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Wellesley floats new senior center plan

By Sarah Thomas
Globe Correspondent / October 24, 2010

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Instead of building a separate senior center, Wellesley selectmen are weighing a plan to replace the Wellesley Community Center with a “social services campus’’ that would dedicate space for seniors as well as serve other local organizations.

The Board of Selectmen unveiled the proposal at its meeting Monday night, after negotiating for four months with officials at the privately run community center at 219 Washington St.

“We’re committed to finding the best long-term solution for our seniors and for our town,’’ said Selectwoman Terri Tsagaris. “This is a different road, a different approach. We really looked at the long term.’’

The plan is a major departure from previous strategies that would have placed a senior center on the former American Legion Post site at 496 Washington St., a parcel the town already owns. The town has spent about $600,000 on design fees for a center at the location.

But Tsagaris said the Washington Street site, owned by Wellesley Friendly Aid, offers more space and opportunities to create a facility that would serve residents of all ages.

“This is an intergenerational community concept, which would have space for groups of all ages from across Wellesley,’’ she said. “That’s something we don’t have right now.’’

The selectmen started talks with the community center during the summer to provide a long-term home for Wellesley’s seniors.

After plans for renovating the existing building were rejected, the center’s board of directors suggested a new building with a condo-style management structure whereby the town and the community center would own different portions. But town officials shied away from that concept.

“After having researched the viability of a condo arrangement, I would advise the board against it,’’ said the town’s executive director, Hans Larsen. “While it’s legally possible, we see it as fraught with risks.’’

Under the proposed social services model, the town would own and maintain all buildings in the complex. Tsagaris said it is too early to tell whether the town would also need to purchase or lease the land, or to estimate the cost of the project.

“The next step would be a community forum, where selectmen and members of the boards of Friendly Aid and the community center could hear from residents,’’ Tsagaris said. A meeting has been tentatively scheduled for Nov. 3.

Other selectmen and some residents praised the plan Monday night, saying it offered an innovative way of providing services.

“We’ve talked a great deal amongst ourselves, and understand our responsibility is to provide appropriate space to the Council on Aging for its programs,’’ said Selectwoman Katherine Babson, the board’s chairwoman. “But this site has the potential to serve the community in an expanded manner, and could be a terrific opportunity for the town.’’

“I think this is a good step forward,’’ said resident Arthur Priver. “I don’t see any conflict between a building that can meet seniors’ needs during the day and provide space for other community groups at other times.’’

However, many people at the meeting vociferously opposed the plan, and Babson repeatedly asked for quiet after residents lambasted the proposal.

“It doesn’t seem right that we should be paying for a building on property that won’t belong to us. The town should build on land it already owns,’’ said resident Barbara Todesco.

“This is a foolish direction for the board to take,’’ said resident Sara-Jane Green. “Making a left-hand turn out of the parking lot at the community center is already a bad idea. By building this new campus, you’ll make a misery out of traffic on Route 16.’’

In the interim, Tsagaris said, the Council on Aging is tentatively scheduled to return to the Community Center on Nov. 2, after leaving on Aug. 27 due to the discovery of rodent droppings in its kitchen. Tsagaris said an agreement on a new cleaning regimen is being worked out with the center, and is expected to be signed by Nov. 1.

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