Newton city officials are considering part of Albemarle Field in Newtonville as a potential future home for a senior center — but many residents worry the proposal would mean giving up some open space to make room for it.
Mayor Ruthanne Fuller praised a working group’s selection of the field, saying it would allow the city to find room for the proposed facility and preserve existing green space.
“Residents in Newton will be able to enjoy everything that they currently enjoy at Albemarle, and [will] have an additional, complimentary, wonderful community center focused on seniors,” Fuller said.
But the selection of Albemarle has some neighbors concerned they’ll lose a treasured community resource close to the Day Middle School, said resident Cedar Pruitt.
Residents support an improved senior center, but worry about traffic impacts and future expansion at the site, she said.
“People have used the word ‘heartbroken’ at the thought of building on this park. It’s really shocking that they’ve targeted this park and middle school resource as a place to build . . . it crosses the line for so many people,” Pruitt said.
Newton has long sought to improve its senior center, currently located on Walnut Street in a building erected in the 1930s as a branch library. That building is too small, limits offerings, and forces seniors onto waiting lists for classes and programming, according to officials.
Fuller has argued that need is strong for a new, expanded senior center: The city is home to the fifth-highest senior population in the state, and it is projected that one-third of all Newton residents will be age 60 or older by 2030.
Starting more than a year ago, the city launched a process to find a new home for the senior center, which also got a new name — the Newton Center for Active Living, or NewCAL.
Officials compiled a list of nearly 150 city and privately owned properties, ultimately narrowed them down to 24, and then again shrinking that list to a half-dozen possibilities in August.
Fuller said one priority during the site selection process was protecting parks, and officials eliminated parcels where a senior center facility would replace them.
In the case of Albemarle, officials are looking at the field’s Gath Pool and nearby buildings as the spot where a proposed two- or three-story center would go, she said. A new facility would include a replacement pool.
Officials have been holding public meetings about the proposal; the next session on the project is scheduled for Thursday, Sept. 19, at 7 p.m. in Room 111 of the city’s Education Center at 100 Walnut St.
Fuller said a decision on whether to use the site will need approval from the City Council and Parks and Recreation Commission, with input from the Council on Aging, the city’s Design Review Committee, and from neighbors. A decision on the issue isn’t expected until sometime next year.
“That is an exciting and promising location for NewCAL,” Fuller said.
But opposition to using public parks for the project is high in Newton: Nearly 6,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling on Fuller to not use parkland for NewCAL. A separate website — preservenewtonparks.com — calls on residents to “Save Albemarle Field.”
Instead of Albemarle, resident Valerie Pirri said she supports upgrading the existing Walnut Street senior center and establishing satellite senior programs in other locations in the city, such as schools or through partnerships with civic organizations.
“If they thought about this strategically . . . they could address people’s needs as a whole,” Pirri said.
The Newtonville park is located in Ward 2, along the border with the city’s Ward 3. There are 11 candidates running for City Council representing both wards in November.
Of the nine who responded to inquiries from the Globe, all support expanding services for seniors but many question using open space for a new facility.
Ward 3 Councilor-at-large Andrea Kelley opposes losing any play fields at Albemarle for NewCAL, as those are the most used fields in Newton, she said.
“The Mayor and Building Commissioner [Josh] Morse have vowed that their plan will not mean a loss of any fields, so I am eager to see the plans and explanation for how this may work,” Kelley said.
Ward 2 Councilor Emily Norton criticized the Albemarle site because it is not centrally located and is more difficult for residents on the south side of Newton to reach, she said.
“It is not easily accessible by public transportation so will create more traffic and reliance on cars at a time when we are trying to encourage non-car travel,” Norton said.
Bryan Barash, who is running against Norton, said he didn’t support using parkland for the project, and is concerned about how the city will fund it.
“I have a lot of questions that haven’t been answered yet and I do not think we are ready to settle on a definitive location yet,” Barash said.
Ward 2 Councilor-at-large Susan Albright said she is concerned whether people can walk to the location, and whether it can be considered smart growth.
“I was against putting the building in a park but I will keep an open mind regarding the use of hardscape only. I also want to know how the city can afford the expanded program when we struggle with the funding program at the existing senior center,” Albright said.
Tarik Lucas, a candidate for Ward 2 councilor-at-large, said the city has many needs, and residents are concerned about property taxes and the rising cost of living in Newton. If elected he said he would work with Fuller to find another location for the center.
“While there is general support for a better senior center and senior services, I’m not sure there is sufficient public support for spending millions of dollars to build a luxurious new multi-generational community athletic complex or NewCAL,” Lucas said.
Jennifer Bentley, a Ward 2 councilor-at-large candidate, said she has a conflict of interest in the issue, as she just started working for a firm involved with the project, and she serves as co-president of the Day Middle School PTO.
Bentley has some issues with the site, including the location, parking, and traffic impacts. She was pleased that Fuller “listened to the concerns of the many citizens of Newton” who did not want a center built on park or green space.
“If the new building sticks within the existing hardscape, and gives the Gath Pool recreation area some much needed improvements, it seems like that would be a win-win for the City,” Bentley said.
Some councilors have floated their own alternatives for a future senior center location, including Jake Auchincloss and James Cote.
Auchincloss, a councilor-at-large representing Ward 2, said he wanted to “seriously explore” the potential for a more limited program on the Newton Centre parking lot at the corner of Beacon and Langley streets.
“The facility on the triangle could be a public-private partnership that produced a walkable, accessible senior program in the heart of Newton’s biggest village,” Auchincloss said, and could be complemented by a new pool and gym on the Albemarle property.
Cote, a Ward 3 councilor-at-large, called for upgrading “existing Senior Center assets” in Newtonville and using other city-owned properties, such as the former Newton Centre library.
Cote said that “taking away open space and park land for buildings is counter-productive.”
Ward 3 councilor candidate Julia Malakie said the city should consider other property it owns, such as a former Park and Recreation facility on Crescent Street or acquire land or a building, preferably from an tax-exempt institution.
“The city appears to have chosen parks as an expedient solution, not last resort, and rushed the announcement of Albemarle to short-circuit growing opposition to using park space,” Malakie said.
John Hilliard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.