One of the greatest joys for me as a local government manager is that my legacy lives right here with me every day. Anyone who has managed a city or town has had a hand in the construction or reconstruction of capital facilities, and nothing compares to the feeling of satisfaction when you get to see them every day. Over the last ten years, I have been part of many such projects, and I count them as my proudest accomplishments.
About a decade ago, our town was planning for the historic renovation of its 1902 Town Hall. It had been retrofit in the 1950’s with terrible dropped ceilings and partitions. Some wanted to maximize its use for municipal offices, and others wanted the great hall (the entire second floor) restored as a meeting and performance venue. Although I admit I was skeptical about the latter approach, it was a clear community desire. So we used that opportunity to pitch a second municipal building – one that would house Public Works administration (then located above a garage) as well as permanently displaced Town Hall departments. The new building also served as swing space for our renovated Town Hall – saving millions in relocation costs. I will never forget the moment we stopped saying if we could build the Public Services Administration Building, but how we would pay for it.
Our Town’s senior center was located in the basement (truly) of an old school building re-purposed as senior housing. For more than a decade, citizen committees explored options for creating new and appropriate space to provide services to our growing senior population. As a fully-developed and land-locked community, the options were scarce and unappealing. After several missteps, we came up with a wild idea – to pitch the Commonwealth to let us build the center in a poorly utilized commuter parking lot. We were able to trade a town parking lot already used for commuter parking to the transit authority to increase its parking revenue, and the deal was made. Turning this improbable idea into reality is an example of why we do this work. The Center at the Heights runs at capacity every day.
One of our elected officials called me out of the blue and told me that our town’s iconic poultry farm was to be offered for sale. At the same time, we were wrestling with a series of options for reconstructing an elementary school and none was satisfactory. So we said “Let’s build the school on the poultry farm! We can also buy a handful of houses around it!” It sounds unbelievable but that’s just what happened. The new Sunita L. Williams school will open this fall. Every time I drive by the school I am proud of having been part of the behind the scenes planning.
There are always lessons learned. Since we built the Center at the Heights, commuter rail use is way up, so we are on the hunt again for more space for parking. The Sunita Williams School is the only project I have been involved with that included hazmat remediation of chicken fat. And, of course, there were a lot of “buying the farm” jokes to put up with. With respect to Town Hall, though, the preservationists had it right. The hall is in great demand for concerts, fundraisers, and meetings. And, since 2011 when it reopened, we have held our Town Meeting in the great hall. Using the hall for Town Meeting is more convenient, and much more intimate than the former venue – an elementary school auditorium.
“Old buildings are like old friends. They reassure people in times of rapid change. They encourage people to dream about their cities – to think before they build, to consider alternatives before they tear down.” – Nancy Harris
What’s your legacy building? I’d love to hear about it. Let’s practice!