Community center planning moves forward in Falmouth

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FALMOUTH — A plan to renovate a former school as a community center is proceeding to the design stage, alongside a simultaneous effort to engage the public on the building’s future uses.

The bargain for the next phase of the Mason-Motz building was struck Monday after an hour-long discussion by the Town Council that was marked by philosophical disagreements.

Roughly half the council felt Falmouth residents should have another opportunity to share their visions for a community center, while the other half felt that previous forums were sufficient.

Ultimately, the council voted unanimously to fund the $75,000 design effort, beginning with big-picture elements that won’t necessarily be affected by any changes that arise out of public forums. Those forums will be held within the next six weeks, with times and dates to be determined.

The discussion began Monday with a report from representatives of Oak Point Associates, an architecture firm that was hired in October to review the Mason-Motz building for its suitability as a long-term community center and to develop cost estimates for necessary renovations.

Those renovations were presented as three options:

• An estimated $700,000 to bring the building up to code and improve the heating system.

• An additional $400,000 for upgrades to the building’s classrooms and restrooms.

• And/or an additional $200,000 for upgrades to the building’s offices.

Combining all three options would cost an estimated $1.2 million.

Afterward, Councilor Russ Anderson asked whether the town had done its due diligence in seeking public opinion on the building’s uses. If not, the town should not authorize any design work, he said.

Chairwoman Teresa Pierce countered that the public process had already been accomplished and the heavy daily use of the space precludes the need for more public input.

“Five years ago, we had 200 people show up at the Motz Gym to do keypad polling about what they wanted to see,” she said. “We had a citizens committee that worked for three years reaching out to all the members of the community.

“While it might not be of-the-moment data,” Pierce said, “it is certainly not data that should be lost in this discussion.”

Councilor Dave Goldberg agreed that more public input wasn’t necessary, particularly because the former school’s cinder-block walls complicate drastic redesigns.

Goldberg added that the town can draw conclusions from the popularity of the programs that the building already hosts.

“If I think of the service of Community Programs as a business, you’re constantly measuring the demand for different programs and constantly changing them based on that demand,” he said. “Those are some pretty powerful market signals that help define a large portion of what we want to see.”

Lucky D’Ascanio, director of Parks and Community Programs, agreed with Goldberg. She said the department has “a pulse” on what the community wants, and questioned the wisdom of redesigning spaces to accommodate specific activities, because activities come and go like fashions.

“Zumba is hot this year,” she said. “Something else is hot next year.”

Councilor Chris Orestis said the council was already well informed on the public’s vision for the space and suggested that another round of public discussion would be an unnecessary delay, particularly when there are opportunities to save utility costs.

“It’s action time,” Orestis said. “We’re not going to learn anything that we don’t already know.”

Councilor Sean Mahoney, on the other hand, was adamant in his desire to see another round of public input to gather support for more spending, particularly after the town donated $200,000 toward an effort to purchase Clapboard Island for public use and an anticipated loan of $283,500 to the Falmouth Memorial Library expansion.

“I don’t feel the need for speed,” Mahoney said. “I’m starting to feel the pinch here.”

Allison Di Matteo, a landscape architect for Oak Point Associates, said a public process wouldn’t necessarily interfere with initial design work.

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.