Eight months after voters gave a green light to the project, Dracut is moving ahead with plans to replace its venerable town hall with a modern, larger building. An architectural firm is beginning the design of the $8 million project, according to town manager Dennis E. Piendak.
“Our goal is to design it now and bid it over the winter months, and then hopefully break ground in the spring,” he said.
Town Meeting in November authorized funding for the project, which calls for constructing a town hall of about 20,000 square feet on the site of the existing building on Arlington Street and two adjacent properties the town purchased in June. The current town hall, which dates to 1893, will be demolished.
The project will enable the town to adhere to a consent agreement it reached after a 2005 federal court complaint for failing to provide adequate access for people with disabilities at town hall and two other buildings that house town offices, Piendak said. To allow more time to address the complaint, it was amended twice, most recently in June 2011.
Currently, because of the lack of accessible meeting space in town hall, selectmen and other boards have to hold their meetings at the renovated Harmony Hall next to the Dracut Historical Society building on Lakeview Avenue.
In addition to providing accessibility, more space, and efficiency, the project “affords us the opportunity to create a town center, which Dracut does not have,” Piendak said.
The site is close to several other community-oriented buildings, including Parker Memorial Library, a church, and a grange hall, as well as Veterans Park. But while sometimes referred to as the Dracut center, the area has never had the feel of a traditional New England downtown, Piendak said.
The recent purchase of the two properties will help, since the town now owns much of the property in the two blocks between Bridge Street and Montaup Avenue, Piendak said. One of the properties, at 52 Arlington St., was purchased at auction for $196,000. The town purchased the other, at 57 Lafayette St., for $290,000.
“It’s a very exciting time,” Piendak said, noting that construction on a $61 million renovation and expansion of the high school also is scheduled to begin this month. “Dracut over the years has met its building infrastructure needs,” he added, noting that over the last 13 years, the town has built a library, a police station, a central fire station, a fire substation, and a junior high school, and doubled the size of the senior center.
The core of the existing town hall was built in 1883 as a two-room schoolhouse, according to Harvey Gagnon, president of the Dracut Historical Society and a member of the town’s Permanent Building Committee. It was converted to town hall in 1898 and has seen several additions since.
It became a town hall when a new school building — now the town hall annex — opened a block away. From about 1905 until the current library was built in 1926, the library occupied the second floor of town hall.
In 1939, a wing was added on each side of the building, and smaller additions were constructed in later years, Gagnon said. But since it became town hall, the building has never had a major overhaul.
Because of its multiple deficiencies, officials concluded that it would not be practical to renovate and expand the existing town hall. They said the building, with all the changes it has seen over the years, also was not worth saving as a historical structure.
“It’s been transformed to the point where it is not even recognizable as the original building,” Gagnon said.
In 2006, Town Meeting approved funding to build a new town hall, but voters at the ballot box rejected a proposed debt exclusion, or temporary tax increase, to pay for the project.
Under the current plan, the project will be funded without a tax increase. Piendak said other debts have expired, and $1.3 million earmarked for debt payment has been generated in reserve funds.
Piendak said initial indications are the the existing building can be demolished at the end of the project, so that town offices will not have to be relocated during construction. The overall project is expected to be completed in the summer of 2014.