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Newton residents file lawsuit to block proposed replacement of senior center in Newtonville

The Newton Senior Center.Leslie Anderson/GLOBE STAFF

A group of Newton residents is asking a Middlesex Superior Court judge to block the city from spending money on a proposed replacement for the Newton Senior Center, and order a city commission to reconsider whether the existing property should be protected from demolition.

The Senior Center — which was built in the late 1930s as the Newtonville Branch Library and converted into its present use about three decades ago — is being eyed by city leaders as the future home of the Newton Center for Active Living, which would serve as a home for its senior services.

The proposed project would replace the existing 11,000-square-foot building at 345 Walnut St. with a new 32,000- to 33,000-square-foot facility.

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In a 24-page complaint filed May 23 by more than a dozen Newton residents, the plaintiffs argued the project would destroy a historic building and an adjoining public park that had been upgraded using taxpayer-funded Community Preservation Act money.

“The City’s planned demolition and park conversion ... would result in the loss of one of Newton’s most iconic buildings,” the court complaint said.

Fred Arnstein, one of the plaintiffs and president of Neighbors for a Better Newtonville, said the city’s current proposal is a reasonable design, but needs to be on a different site.

“If Newton tears down historic buildings; if it builds on city parkland; we will be sacrificing the very things that make Newton special,” Arnstein said in a statement.

As of Monday, the city had not filed a response to the complaint in Superior Court.

“Mayor [Ruthanne] Fuller values historic preservation, green space, the village center of Newtonville, the City approval process and State laws as we move forward with a well-designed senior center,” a city spokeswoman said in a brief statement Monday.

The existing Classical Revival-style building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was designed by architect E. Donald Robb, who also designed the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, the complaint said. The Newton building also includes two stained glass windows designed by Charles J. Connick.

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The proposed facility would cost about $20 million, according to a June 1 memo on construction costs released by the city Monday. Renovating and expanding the current building would add several million dollars more to the project cost, according to the city.

The Senior Center site was chosen following a lengthy review process that included other locations, including Albemarle Field in Newtonville.

Earlier this year, a new facility at the Walnut Street site was estimated to cost $16.65 million. Labor and supply chain shortages have driven up construction costs, according to the city memo.

The fate of the existing Senior Center building has been the source of an intense debate in Newton.

Early this year, a group of residents, including members of Neighbors for a Better Newtonville, petitioned city leaders to preserve the building’s facade.

Newton’s Historical Commission has received more than 600 pages of e-mails about the proposed project, which has also sparked demonstrations outside the building.

The Historical Commission, which is appointed by the mayor and confirmed by city councilors, placed an 18-month demolition delay on the property, which expired in March.

On March 24, the commission voted 5 to 2 against a local landmark nomination for the property. The nomination is an early step in the city’s ordinance process to determine whether a property should be designated as a local landmark for preservation.

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In their court complaint, the plaintiffs argued that the commission’s vote was based on the application of “incorrect criteria” under the city’s landmarking ordinance.

The plaintiffs argued in the complaint that at least one commissioner who voted against the property’s landmark nomination cited criteria that considered the senior center property’s “context in relation to the City’s policies and adopted plans and the property’s surrounding area.”

The plaintiffs argued that criteria was not included as part of the nomination phase of the city’s landmark ordinance.

“To the contrary, there was overwhelming evidence in the record that the Subject Property qualified for landmark nomination under the correct criteria of the Landmark Preservation Ordinance,” the complaint said.

They want the judge to order the Newton Historical Commission to consider whether the Senior Center property qualifies for a landmark designation using “only the criteria” in the city’s landmark nomination ordinance, according to the complaint.

They also argued the project should not impact a public park in front of the building.

According to the complaint, about $271,000 in Community Preservation Act funds were used to help upgrade the library grounds in front of the building, which was called “The Park at The Newton Senior Center,” according to the community preservation project 2004 filing.

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The city’s then-Board of Aldermen approved the funding in 2005, according to the court complaint.

In the complaint, the plaintiffs argued the project’s use of park grounds violates the state constitutional guarantee to the “right to clean air and water, freedom from excessive and unnecessary noise, and the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic qualities of their environment.”

The plaintiffs asked that a Middlesex Superior Court judge enjoin the city from appropriating or spending money on the project, or build on the park’s grounds, before it complies with the state constitutional amendment.

The next community meeting for the project is scheduled for June 16 at 6:30 p.m., according to the project website, newcal.projects.nv5.com.


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.