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State rejects plan for $244 million downtown school

The Massachusetts School Building Authority is putting the brakes on a $244 million school construction project in downtown Boston, citing high costs and other logistical issues associated with building above an interstate highway ramp. It would have been the most expensive school building ever constructed in Massachusetts.

The state remains committed to a project for Boston Arts Academy and the Josiah Quincy Upper School, which would have shared a building on Kneeland Street, but is urging Boston to find a more suitable site.

Under the proposal, the city would have had to spend about $31 million to cap a portion of an Interstate 93 ramp and to build an unrestricted roadway through the center of the building's ground floor, providing the state Highway Department access to a facility on adjacent land.


"I think it was worth investigating this," Jack McCarthy, executive director of the School Building Authority, said in an interview Thursday. But he added, "When it came down to the dollars and cents, we had to question it: Does this really make sense?"

The authority officially notified the city and school officials about the Boston Arts/Upper Quincy project in a letter e-mailed late Wednesday afternoon, dashing hopes of students, parents, and staff who have been pushing for years for a new school facility.

Interim Superintendent John McDonough said in a statement that building a school on the Kneeland Street site, known as Parcel 25, was "ambitious."

"Although the Parcel 25 proposal would be more cost-
effective than other options we have examined, the site adds a unique layer of complexity that could change the overall cost impact," McDonough said. "Regardless of location, students in these two highly successful schools deserve to have facilities that serve them well."

The project faced public skepticism when it was announced last year because of the complexity of building on the site and an initial estimate of $261 million. The site is owned by the state Highway Department, which would have leased it to the city for $1.


While that price tag dropped as the project was fine-tuned, officials expected there was a high potential for cost overruns because of the challenges of the site. The building would have had approximately 10 floors, requiring two banks of elevators, a less than ideal situation in event of an evacuation.

The Highway Department initially sought private development for the site, issuing a request for proposals in late 2012 that secured at least two bidders.

The decision is the latest setback for Boston as it attempts to build its first school facilities in more than a decade, putting it far behind such suburban districts as Norwood and Wellesley, which have secured money from the state since a moratorium on funding was lifted in 2007.

Earlier this year, Boston finally won approval for state funding to build another school, the Dearborn STEM Academy. But that project has stirred opposition from neighbors who say they never realized the proposal called for demolishing the Dearborn's more than century-old building, which they consider a historic gem.

Now, Boston Arts and the Quincy Upper must return to the daunting task of finding available land in the city's densely developed downtown. Both schools consider the Chinatown and Theatre District areas to be best suited for new digs. The Quincy programs tie into the cultural heritage of Chinatown, while Boston Arts has partnerships in the area.


Both schools are located in woefully inadequate facilities.

The Quincy Upper School's programs are split between a former elementary school on Arlington Street in Bay Village and a building on Washington Street in Chinatown. Boston Arts resides in an old postal warehouse in the Fenway, intended to be a temporary location. Students there dance in crowded studios and sit nearly elbow to elbow in art classes.

"Everyone is extremely disappointed, but no one is surprised" about the state's decision, said Ginny Brennan, a member of the Boston Arts facilities committee, whose daughter graduated from the school. "You realize the loss every year of not having a new school building. It tugs at your heart strings that this has not happened yet."

The state would have covered 74 percent of the eligible costs of the project, but many aspects, such as capping the highway ramp and building the access road, would not have qualified. The city has already spent nearly $4 million on a feasibility study and schematic designs.

The project, launched under Mayor Thomas M. Menino, eventually gained the support of Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

Matthew Cahill, executive director of the Boston Finance Commission, said other sites could emerge for the two schools if the Boston Redevelopment Authority, the Department of Neighborhood Development, and the School Department work together and reevaluate the use of some city-owned land.

"It's going to take some creative thinking," Cahill said.


James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.