Boston’s proposal to construct a shared building for Boston Arts Academy and the Upper Quincy School near Chinatown could go down as the most expensive public school project ever in Massachusetts, with initial estimates exceeding $261 million.
The price tag dwarfs that of the current record-holder, the three-year-old Newton North High School, a nearly $200 million project that sparked a national debate over suburban excess.
The Boston estimates are tracking higher even though the two Boston schools would educate far fewer students than those enrolled at Newton North: 1,360 for Boston Arts and the Upper Quincy combined, compared with 2,000 at Newton North.
Interim Superintendent John McDonough said that the estimate reflects the high cost of construction in downtown Boston, one of the most densely developed areas in the city, where vacant land is a rare commodity. The two schools would be on Kneeland Street on state land near Interstate 93, and are intended to open in 2017.
“The cost of construction in a downtown location is more expensive than what it would be in the suburbs,” McDonough said, noting that combining the two schools into one building provides economies of scale. “This is a more advantageous plan than doing construction at two different sites.”
It remains unclear how much Boston taxpayers would pay for the project. Boston qualifies for about 74 percent in state reimbursement, but only for eligible construction costs, which will be negotiated.
McDonough stressed that the initial estimate was preliminary and that a more solid figure would be calculated next year, after completion of schematic designs. At that point, he said, school officials would decide whether to proceed with construction.
Difficulty in securing land has been one of Boston’s biggest obstacles in constructing schools in recent years. While suburbs such as Wellesley, Norwood, and Tewksbury have built new high schools, Boston has not completed a major school construction project since the state lifted a moratorium on funding about six years ago under a revamped program.
The deteriorating state of the city’s school buildings has emerged as an issue in the race to succeed Mayor Thomas M. Menino. Both contenders, Councilor at Large John R. Connolly and state Representative Martin J. Walsh, have pitched school-construction proposals.
In a statement, Walsh reserved judgment on the Boston Arts/Upper Quincy project until more information comes out.
“Projects like these require a robust public process, as well as a look at how projects fit into the larger plan to ensure that every child in Boston has a great school to attend,” Walsh said. “I understand there is a need for upgraded facilities, and I have a 10-year, $1 billion plan that addresses that need, but we need to take a look at where we have empty seats and underutilized buildings and make decisions in a comprehensive way.”
Connolly said: “Students at the Boston Arts Academy and the Quincy Upper School have been waiting for years for the new school facilities they deserve. Although the state will reimburse a portion of these costs, it is well past time that the BPS showed how it intends to complete and pay for these important school building projects by producing a comprehensive long-term facilities plan.”
The city looked at more than two dozen parcels of land in and around the Theatre District and Chinatown. School officials say those neighborhoods, because of the unique program needs, are ideal locations.
The Upper Quincy, where more than half the students are Asian, has integrated lessons about Chinatown and Chinese culture and language into the curriculum, while Boston Arts has partnerships with several institutions in the Theatre District.
Boston Arts, located in a former US Postal Service warehouse in the Fenway, was working with the state to build a multiple-story building near the Wang Center. But the design proved too costly. Similarly, the Upper Quincy School, which is scattered among three locations in the Chinatown area, considered construction over the Massachusetts Turnpike, but that, too, proved too difficult and costly.
Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, said locating the schools in a new building might be the best option, even if it is more expensive than the typical school project in Massachusetts.
“Before you can say it’s a good deal or not, you need to know what the whole picture looks like,” Tyler said.
The project is in the earliest stages of development; the School Committee has not weighed in yet. Mary Tamer, a School Committee member, said she was caught off guard by the cost estimate.
“It’s daunting, to say the least,” Tamer said. “Given the facilities budget we have been working under all these years — we have more than $500 million in facility needs — the thought of adding significantly to that existing burden causes me to pause.”
The city generated the cost estimates for a Wednesday meeting of the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which will vote on whether to pursue schematic designs for the Upper Quincy/Boston Arts project.
Members will also cast a similar vote on another Boston project, a $68.4 million renovation of Dearborn Middle School, an underperforming school in Roxbury.
Dot Joyce, a Menino spokeswoman, said the mayor stands behind the Boston Arts/Upper Quincy project. “You should not put a dollar figure on what is right for student learning,” she said. “The schools are currently in spaces not conducive to learning and will be in spaces conducive to learning.”James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.