Falmouth town center debate: Options, estimates and projections

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FALMOUTH — The debate over whether the Town Hall and Falmouth Memorial Library should be moved to the Plummer and Lunt school buildings, and a community center created in the Motz wing, may boil down to what is appropriate spending during a recession.

Should the town send a bond to voters that would allow it to take advantage of depressed construction costs to resolve space constraints and replace energy-inefficient buildings?

Or is borrowing during a recession inappropriate in light of projected state revenue shortfalls and cuts to school budgets?

The Town Council is divided on the issue, a group of Falmouth residents are petitioning for more time to consider a variety of options, and many people seem to be unclear about the debate altogether.

Facilities panel goes to work

The Community Facilities Planning Committee was created in 2008 and charged with determining the short- and long-range plan for the town’s buildings and facilities.

The committee met regularly for nearly two years, held several public forums and put together a report for the Town Council, recommending the Town Hall move to Plummer, the library move to Lunt, and enough renovations be done to the Motz wing and Mason gymnasium to create a community center.

The committee recommended selling the existing Town Hall and library buildings, as well as the Pleasant Hill Fire Station, which is no longer used by the Fire Department, to offset the project costs.

The committee made its recommendation based on several factors, including renovation estimates and real estate appraisals, as well as a desire to create a “town center.”

Critics of the committee’s proposal, including the group Falmouth Citizens for Sound Choices, say the town already has a town center in the Route 1 shopping district, and that now is not the time to raise taxes and spend a proposed $10 million for this project.

Since the committee’s proposal, town staff has continued its research, meeting with real estate brokers, getting a peer review of the project estimates, factoring in $1.2 million in estimated soft costs, and creating a variety of options for the council to consider.

Those options include proposals to use between $500,000 and $1 million from the Undesignated Fund Balance, or rainy day fund, to finance the project.

Town staff recently presented a variety of options for buildings, including the comittee’s proposal and a proposal to keep the library and Town Hall in their current spaces and sell all of the school properties.

Town staff have also presented compromises, including not building additions on Lunt for the library, building an off-site recreation center, and selling the school buildings on Middle Road for high-density commercial development. These options included bonds from $2 million to $4 million.

Critics of the issue say there are too many options that have not yet been fully vetted, that the council has not had time to consider the issues, and that the plan to put the bond on the November ballot is being rushed.

Each building has its own issues and potential solutions, some everyone can agree on, some the source of contention.

The library

The current library building is approximately 10,700 square feet. The Lunt school building is 24,250 square feet, however the committee’s recommendation for moving the library to Lunt included two additions totaling 3,500 square feet. Some of the newest options include moving the library without building the additions.

Library Director Lyn Sudlow said projections done in 2003 found that the library needed an additional 3,000 to 4,000 square feet, and a total of 17,000 to 20,000 square feet to meet 15-year projections.

“We will be reviewing those figures again in the next couple of weeks,” Sudlow said.

Several former members of the Library Board of Trustees, including Lisa Preney, who heads the group Falmouth Citizens for Sound Choices, have spoken out against the need for a dramatic increase in space, citing the changing face of libraries in the digital age and the possibility of fulfilling the library’s space needs on site.

Oak Point Associates President Robert Tillotson said there is a maximum of 4,000 square feet available for on-site expansion in the current library building, however cautioned that this would not solve the parking problems the library experiences.

Some solutions to parking concerns include have included on-street parking and expanding the parking lot in the current footprint.

While the library does have a large public meeting space, it does not have any private rooms for small-group meetings or tutoring sessions, something Library Board of Trustees member Sue Tartre said the library would like to offer, because private tutors are not allowed to provide services in Falmouth school buildings.

“Eventually we may need fewer shelves for certain kinds of books, but we will need more tables, seating, and small-group meeting spaces as the library becomes more of a community gathering place,” Sudlow said.

In addition to being short of meeting space, the library has stacks of books in its basement, crammed under low-hanging duct work and plumbing.

“We’ve got a problem with the basement and storing books there. The staff is going up and down those stairs, carrying books,” Tartre said.

The library runs dehumidifiers in the basement to protect the books, old Town Council meeting videos, magazines and other items.

Unlike most towns, the library is not a municipal department. While the town owns 50 percent of the building the library occupies at 5 Lunt Road, and contributes between 75 and 80 percent of its operating budget, the library business is a private, 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

In all renovation proposals, the library is expected to contribute $750,000.

Tartre said the feasibility of raising that money will depend on how passionate the trustees are about fundraising. Three of them are appointed by the town.

“We are hopeful we could raise enough,” she said.

Should the library not move to Lunt, its trustees could decide to purchase property elsewhere and move the library.

Or the library could, as proposed in several options presented by town staff and encouraged by a number of former members of the Board of Trustees, build out on its current footprint.

Moving the library to Lunt School is projected to cost just over $5 million and renovating at its current site was projected in 2007 to cost $3.8 million. Another projection proposed recently including a $2.75 million on-site renovation option.

The Lunt building has been appraised, with zoning changes, at $800,000. The library building, with zoning changes, has an estimates sale price of $1.25 million.

Town Hall

The existing Town Hall is 16,900 square feet. The current Plummer school building is 22,700 square feet. 

While the size difference is not as dramatic as the library-to-Lunt proposal, according to Oak Point Associates, the opportunity to renovate the building before it is put into daily use is part of the attraction of moving Town Hall to Plummer.

“Structurally, it’s already set up for the design,” Tillotson said of the Plummer building.

Critics of the move say it is an unnecessary expense. Town Manager Nathan Poore admitted the Town Hall is “along for the ride” in the town center proposal.

The most expensive aspects of the $4 million renovation proposal of Plummer are the addition of an elevator to meet Americans with Disability Act requirements for access to all four floors, updating plumbing now configured for students, insulation, new windows, and updating data and electrical wiring.

The existing elevator in the building does not serve the basement or third floor.

The old theater on the second floor would become the new Town Council Chambers. Tillotson estimated the space is 60 percent larger than the current chambers.

Town Facilities Manager Topper West said the furnace in the Plummer building, which he estimated was installed in the 1970s, is in excellent condition.

“The burner has been upgraded many times,” he said. “That thing’s as reliable as the day is long.”

Tillotson said the roof of Plummer-Motz is also in excellent condition.

That could be juxtaposed with the current Town Hall, which is in need of a new roof and siding. The boiler, however, was recently replaced and is in excellent shape.

After the Police Department moved into its new building several years ago, the old Police Department space was fully renovated in the town hall and is now being utilized as office space for town staff.

Poore said approximately six times a year the Council meeting space is too small for the number of people attending and overflow must view the meeting on television in an upstairs meeting room.

The current vault is also too small to meet the town’s needs; older valuation records are kept locked in the attic.

The attic is currently used only as storage, but could be utilized as office space if  renovations, including extending the elevator, are completed.

Other improvements, such as replacing the windows and adding insulation, would also be required if the Town Hall were to remain at 271 Falmouth Road.

While town staff has projected a cost of $2 million to renovate Town Hall, Poore called that number “relatively arbitrary.”

“We could keep trying to get by here, in the short term, but over the next couple of years, we’ll spend at least $2 million,” he said.

Critics of the move say spending the estimated $4 million to move Town Hall to Plummer is unnecessary during a recession.

Community center

While initially proposing a more lavish renovation of the existing space for a community center in the Motz building and Mason gym, the facilities committee toned down its final proposal, limiting the community center to the existing space with only minor renovations.

The Motz building is 20,150 square feet. There is not an existing recreation or community center in Falmouth that compares.

The renovation, which would include code updates to the electrical, lighting and plumbing systems, as well as minor design changes, is projected to cost $1.44 million.

Poore said Community Programs is now 80 percent self-sustaining, but cannot expand to become wholly self-sustaining until it has space to hold programs.

“There’s further potential for this area, but we’re only looking at the minimum amount for now,” Long Range Planning Director Theo Holtwijk said.

The Town Council will hold a public hearing during its meeting on Aug. 23 to hear comments about the issue, and will vote on language for a bond question on Sept. 13.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net

Sidebar Elements

Falmouth Town Councilor and Facilities Committee liaison Teresa Pierce points to the cupola on the top of the Plummer School while Town Manager Nathan Poore chats with representatives of architecture firm Oak Point Associates. The Town Council is considering options for renovating and selling town-owned property, including the Plummer building, and will hold a public hearing on the issue on Aug. 23.