A few weeks ago, I sent out a message soliciting your input on the Facilities Master Plan (FMP) that had been approved by the current Council; specifically, phase 2 of the FMP, which would involve the demolition of the existing Community/Senior Center and Library on Auden St. and the construction of new facilities on the site of the existing Public Works Maintenance Facility (PWM) at the corner of College and Milton. At the same time, I also attended the February and March meetings of the Senior Services Board (SSB), in part to listen as they discussed their feelings on the potential benefits that could come from a new facility.
Since then, I’ve received a lot of feedback, which has taken multiple forms. Members of the SSB, along with other residents, while very respectful of the need for broader community buy-in before taking a step as major as demolishing the existing facilities on Auden, have expressed understandable excitement regarding the numerous enhancements that could be included in the design of a new structure. These range from matters as basic as making the facility fully ADA-compliant (which our existing facility is not), to more far-reaching enhancements, such as the inclusion of informal gathering areas and other design elements to encourage increased socialization and interaction, as well as types of programming not feasible in the current facility. Other residents have also recognized the other opportunities that a new facility might afford, including greater energy efficiency, expanded parking and the potential to add outdoor facilities. These are all good ideas, and they would no doubt add to the health and quality of life of our residents, young, old and in-between.
However, on the flipside, both in e-mails and in my face-to-face meetings while block walking, I’ve heard many residents express concerns about both the proposed relocation of the Community/Senior Center and Library, as well as the FMP as a whole. Several residents have expressed opposition to the relocation, citing both the desirability of having the Community Center in its current, high-profile location across from the elementary school and the ballfields, as well as the attractive architecture of the current library building. Other residents have cited the sustainability benefits of renovating the existing buildings vs. constructing a wholly new facility. Still others have expressed broader concerns about taking on as large-scale a program as the FMP, which, if carried through to the end, would completely redesign the look of our City Center, feeling that any such project, and any funding for it, should come before the whole community for a vote before anything is done. Many of these residents have likened the FMP to the “Super Block” or “church land swap” proposal that caused community-wide angst in 2014 – 2015, and ultimately resulted in the termination of the then-City Manager.
While it is true that the City did conduct two town halls last April, these were attended by less than one-third of 1% of residents, and they did not address any specifics of design or construction as to any particular building contemplated by the FMP. And, while it is also true that I voted, along with Mayor Sample and other members of the current council, to approve the FMP, it was with the express understanding that the FMP did not automatically commit the City to any spending and that community input would be solicited at each phase before any action would be taken, most especially with regard to the Community/Senior Center and Library.
With that in mind, and taking into account the feedback that I’ve received from you to date, I make the following commitments to you:
- I pledge not to vote to approve any design contract for a new Community/Senior Center and/or Library until there has first been a meaningful, proactive effort by the City to engage residents and solicit their input, in the form of town hall(s), citizen surveys and the like, and their feedback has clearly shown a broad desire on the part of the community to move forward with the replacement of the existing facility; and
- I further pledge to vote against any effort to fund the construction of a new Community/Senior Center and/or Library using any form of debt other than a General Obligation Bond, which would require a City-wide election to approve. A construction contract cannot be awarded until the funding is already in place, so this would give residents the final say as to what would happen.
As I continue walking our neighborhood and knocking on doors, I look forward to meeting you and hearing what you want for West U’s future.
John P. Barnes