Athol Board of Planning and Community Development gives initial backing to redevelopment of former schools

  • Ellen Bigelow School, Athol, Mass. Staff file photo

  • 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. Staff file photo

  • Riverbend School, Athol Mass. Staff file photo

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 1/11/2021 3:35:03 PM
Modified: 1/11/2021 3:34:42 PM

ATHOL — The Board of Planning and Community Development last week endorsed a new plan for turning the former Bigelow and Riverbend schools into mixed income housing. The plan that received the board’s backing was a revision of the original proposal presented by Fitchburg-based NewVue Communities at the start of a public hearing on Dec. 2.

Project consultant Don Rose said the latest plan came out of comments made at the first meeting and those enumerated in a peer review done by the engineering firm Tighe & Bond.

“We’ve provided a response letter with additional information,” said Rose. “We also provided a conceptual layout, taking into consideration the comments from (Jean) Christy (of Tighe & Bond), from yourselves, from the town and other town employees, and tried to modify the plan slightly to improve upon parking and coordination of transportation on the site itself.”

Athol’s Director of Planning and Development, Eric Smith, said he felt comfortable with the new plan.

“Everything on the storm water side I concur with,” he said, citing requirements for storm water management imposed on recent projects. “We’ve put a whole host of conditions on storm water before construction, before the building permit. So, I’m very comfortable adding all those conditions being added in.

“It really comes down the traffic layout issues in the new plan. One of the issues I know that came up was the issue of visibility at Park and Congress (streets). But because those are kind of dead end streets that meet as an ‘L,’ it really wasn’t a concern. The town might want to review allowing parking on both sides of the street, but that’s more something for the DPW.”

Smith added that no town officials had expressed concern with the overall plan.

“I did recommend a condition to have a review of the final storm water design once all the site plans are all hashed out,” said Tighe & Bond’s Christy.

“Looking back at the traffic, I think the responses issued to our comments were generally satisfactory.”

She also addressed on-site parking.

“The last (issue) we can talk about is the revised layout. My approach to parking lot circulation is the simpler the better for patrons, at least their knowing where to go is intuitive. That’s why I like this revised layout better than the original.”

In response to a question from board member Marc Morgan, Christy noted the new parking layout results in less storm water runoff.

“The site is pretty impervious,” she said. “It looks like we’re removing some of the impervious (area) and swapping it with green space.”

The new plan calls for a parking area paralleling Congress Street to be one way — from north to south — while creating a grassy area between the parking lot and the street. The previous plan called for a two-way parking area that was completely paved over.

Morgan also expressed concern that the development would lead to increased traffic in the neighborhood.

Christy said that the weekday traffic occurring when both schools were operating “was substantially higher than with this proposed development.

“The challenge is the weekend hours. The trips associated with the peak hours is 12 entering and exiting for a total of 24 cars per hour on a weekend. That could have an impact. Is it substantial compared to traffic going through the area? Not likely.”

Christy added that one condition of approval would require a new traffic study in the future to examine the exact impact of traffic on the neighborhood.

Board member Rick Hayden expressed concern that the new parking plan reduces the number of proposed handicap spaces from six to four. Christy explained that the new layout would still meet ADA (Americans with Disability Act) requirements. She also noted the plan does away with the necessity of requiring wheelchairs to cross from one site of the Congress Street lot to the other, instead placing handicap spaces directly next to the development.

The board ultimately voted to close the public hearing, after which it endorsed the new proposal. A final vote on the site plan, which will include any conditions for approval, will be taken at its next meeting.

In all, 53 new units of intergenerational housing would be created. In addition to the former school buildings, NewVue is proposing construction of a new 22,000 square foot, 2½ story structure that would include housing units, as well as community space and other amenities.

The overall cost of the project is pegged at $30 million, which would be paid for via a number of funding sources, including various tax credits and a combination of state and federal monies.


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