Bridgewater is preparing an $8.8 million historical reconstruction of its Academy Building as part of a multipronged plan to upgrade and provide future uses for its aging municipal office facilities.
Voters recently allowed the Academy Building project and the overall building program to move forward when they approved a $5.27 million debt exclusion, or temporary tax increase, to help fund some of the costs.
The program is intended to meet the town’s longstanding need to consolidate and improve its office spaces, many of which are in poor condition and unusable. Most recently, in June, the town offices in the Academy Building had to be moved after the discovery of new leaks raised health concerns.
“I think it’s critical to the town to address some of these issues now before the buildings decay much further,” said Town Manager Michael Dutton, who developed the plan. “We don’t want to be the owners of decaying buildings. We want to see those buildings return to productivity and, where appropriate, returned to the private sector where we can start to receive some tax benefit from them.”
Under the plan, which depends on the town finalizing the rest of a funding package, Bridgewater’s scattered offices would be largely centralized in a revamped Academy Building.
The program also calls for renovating the vacant Memorial Building for use as a town historical records facility; leasing Town Hall to a developer to renovate for commercial use; and selling the vacant McElwain School for a use to be determined.
The downtown fire station’s roof would be replaced, enabling it to stay open while the town seeks funds to replace it with a new station on the west side of Bridgewater, which has seen significant residential growth.
Not part of the plan, but sharing in the debt exclusion, is the replacement of the Middle School roof.
The debt exclusion provides $3.45 million for the Academy Building project, which calls for the town to fund the remaining costs with $5.15 million from its Community Preservation Act fund and about $200,000 in grants it plans to pursue. The council is expected to approve the CPA funding request soon.
Another $1.67 million of the revenue would cover the town’s share of the $3.55 million Middle School roof project; the state is funding the rest. The tax increase would also provide $49,000 for the fire station project and $100,000 for the Memorial Building project, which will make that building more handicap-accessible and provide other small upgrades.
Tim Fitzgibbons, the Town Council president, said a key virtue of the plan is that it is comprehensive.
“It’s not a piecemeal approach,” he said. “We’ve gone through those for too many years, and it doesn’t make sense to keep doing that.”
Redoing the Academy Building would help in “putting the town’s best face forward to potential businesses in the downtown,” Fitzgibbons added.
The Academy, Memorial, Town Hall, and fire station buildings are all in the Central Square area of downtown, while the McElwain building is about a mile-and-a-half from the downtown.
The debt exclusion would add $58 to the annual tax bill for an average single-family home, but taxpayers wouldnot see a net tax increase from the measure because several other debt exclusions are set to expire, Dutton said.
The town separately has begun repairing the ceiling of the Memorial Building so it can house some of the town offices that had been in the Academy Building. The original plan was to finish that project before relocating Academy Building employees, but the town had to shift gears when it was forced to vacate that building.
Outlining his building plan in a memo to councilors in June, Dutton said Bridgewater has about 50,000 square feet of potential office space, much more than the 15,000 square feet it needs. But he said only about 3,500 square feet is usable.
He said the plaster ceilings in Town Hall and the Memorial Building are falling; town offices in the Memorial Building were moved from the building last fall because of the problem. All the key buildings have water damage, and none meet handicap-access rules, among other deficiencies.
“In short, the buildings are crumbling at an alarming rate,” Dutton wrote.
Dutton said officials believe it is important for town offices to be a presence in the downtown and that the Academy Building is best suited to be the consolidated site because of its size and its role as “the iconic symbol of Bridgewater.” He also said the Memorial Building lacks parking and Town Hall, due to its location, would be ideal for commercial reuse.
Built in 1868 as a private school, the Academy Building was leased to the town as a high school starting in 1875. It was converted to town offices in about 1952 and for police use in 1973, reverting to town office use in 2003.
In addition to water leaks and mold, the building suffers from a faulty heating system, no air conditioning, and windows that cannot open. It also does not meet fire or handicap-access codes, and has high utility costs.
The project calls for a major reconstruction of the building that would preserve, or where necessary replicate, its historical features, Dutton said.
John Gerrish, chairman of the Municipal Building Committee, called the Academy Building project an “exciting move forward.”
“It’s going to be great for the consolidation of municipal services into a nice historical building that is in dire need of repair,” he said. “It’s actually an eyesore right now, and when it’s remodeled and restored it’s going to be a nice anchor for Central Square and kick-start the revitalization [of that area].”
Town officials hope to break ground on the Academy Building project in about a year, and start the Memorial Building work right after that. The Middle School roof replacement will occur next summer. The fire station work is currently targeted for next spring.