Reading, MA — After an hour-long executive session on Tuesday, the Select Board voted 5-0 to authorize the Town Manager to inform the property owner of 17 Harnden Street, the former Walgreens building, of its intent to negotiate a contract to purchase the property. The proposed use for the property is as a new senior center. Select Board chair Mark Dockser was selected to represent the board in the negotiations. The proposal presented by the property owner is for a purchase price of $7,000,000 with a $2,000,000 seller’s credit.
Town Manager Fidel Maltez shared ideas for a proposed building renovation that could cost an additional $7,000,000 to $9,000,000. These plans would more than double the usable space available for programming and other services than are available in the current Pleasant Street Center. Maltez also reported that the option to expand and renovate the Pleasant Street Center could cost $18,000,000 to $21,000,000 and that the option for a new building on a new site, such as the town-owned land on Symonds Way could cost over $36,000,000.Senior-Center-Presentation
Select Board member Karen Herrick reacted to the amount of new impervious surface that would be created in the rough site plan proposal for a building on Symonds Way as “horrifying.” She continued, “If we can make [Walgreens] or [another] existing site work better, that’s great.”
Any purchase would need Town Meeting approval and a debt exclusion authorization by the voters. Maltez suggested that a debt exclusion for the purchase of Walgreens would cost the average Reading household $140 a year if the entire cost is financed. Maltez also pointed out that there is a potential $1,000,000 earmark from the state for Reading to improve senior services that could be used. Herrick also indicated that use of funds available from a green communities grant could also be used for a senior center. Dockser reminded the board that the debt exclusions for the high school and the library are due to “come off the rolls” in the next few years. The issue is on the warrant for November Town Meeting.
Select Board member Carlo Bacci questioned whether or not placing the issue before Town Meeting in November was rushed and suggested a January Special Town Meeting might be more appropriate. Member Jackie McCarthy agreed, stating there are too many open questions and that a November vote by Town Meeting “would be hard to do.”
Dockser acknowledged that the process to update the senior center had changed from its original timeline. “Walgreens is a wild card,” Dockser admitted, “we don’t know how long the opportunity will be there. We may need to make a decision on that building before we can look at every other option fully.”
Select Board member Christopher Haley also indicated that people had shared the concern that a senior center is “skipping the line” over the proposed Killam Elementary School project. Dockser responded that a senior center should be looked at as an “and” along with Killam and not an “either-or.”
“We owe it to both [senior and school] communities to keep pursuing these things,” Dockser opined. Herrick agreed, “We owe it to the community to solve both of these problems.” Maltez pointed out that twenty-six percent of Reading’s population is over sixty.
Bacci also asked about the disposition of the Pleasant Street Center once a new facility is created. “It’s another piece of the puzzle,” Bacci stated. Maltez suggested that the Pleasant Street Center could be rented to a user that does not require parking, suggesting that the space could be rented, but the parking would be maintained for town use. Maltez also stated that it was just determined that a twelve-space lot, owned by the Reading Housing Authority, across Parker Street from the Pleasant Street Center was set aside in the 1990s for use by the Senior Center. Maltez shared that no one seemed to be aware of this fact.
Bacci continued to urge a more complete scenario before moving forward to Town Meeting. “If we don’t flesh out a few things, it’s going to be chaos at Town Meeting,” Bacci suggested. Dockser indicated that an update on senior center progress should be provided to Town Meeting, even if the warrant article is ultimately tabled.
At 9:00 pm, the board voted 5-0 to continue its discussion in executive session, given that their negotiating position could be compromised by continuing in open session. The board returned to the open session at 9:55 to make its final vote.
The Select Board also voted 5-0 to close the November 8 state election warrant. Town Clerk Laura Gemme shared that early voting would be available in Town Hall beginning on October 22 and would continue until November 4. Gemme also indicated that mail-in ballots had arrived on Friday and would be sent out this week. Polls open in the Hawkes Field House at Reading Memorial High School at 7:00 am on Tuesday, November 8, and will stay open until 8:00pm.
The Board also discussed if the Town Meeting warrant article regarding green communities will be needed given that the bill allowing Reading to assess the needed annual $4 surcharge to each customer was signed by the governor last week. The surcharge is to provide for a renewable energy fund. Town Counsel, in a memo to the board, suggested that the article be tabled at Town Meeting until it is certain how the new law would be interpreted and it is made clear what Town Meeting needs to authorize if anything. No decision was made on the issue.
Maltez also updated the board on the trash collection issue. He has been assured by the contractor, Republic Services, that they will get trash pickup caught up quickly. Republic Services purchased former contractor JRM in May. Bacci did ask what type of recourse the town might have if the issue continues. Maltez mentioned that if things did not improve, the contract could be canceled, but he would have to investigate any intermediary measures written into the contract.
The Select Board adjourned at 10:00pm.