West

Should Waltham build its new high school at a religious retreat?

John Hilliard for the Boston Globe
Waltham city officials say they are negotiating the purchase of the Espousal Center, a nearly 50-acre Catholic retreat on Lexington Street.

WALTHAM — City officials are poised to offer up to $18 million for the site of a religious center to build a new Waltham High School, but some residents who use the retreat are calling on them to leave the property alone.

Mayor Jeannette McCarthy says she is negotiating a deal to purchase nearly 50 acres of land owned by the Stigmatine Fathers on Lexington Street, with the hopes that it will become the future home of a new high school.

But residents who use the property as a religious retreat told city officials at two public hearings Wednesday night that the construction would threaten an important part of their spiritual lives.

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Evelyn T. Reilly, who has been a member of the retreat community for 40 years, said the city should keep to a proposal to erect a new building next to the existing high school.

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“It’s been serving the people, but it’s serving the people quietly,” Reilly told the Globe, referring to the retreat. “So most people don’t know what’s going on there.”

The outcry over the Stigmatine property may become another hurdle in the city’s race to build a larger, updated high school to accommodate its surging student population.

Last month, a city school building committee voted to build a new high school on the grounds of the existing one. McCarthy has argued against that location, as it means years of construction next to the existing school.

They chose it over the city-owned former home of the Fernald Developmental Center on Trapelo Road, and the Stigmatine site, which is directly across the street from the Waltham High School property.

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Interest in using Fernald ended when state and local historic officials opposed construction that would mean demolition of historic buildings and require searching for a possible unmarked cemetery on the property. And the Stigmatine site wasn’t owned by the city at the time of the vote.

But since McCarthy asked the City Council for money to negotiate a deal, several members of the School Committee want to see if Stigmatine can be used for the high school instead. Council president Gary J. Marchese told the Globe in a recent interview that he expects councilors to support the purchase in a vote later in December.

Representatives for the Stigmatine Fathers could not be reached for comment.

During Wednesday’s back-to-back public hearings on the proposed Stigmatine purchase and the high school project, McCarthy said that the owners were considering a housing project on the Stigmatine site if the city doesn’t buy it.

“That proposal indicated a very large 40B development,” McCarthy told residents, referring to Chapter 40B, the state’s affordable housing law.

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McCarthy said an “issue of discussion” is whether it is possible to buy an undeveloped portion of the Stigmatine property, while the Stigmatine Fathers retain the section with the existing retreat buildings. McCarthy also said the city wouldn’t push the existing owners out.

Residents at Wednesday night’s sessions showed strong support for a new high school, regardless of where it is built.

“I can’t sit here and say that the city was just going to go in and have a proposal to kick everybody out,” McCarthy said during the hearing.

Residents at Wednesday night’s sessions were interested in a chance to use the Stigmatine property, but showed strong support for a new high school, regardless of where it is built.

Allison Campbell, whose daughter is a Waltham High School student, said she’d support a new high school project at either the current location or on the Stigmatine property.

“I’m all in favor for it... I think it’s a long time coming,” Campbell told the Globe.

Sophie McIntyre, who has four children in the school system, said officials should do whatever is in the best interest for the city.

“The biggest factor is we need a new school. Ideally, it would be at a different site, but if those sites don’t work out, we still need a new high school,” McIntyre told the Globe.

Philip Vahdat said he would like to preserve the wooded area on the existing high school property, part of which could be affected by construction.

That wooded section of the school-owned property is also adjacent to Storer Conservation area, which consists of more than 100 acres of open space. But if there isn’t another location to build, a new high school is needed.

“I understand that educational needs have changed. I don’t like destroying things. But it seems to me that it’s necessary. You have to upgrade,” said Vahdat.

A new high school built on the current property could cost an estimated $283 million, but McCarthy has said she believes she can keep costs to about $250 million. The city is also seeking financial support from the Massachusetts School Building Authority for the project.

The next public hearing on the high school project is scheduled for Dec. 6.

John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.