday’s School Committee meeting was the historic value of the old building. Many on the Committee had concerns about losing the architecture and the memories from the old building – as decades of Chelsea residents graduated high school from that building. In weighing nostalgia versus educational needs, the Committee decided to go with the new construction alternative.
“The buildings we have that are newer perform best for us,” said McCue. “The ELC was kept for nostalgia reasons, but the newer buildings seem to work better because they provide parking and there is no parking at the ELC. You have certain constrictions within a renovation that you don’t have in a new building.”
He said the historical argument, though, hasn’t been lost on the architects – who have been charged with keeping certain elements of the old building within the new building – such as the columns and lettering on the old front door.
“Our architects are tuned into this and I think people will be pleased with how they keep a line to the old building,” he said.
Another aspect of the matter is actually the largest aspect – funding the school. In the best case scenario right now, the City would be on the hook for $18 million of the $60 million estimated price. City Councillors and City Manager Jay Ash are now tasked with thinking about how and if the City can afford such a purchase.
A Committee of the Council will form shortly and McCue said there would have to be some hard discussions about funding the school.
Meanwhile, School officials expect the state MSBA to review their full application and put it before its Board for a vote in November. Once approved at the state level, it will be up to the City to begin figuring how how to pay for things.