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Proposal for new high school divides Arlington

Jeff Thielman, chairman of the AHS Building Committee, thinks the community is behind the plan to build a new school.Joanne Rathe/ Globe Staff

When Carl Wagner thinks of Arlington High School, he pictures a building with a beautiful columned façade facing a wide open, park-like lawn along Massachusetts Avenue.

But the Arlington High School Building Committee has other ideas for that space. While members say they appreciate the history of the old school, the chairman said it’s time to build a 21st-century building that provides the best education possible for the students of Arlington.

As the committee closes in on choosing a final design for a new Arlington High School, a group of residents has banded together to oppose initial plans that call for a new building that will take up much of the green space.


Save Our Historic AHS has created a website (sohahs.us) and Facebook page and started a petition signed by more than 300 residents, urging town officials to reconsider key design elements.

“The result will be the loss of one of the few green spaces in our town and a loss forever of a great architectural view and space,’’ said Wagner, a member of the group. “We’re not saying that the school shouldn’t be fixed. We’re saying this project isn’t going in the right direction.’’

Jeff Thielman, chairman of the AHS Building Committee, said the committee’s decision to go with new construction is based on cost, the educational plan, and a desire to have a net-zero footprint.

“Everything is designed based on the educational plan and vision,’’ he said. “The educational plan drives what we do on this property and every decision we make — what’s best for students, what’s best educationally.’’

Meanwhile, a historic preservation advocacy group has designated Arlington High School as one of the state’s most endangered historic resources. While the building is not protected against demolition by law, the president of Preservation Massachusetts said parts of it are unique and worth saving: the 1914 Fusco Building, and the 1932 Collomb Building.


Jim Igoe said the Arlington High School project highlights the threat to historic school buildings under the Massachusetts School Building Authority regulations. He said the regulations include rigid timelines that don’t allow for proper preservation review at the state level. Once the MSBA approves the final design, no changes can be made. The MSBA is partnering to pay for the building, which could cost over $300 million.

“A multimillion-dollar project such as this should be a wakeup call to the very tenuous future our historic school buildings have if changes are not made again to the MSBA process,’’ Igoe said. “This is not just a preservation issue, but also one of environmental and ecological impact as well.’’

The estimated cost — $309 million — would be among the most expensive school construction projects in the state. Somerville High School, a $256 million project that includes renovation and new construction, got underway last spring. Belmont residents recently voted for a tax increase to help fund a $295 million school serving grades 7 to 12.

The proposed cost in Arlington is higher than some other projects, in part, because the building hosts several additional functions, such as administrative offices, community education, and a preschool.

Thielman said the committee selected the new construction option in June and the initial design was approved by the MSBA in August.

He said the decision came down to whether the town should spend more money to retain original buildings while making concessions on the education plan, or spending less money for a new sustainable building that would serve students for years to come.


The design preferred by the building committee preserves part of the front green; features a layout with a central “main street’’ axis that includes the cafeteria, library learning common, and central gathering hub; offers four main wings – STEAM, performing arts, humanities, and a gymnasium; creates outdoor learning opportunities for performances and education, and space for lunch meetings or social gatherings; and has direct entrances to the preschool and administrative offices.

The committee has gathered input from the community and will consider different variations to the new construction design, Thielman said. Already, he said, the designers have incorporated more green space and will see if maintaining the façade is possible.

The revised options will be discussed at a public forum at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 27, at Arlington Town Hall. The committee hopes to vote on a final design in February and send the plan to the MSBA for approval so that residents can vote on it in the spring.

Of most concern to Wagner is the plan to tear down the entire building, including a central building that features copies of elements from the Massachusetts State House and the Old Statehouse.

“We would like to help them see how they can make the project meet our goals and still be built to the high education standards they have aimed at,’’ Wagner said.


But Thielman thinks most of the community is behind the committee’s plan to build new.

“The feeling we got from the community, especially from parents whose children are younger, is build a brand a new school,’’ he said.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.