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Article 12 and Question 2: Hildreth House expansion

Article 12 of the Spring Town Meeting warrant and Question 2 on the ballot ask voters to fund a $4.3 million addition to Hildreth House, the town’s senior center, through excluded debt. This is the second phase of a two-phase renovation/expansion project that originated over a decade ago (see timeline below). The first phase, a renovation of the existing building and parking lot for safety and code-compliance, was completed in 2017 at a cost of $1.6 million.

The 6,271-square-foot addition, designed by DiGiorgio Associates, would be a separate building about 30 feet to the east of Hildreth House. It would include a large function room that could be divided into three areas for dining, exercise classes, and other programs; a warming kitchen; handicapped-accessible bathrooms; central air conditioning; and a covered porch that could be used for outdoor dining in warmer weather. It is intended to be used as a community center as well, with ample space for meetings and gatherings of all kinds.

The Council on Aging (COA) has long maintained that Hildreth House is not big enough to serve the number of seniors in Harvard who want to attend programs and events. COA Director Debbie Thompson told the Press that twice-weekly lunches at Hildreth House are shoulder-to-shoulder, with a maximum of 24 people. For larger events, such as holiday lunches, the COA relies on local churches for space, but even when it is available, setup and teardown is difficult for the small group of volunteer servers.

Seniors at a Halloween lunch at Hildreth House last fall. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)

“We need the space now more than ever,” Thompson told the Press. She believes that social distancing will still be necessary when Hildreth House reopens for lunches and programs, and she thinks it may go on for a long time. “With social distancing, we can serve only four to six people in the dining room, maybe 15 to 18 on the porch in good weather.”

As for alternatives if the project is not funded, Thompson said it will be proposed again as currently designed, adding that it wouldn’t make sense to scale down the project given the growing senior population. She told the Press in fiscal year 2019, 28% of the population in Harvard was over the age of 60, and almost 800 of those residents used some service offered by the COA.

Given the current economic climate, the Council on Aging board of directors considered delaying the vote to fund the project for a year. But members felt the town’s older residents had waited long enough, so about a month ago they voted to move forward as planned, saying they would bring the project to next year’s Spring Town Meeting if it failed this year.

The Finance Committee has been opposed to the project from the start, saying the town should not be taking on the additional debt needed to fund it, given that this is the first year the town will face a large debt payment for the new school. According to the Finance Committee Spotlight article in this year’s Town Meeting booklet, the project would add about $167 to the average tax bill of a median-priced ($563,100) Harvard home in the first year, with the amount declining over the life of the loan.

A change of position

Earlier this year, the Select Board voted to support the project, as did the Capital Planning and Investment Committee (CPIC), although by a slim margin, 3-2. But in May, the Select Board asked CPIC to reconsider its recommendations given this year’s gloomy economic outlook. When the committee met June 4, CPIC Chair John Seeley asked if any members wanted to change their vote.

CPIC member Alice von Loesecke, chair of the Select Board, said she still supported the project. She mentioned that doing the project now might be beneficial because of low interest rates and contractors hungry for work. She added that she believes, if the article fails, “The chance of getting this back again in the next five years is minimal.” Member Nate Finch said he also continued to support the project. “When times get hard, that’s when you need to support the people that need support the most,” he said.

But CPIC member SusanMary Redinger, also a member of the School Committee, said she no longer supported the project because the town is looking at a budget override and talking about cutting school staff. Von Loesecke countered that the town’s operating budget and capital budget are two separate things. “Of all the uses of capital funds right now, I’d support this over some of the others,” she added. Member Theresa Jardon and Chair John Seeley, who is also a member of the Finance Committee, remained opposed to the project, bringing the final CPIC vote to 3-2 against.

After the meeting, Thompson was clearly disappointed. She told the Press, “We’re hopeful that the town will still support it. I just hope that the seniors who are working so hard to support this project now will live long enough to see it built.”

Hildreth House Phase 2 Timeline

The current plan to expand Hildreth House had its origins in a 2010 study of three municipal buildings: Town Hall, Hildreth House, and the old library. That study resulted in a nearly $6 million plan for renovation and expansion of Hildreth House, which town officials opposed, primarily because of the cost. The expansion would have provided a dining room for 74 people and a multifunction room. That plan was shelved in the spring of 2012.

August 2012: The Hildreth House Improvement Committee was created to “right-size” the project and bring down the cost.

March 2013: The committee’s new $3.7 million plan reduced the addition to 2,000 square feet, less than half the size of the original plan. It included a two-story addition to the back of the building with a 35- to 40-person dining room downstairs and a multipurpose room upstairs, with a new kitchen and bathrooms in the existing building.

Feb. 2014: With little support for the project from the selectmen, the Finance Committee, and the Capital Planning and Investment Committee (CPIC), the Hildreth House Improvement Committee asked for design funds to modify the plans so the project could be done in two phases.

Sept. 2014: The COA presented the two-phase plan to the selectmen and CPIC. Phase 1 included safety and code compliance work, estimated at $1.6 million. Phase 2, the addition, was estimated at $2.6 million if work began in 2017. The cost for both phases to be done at once was estimated at $3.6 million.

March 2015: The final estimate of Phase 1 was $1.36 million, and it had the support of the selectmen, the Finance Committee, and CPIC. Annual Town Meeting passed the article to fund Phase 1 with excluded debt; it also passed at the ballot box. An additional $188,000 was authorized at a Special Town Meeting in June 2016.

June 2017: Phase 1 work was completed; final cost was $1.55 million.

August 2017: COA voted to ask CPIC for $40,000 to hire an architect to come up with design alternatives for Phase 2. They envisioned a one-story, separate building that could provide more event and program space than the old design, and they believed a separate building would reduce code-compliance work in the existing building.

May 2018: Annual Town Meeting voted to approve funding the design work with money from the Capital Stabilization and Investment Fund. Design was delayed by the traffic study in the area of Town Hall and Hildreth House.

Sept. 2019: DiGiorgio Associates designed a stand-alone building that contained a kitchen, bathrooms, and a large multipurpose room that could hold up to 90 diners for a meal, or be partitioned off into three smaller rooms. After making a few rounds of cuts to the initial design, the final estimate was $4.3 million with furnishings and equipment to be provided by donations.

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