After three hours of debate, Town Meeting members passed a warrant article Wednesday night appropriating $500,000 for a feasibility study and design of a new senior center located at the MBTA Needham Heights lot on West Street.
Town meeting also appropriated $3.5 million for a new, energy-efficient roof at the Pollard Middle School, which may be partially reimbursed by a grant from the Massachusetts School Building Authority.
The Senior Center Exploratory Committee, which was formed at the request of the Board of Selectmen two years ago to study location, size and cost of a new senior center, recommended three sites to the Board of Selectmen earlier this fall. The MBTA lot was their first choice, and the selectmen voted to endorse the MBTA location at their meeting last month.
State Representative-Elect Denise Garlick, who is a selectwoman and co-chair of the exploratory committee, introduced the motion for a center located at Needham Heights. She said no location would be perfect, but the MBTA lot provides accessibility, neighborhood support, the opportunity for new design to fit the program needs, and future growth.
“The issue of location has been subject of intense controversy in this process,” she said. “Although we’ve listened carefully, the selectmen are unanimous in concluding the Heights site is the location which can meet needs of our community.”
Several members and residents spoke in favor of amending the senior center article to instead change the location to a portion of Greene’s Field on Pickering St., which was the committee’s second choice, arguing that the seniors themselves want a center located there.
“Do we really want our senior center to be at the end of paved parking lot, or do we want it nestled at the end of a field near the downtown where the seniors would overwhelmingly like to be?” said John Fountain, a resident who spoke on behalf of a group called “Share Greene’s Field.”
“The best that can be said of the dismal MBTA parking lot is that Town Meeting won’t veto it, so it’s better than nothing,” said Fountain.
The third choice, Ridge Hill on Charles Street, was not discussed during the debate.
The seniors said Pickering Street was much safer, would allow them to have outdoor activities and would only occupy 30 percent of the field.
“Many older people are uneasy while driving,” said Eleanor Weeks, a resident. “They move warily, so why put them in a dangerous, high density, accident-prone area like Hillside on West Street? That’s cruel.”
Proponents of the Heights location, however, said a senior center at the MBTA lot satisfies all the major needs of the center as specified by the Council on Aging. They argued the lot is the site with the best parking situation, filling the estimated need of 100 spaces, and the lot is near many restaurants, shops and a post office.
“If you moved the ball field back to Great Plain Avenue … we still need 40 percent of the open space at Greene’s to accommodate a two-level building,” said Jim Healy, co-chair of the exploratory committee. “That’s why the SCEC did not favor Greene’s as highly as the Heights.”
Philip Robey, chairman of the Park and Recreation Commission, reviewed a list of activities that take place at Greene’s Field and declared that the field is “an active location and a wonderful green piece in downtown.” He asked Town Meeting to vote against putting the senior center there.
Town Meeting member Martin Walter said that although he is concerned about the traffic in the Heights area, he thinks the committee provided good reasons for choosing the MBTA location.
“With someone who came into this meeting with a sense of favoring Greene’s Field, I do compliment Mrs. Garlick for addressing the reasons why the MBTA lot is the preferred site,” said Walter.
George Kent, chairman of the Permanent Public Building Committee, said the feasibility study would include an assessment of traffic conditions in the area, and he does not expect the traffic to be a major problem.