Town seeks “productive reuse” of Bigelow, Riverbend schools

  • Riverbend School and play area, entrance on Riverbend Street. The common playground is visible in upper right. ATHOL DAILY NEWS/DEBORRAH PORTER

  • From the common playground area located on Park Avenue, the Riverbend School is visible on the left (rear), and the Ellen Bigelow school is on the right. ATHOL DAILY NEWS/DEBORRAH PORTER

  • Main entrance to the Ellen Bigelow school from Park Avenue. —ATHOL DAILY NEWS/Deborrah Porter

  • Ellen Bigelow School visible from the corner of Park Avenue and Allen Street. —ATHOL DAILY NEWS/Deborrah Porter

  • Allen Street view of basketball courts/parking area at Riverbend School. The playground is visible in the upper left corner. —ATHOL DAILY NEWS/Deborrah Porter

For the Athol Daily News
Published: 8/4/2019 9:56:15 PM
Modified: 8/4/2019 9:56:13 PM

ATHOL – Town Manager Shaun Suhoski recently placed ads seeking “developers to design and implement a productive reuse plan for two former neighborhood elementary schools.” Those schools – Ellen Bigelow and Riverbend – both sit within a single block, and the town is seeking a single plan for the repurposing of each building.

“First of all,” said Suhoski, “we already have town meeting authority – the Board of Selectmen – to sign a lease agreement, or it could be a sale. It depends on the proposals we receive meeting our requirements. It’s really centered around the reuse of the property. We’re talking about housing for a range of populations, serving the elderly population, the incorporation of green space or open space accessible to the neighborhood; that would be a highly advantageous proposal. We want any proposal to be consistent with the residential nature of the neighborhood.”

Suhoski said the town is looking for a contractor with a reliable record of work on such projects.

“We want to select an entity or team that has done this before,” he said. “We don’t want to just leave it to chance. So, if we have a team with a successful track record in financing, developing, operating, and completing projects of similar size and scale, that’s a highly advantageous proposal, also.”

Suhoski said he would be putting together a committee – likely consisting of five members – to weigh each proposal received by the town.

“They’ll take into consideration the price, which is a separate submittal, and all other evaluation criteria,” he said. “We’re not looking for a bid for the best bidder; we’re looking for the best plan that fits the neighborhood.”

“We have a known and existing need for more housing that’s affordable to folks from this region and across a range of incomes,” Suhoski continued. “We would like to see affordable units, but we want units of housing for a range of people. For families we’d like to see two-bedroom units, three-bedroom units. We also have a preference for on-site management. That’s important that we have a structure and good management in place.”

Suhoski also said the town has included criteria that address job creation.

“The former school buildings have flexible zoning that does allow for some small-scale commercial use,” he explained.

“We expect it to be a tax-paying property in the end,” said Suhoski. “If it’s a non-profit we’d have a PILOT – payment in lieu of taxes – agreement that would go along with it, which the assessors would be involved in. So, there is a financial component.”

However, said Suhoski, the purpose of the plan isn’t for the town to secure a huge financial gain.

“If we have a proposal that’s going to improve the neighborhood, eliminate two large, vacant buildings, provide a community or neighborhood use, provide green space, provide housing to help the community,” he declared, “hey, that’s a win. We want a successful, orderly, productive, resilient community. We’re not interested in just creating a, quote - ‘project’ - unquote. That’s not what the town needs.”

“We need housing for families, for single moms, for working families, for elderly, for young people who are starting out in this gig economy; that’s what I mean by a ‘range of incomes.’”

Proposals must be submitted to the Town Manager’s Office no later than 2 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 12. Suhoski said he hopes to see the successful project completed within 24 to 36 months.

He explained that just putting together the funding stream for the project – which will likely include historical and low-income tax credits – could take a year to 18 months.

“But we feel the timing is right,” he concluded. “We feel that we have good property to offer. There’s good ‘bones’ in the schools. A project that is well designed and well managed will improve the entire neighborhood.” 

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