School Committee presses pause on Boys & Girls Club building project

Boys and Girls Club CEO Bill Parks presents expansion plans to School Committee in October, 2019. (THE WESTFIELD NEWS FILE PHOTO)

WESTFIELD – The request for 30 square-feet of additional land for the Boys & Girls Club building expansion project was put on pause Nov. 16 when the Westfield School Committee failed to approve the request.

The Boys & Girls Club sits on land leased from the School Department.

Committee members Ramon Diaz Jr., Diane Mayhew and Cindy Sullivan voted to approve the expansion. However, due to abstentions from Boys & Girls Club board member Timothy O’Connor and Chief Advancement Officer Bo Sullivan, both of whom did not participate in the discussion; and an abstention from Mayor Donald F. Humason Jr., who asked for more information, they failed to get the four votes needed to pass it. Heather Sullivan was not present at the meeting.

During public participation at the start of the meeting, an email from Amelia Park Children’s Museums board members Maureen Avery and Barbara Giacometti expressed support for and concerns regarding the Boys & Girls Club’s expansion plans. The email said the museum is in full support of the Club’s mission; however, after the expansion plans were presented to them on Nov. 11, they felt “completely left out of the process by every organization.”

Avery and Giacometti said the plan, without their knowledge, permanently restricts their expansion to the west where the building addition will go, as well as eliminating a space they use for events. In addition, the plan as presented to them last week suggested that the Club build a parking lot to the south of the museum, eliminating the possibility of future expansion in any direction. The museum’s board members suggested tabling the Club’s expansion until the matter could be resolved.

During his presentation, Boys & Girls Club CEO William Parks said since the plan was first presented, the regulations had changed for child care. Parks said the Club had to redesign the dimensions of the building to meet the new space requirements, changing it from a square design to a rectangle. He said the new building addition would be 14,500 square-feet, related to required square footage per child, as opposed to the 13,500 square-feet originally proposed. The building will house an additional 100 child care slots.

Parks said the Club had to remove the proposed theater and dance center space in the proposal in order to make room for the new regulations for child care. Parks said they also originally intended to put a playground off the back end of the building, and in the new design it would be placed off the side of the building.

“This new design, if there was ever to be another pandemic, would allow us to serve child care and the general population at the same time. We haven’t been able to bring in the general population,” Parks said. He said the building is being designed by Robert Levesque of R. Levesque Associates.

Parks said the Boys & Girls Club did apply for and receive a $1 million capital grant from the state’s Early Education and Out of School Time (EEOST) program. ”We’re one of only six agencies in the state to receive that funding and not all of them received $1 million,” he said. 

Parks said they also received a $134,000 grant to meet the increased needs in the kitchen. He said the Boys & Girls Club has served well over 130,000 meals in Westfield since the pandemic hit. “We are currently still serving over 300 meals a day, and are committed to keeping the program going through the end of the school year.”

During the discussion, Diaz asked about the Children’s Museum’s concerns about a new parking lot to their south. The museum also sits on land leased by the School Department. “Their concern is they can’t expand if the parking lot goes there,” he said.

Parks said since talking with the museum board, the Club has decided that the proposed parking lot is not in the best location, and they are looking at doing a turnaround and coming behind the building, with an entrance into the back end. “Wherever the architect thinks would be best,” he said.

Cindy Sullivan said the School Committee’s role is to approve the land request, not the building, which would be under the purview of other departments, but she was glad the parking lot proposal is off the table.

“You’re basically asking for 30 or more square feet from what we originally proposed to get the project going. I appreciate you showing us the plans, our role is to approve your use of the land. I’m going to support this motion with the parking lot not included, with the great addition that will support the community and ultimately Westfield Public Schools. If the museum has any plans, which we’ve never seen, then we would consider their ask,” Sullivan said.

“We have concerns from the Children’s Museum. They feel that the plans from the Club will contain them so they wouldn’t be able to expand. As Mayor of the whole city, I want to hear from both parties. Do we have some time to have another opportunity to hear from the folks at the Children’s Museum. Why does this have to be done tonight,” asked Humason, de facto chair of the School Committee.

“We’re not here asking for anything more than was already approved, but adding 30 feet on it. The parking lot wasn’t on it,” said Parks.

“We are responsible for the land and the use of the land. If the use of the land hinders one or the other.  I’m good with this the way it is, but I do think we should be concerned with how it’s planned. I don’t see an issue, now that the museum has the opportunity to expand in the other direction. Based on the fact that the parking lot isn’t in there, it’s a reasonable compromise. As landowners, we do have to take into consideration how the property is laid out,” Diaz said.

Mayhew said she is in favor of the expansion, but recently walked the land with Parks and Bo Sullivan, which she had also done for the original proposal. She said the expansion does bring the wall of the new building to the back end of the museum playground, where there will now be a brick wall instead of grass and green space.

“I think that’s where the museum is coming up with their dissension. I think they feel that view that they had will now be gone. I don’t see any way around it with what the Boys & Girls Club needs. It is what it is; the specs they need now that the state changed the regulations,” Mayhew said.

Cindy Sullivan asked Parks if the vote were not approved, would it put the project in jeopardy as far as funding. Parks said it would put it in jeopardy as far as time, because they wouldn’t be able to open by next fall (2021). Earlier he said they would like to pour the foundation for the building this fall.

“No way we can set this aside for two more weeks to have a chance to hear from other people? As much as I like the Boys & Girls Club and what they do, I think we need to be fair to both the museum and the Boys & Girls Club,” Humason said before voting to abstain.

After the vote, Diaz said they didn’t need to wait until the next meeting of Dec. 7, and suggested they call a special meeting and invite both parties. “This is important. We want to be good partners to both the Boys & Girls Club and Children’s Museum. We just need 48 hours to post it,” he said.

Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski said he would schedule a special meeting for Nov. 18 at 5 p.m. for another vote.

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