LOWELL — A divided City Council voted Tuesday night to move the city’s high school from its current downtown location to a suburban area across the city, ultimately rejecting a last-minute citizen’s petition to send the issue to a voter referendum.
Despite the 5-4 vote to build a new Lowell High School in the city’s Belvedere neighborhood, several questions about the cost of the approximately $334 million project have been left largely unanswered.
The meeting, which lasted for nearly six hours into early Wednesday morning, was marked by angry outbursts, ad hominen attacks, and verbal confrontations from both spectators and councilors.
Some residents who left the meeting early on Wednesday morning celebrated the council’s decision left in anger. But nearly all agreed with Councilor Corey Belanger’s prediction.
“It looks, tonight, like it will go in favor of Cawley,” Belanger said. “But I’m not so sure this is over.”
Over the past two years, the city has been bitterly divided into two camps: those lobbying for the renovation and expansion of the current school, housed in three sprawling former mill buildings downtown, and those who believe a new building should be constructed next to Cawley Stadium in Belvedere.
Over sixty residents signed up to speak at the council meeting to advocate for their preferred plan. Adults and children carrying placards and homemade signs flooded the hallway outside the council chamber at City Hall.
Proponents of renovation -- including the city’s mayor, the school’s outgoing headmaster and superintendent -- argued that keeping the building’s central location is crucial and that relocating would make it difficult for low-income students to get to school. The 3,100-student school is nearly 70 percent minority, according to state enrollment data.
Advocates for relocating contended that building a new high school will allow students and faculty to reap the benefits of a modern facility and will open up the existing high school structure for commercial use.
They also note that building a new structure will mean that during construction, students can continue to attend school without any disruptions.
Now that the council has voted, the plan will be submitted to the
Massachusetts School Building Authority. However, there’s still a significant number of unknown costs looming over both plans, which were originally estimated to cost north of $330 million.
“There are still a lot of unanswered questions,” said Edward Kennedy, the mayor of Lowell in an interview ahead of the vote. “We’re about to make a decision when we don’t have all the answers. We’ve asked for them and we haven’t gotten them.”
Questions over the project’s cost dominated much of the council’s debate Tuesday night.
Citing a lack of answers, and expressing mistrust in officials, Maria Sheehy, the daughter of former Lowell city manager and state senator Paul Sheehy, introdued a petition asking the council to put the question of the school’s location on the ballot.
A motion for the counil to act on the petition failed, however.
But some local officials felt pressure to keep the project moving.
City officials originally estimated that the state would reimburse the city for 80 percent of the construction expenses. Now, that number has dwindled to 55 percent for the Cawley plan, and 65 percent for the downtown renovation, according to Kennedy.
“We have a limited window of time to move forward with this project. The high school is in bad, bad shape and every day it is getting worse,” said Robert Gignac, a school committee member. “The state is going to consider us for a short period of time, they’re waiting for us to move forward so they can figure out what to do with the rest of their funding. The longer we wait, the more it’s likely that we won’t get the money we need.”
The cost of student transporation, and land takings for the Belvedere locations must also be addressed, officials said.
Forty percent of students currently walk to Lowell High School, Kennedy said. In order to accomodate those students, the mayor said, an estimated 46 buses would need to be chartered.
The Cawley location would also require the use of eminent domain to remove businesses from a nearby road and would likely require a reconfiguration of traffic intersections so that buses and cars could efficiently navigate the area.
The city would also need to put in sidewalks alongside residential properties.
The site is also falls under a state law designed to protect open space. A two-thirds vote of the legislature would be required for the school to be built there. A bill to turn the land over to the city is currently before the state senate.
Councilor David Rourke, who supports the plan to relocate the high school, said in an interview that it would be “key for [Lowell] to maintain economic development” and to use the existing site to help ease the burden on taxpayers.
He said that the city could explore additional options to lessen the costs of busing, and that the next stage of the planning process was determining sources of funding.
“Ultmately, the brand-new building is going to be the best space for optimal learning,” Rourke said.
On the other hand, there are also a series of bureaucratic hurdles and unanswered questions surrounding the plan to renovate the existing high school.
That plan would also invoke eminent domain to push out a dentist’s office so that the school could construct a new field house, and it could also initiate a lengthy legal battle. A number of the buildings are nearly a century old, and some contain asbestos, an external environmental consulting firm found.
“When you open up those buildings, you never know what you’re going to find,” said Robert Gignac, a school committee member. “Those costs could skyrocket.”