A Newton residents organization said it is applauding a move by city leaders to purchase land adjacent to the Senior Center’s property on Walnut Street, but repeated their calls to preserve the existing building and an adjoining public park.
Newton officials are proposing a $20 million project to replace the center at 345 Walnut St. with the Newton Center for Active Living to serve the city’s growing senior population.
On Monday, Neighbors for a Better Newtonville called on Mayor Ruthanne Fuller to consider redesigning the new building so that a park in front of the senior center is preserved.
The organization is suing the city in Middlesex Superior Court to block the existing senior center’s demolition. In court papers, they also argued that the project would damage a public park located in front of the center, and that the city’s historical commission failed to follow proper procedures on a proposal to preserve the building.
“Parkland on Walnut Street is immediately visible from that major street, so it will be used to a much greater extent than parkland created behind a new Senior Center. Further, the historic nature of the building and the existing setback are major contributions to making the Newtonville village center such an attractive place for residents and visitors,” the statement said.
“If a redesigned Senior Center is not feasible, perhaps it is time to recognize that this parcel is just too small for the Senior Center that Newton deserves,” the group said.
Supporters of the proposed NewCAL project at the Walnut Street property have said a larger, more accessible building is needed to serve the city’s residents.
But the proposal to replace the aging senior center with a modern facility has split the city, as preservationists argue that the historic building should not be demolished.
The proposed facility would be roughly triple the size of the existing 11,000-square-foot senior center, which was erected in the 1930s as Newtonville’s public library branch.
In a statement Monday, Fred Arnstein, the president of Neighbors for a Better Newtonville, repeated opposition to demolition of the current senior center, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“Allowing demolition of this building would set a dangerous precedent. We will continue to oppose the City’s willingness to sacrifice our parks and historic buildings,” Arnstein said in the statement.
Earlier this month, Fuller announced a $1.5 million agreement to purchase an abutting property at 47 Walnut Place. The deal calls for the current residents to remain at the property, and the city will take charge of the parcel when it becomes vacant.
Fuller said the city plans to take down the existing two-family home, and use the land as open space for the NewCAL project. Combined with the senior center parcel, the property would be about eight-tenths of an acre. Fuller has said
Along with open space, Josh Morse, the city’s building commissioner, has told city councilors in a July 1 memo that the additional property will not change the proposed design for NewCAL
Along with open space, he told councilors that future potential use of the additional land could include additional parking.
The neighbors group pointed to those potential uses Monday, and said the new facility “will need more space for both of these important needs.”
In the neighborhood group’s statement, the organization said the combined property would be “substantially less” than the 2 to 2.5 acres needed for NewCAL, according to a 2019 Parks and Recreation Commission presentation.
The group on Monday pointed to that report, which also said the center’s parcel at 345 Walnut St. was “way too small to support the ever-growing program.”
In 2019, when the report was issued, the NewCAL Working Group had proposed part of Albemarle Field as the project’s site following a citywide review of properties, but city leaders ultimately abandoned that option following opposition from some residents.
Fuller announced in August 2020 that NewCAL would be located at the existing Senior Center, and the NewCAL Working Group recommended erecting a new building at the Walnut Street site in a report released about a year later.
John Hilliard can be reached at email@example.com.