Photo: Belmont High School, Town Meeting and Cushing Village are topics coming up in 2016.
What will 2016 bring to Belmont? While, as the 1981-tour T-shirt by the band “The Clash” proclaimed, “The future is unwritten,” there are some events that we can anticipate happening. As Donald Rumsfeld said, there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns, those things “we don’t know we don’t know.” Certainly a known known is the annual Town Election, the known unknown is just how residents will vote at a special Town Meeting on the Minuteman High School and the unknown unknown is, of course, Cushing Village.
Cushing Village: 2016 will be the start of construction on the long-troubled, infinitely delayed three-building development. But, then again, everyone thought 2015 would be that year. The latest update on the three-building development with 115 housing units, 38,000 sq.-ft. of stores and 200-plus parking spaces will be early in the new year on Tuesday, Jan. 5 before the Planning Board. Two-and-a-half years (YEARS) since winning approval to build the 168,000 sq.-ft. project, all there have been being promised to commence building the development from Chris Starr, head of Smith Legacy Partners. With the latest “rock solid” deadline missed last month, it will come to no one’s surprise if Well Fargo, the project’s lead lender, steps into the abyss to kick-start what should have been a Belmont landmark (and business magnet) but has been a missed opportunity.
Early February Town Meeting for Minuteman: What? Wait a minute! Town Meeting? In about 45 days? Yup, that’s right. Belmont’s 300 Town Meeting members will be braving winter conditions to assemble to debate and vote on a single article: approving a new agreement for towns to participate in the Minuteman Regional Vocational Technical School District. In a roundabout way (the whole story will take a separate story to explain), the reason is to approve the construction a new $144 million school building but what has evolved to change the partnership between the 16 member towns and the Lexington-based voke school including proportional votes to the number of kids each town sends (Belmont has the third largest population with about 30 students) and requiring non-member students – from places such as Watertown, Medford and Waltham that make up about 40 percent of all students – to help play for the school. As a Belmont representative explained to the Warrant Committee and Selectmen: “It’s a bad deal but it’s better than the alternative.” Oh, by the way, the vote could be meaningless if other towns or the state objects, then all residents will be asked to vote on the deal, likely on a Saturday in June. Yes, it’s nuts.
Foodies arrival: Belmont gets an anchor with the opening of Foodies Urban Market, the upscale South End supermarket in the former location of Macy’s/Filene’s. But it’s unlikely that residents will be purchasing prepared dinners and a Russo’s-type selection of fruits and vegetables until the fall of 2016 as construction on the site is taking longer than expected. One point of concern: Some Belmont Center businesses are a bit worried that a food-based business will not attract walk-about shoppers the way Macy’s did. The site will also be the home to a major national business which the Belmontonian will report on this week.
“New” High School: Wednesday, Jan. 27 is D-Day for the future of Belmont High School. The School District’s statement of interest to renovate the 45-year-old building and construct a modern science wing for $100 million will be voted on by the Massachusetts School Building Authority, which will finance about a third of the total cost. If it gets the MSBA’s OK, 2016 will be a year when the town creates a building committee, design and construction details are hammered out with the state and possibly the hiring of an architectural firm. A vote on an anticipated $67 million debt exclusion is likely in 2017.
Town Election: You can expect the unexpected at Belmont Town Election: Last year was Jim Williams’ stunning swamping of incumbent Andy Rojas and the ease the $3.5 million override passed muster. This years’ edition will include three open seats for School Committee with neither of the two incumbents so far declaring their intentions. And will there be a challenge to Selectman incumbent Mark Paolillo as he attempts a third (and final) three-year term? So far, the only contested town-wide race is for a seat on the Health Board. A big question around town: will someone from Williams’ political sphere launch a challenge for the schools or be audacious enough to see if lightning strikes twice in as many years for a place on Selectmen?
School: 2016 will likely be a continuation of the students piling into the six overcrowded schools. September will see modular classrooms coming to a few schools – (whisper: it’s reported that the Chenery Middle School have already designated its tennis courts as the location for the temporary classrooms.) It will also be a year that a growing number of students who enter the system need greater help to speak and read in English as well as navigate a highly competitive system. The challenges continue.
Belmont Uplands: The land has been cleared so where are the buildings? Expect 2016 to be when the first steps take place in the construction of the 299 apartments in an area that has seen an explosion of residential complexes, the latest a proposed 219 unit Chapter 40B complex just over the line in Arlington off Route 2 just a stone’s throw from the Uplands.
OPEB: Speaking of Williams, the long-anticipated meeting on the town’s pension and OPEB (Other Postemployment Benefits Obligations such as health insurance for retirees) as well as a discussion of Pension Obligation Bonds which the selectman obtained at the 2015 Town Meeting was held and it was determined that everyone was going to take a second look at how the town handles these benefits which the town doesn’t have funds to cover currently. Expect push comes to shove in 2016 as those supporting Williams to put a proposal on funding those obligations on the table either at Town Meeting or at a special TM in the fall.
Housing: Is Belmont in a housing bubble? That will depend on macroeconomic national trends but there is ample evidence since July that homes are selling for well above assessed values. What will be interesting is if the median assessed housing value in this “Town of Homes” tops the $1 million mark; it currently stands at $928,003.
Selecting a Community Path: We can only give our thanks to the members of the Community Path Implementation Committee for the truly thankless work they conducted. (There was so much walking on and off road around town that the members could be excused if they were climbing Dante’s Purgatorio.) The committee in 2016 will provide the Board of Selectmen with its preferred path that will require landowners and the town to compromise to make it work. But no one shouldn’t be surprised that town politics will rear its head to trump the reality on the ground.
Town Meeting: Another year without a budget crisis doesn’t mean Town Meeting will be boring; expect a few citizen petitions to bring at least one 11 p.m. session as residents line up to “speak their minds.”
Residential Zoning: Will 2016 be the year the town’s residential neighborhoods see a bylaw restricting the bulk and height of new construction that is representative of the existing housing stock? It all depends on the Planning Board making this a priority in 2016. If not, expect more soul-destroying mega mansions popping up on your street.
Road/Parking projects: Who would have thought both major roadway projects in Belmont would not be finished on time? (Likely, everyone in town.) It will now be spring/early summer of 2016 for final infrastructure work and paving to be completed on the state-run Trapelo/Belmont Corridor project while the triangle adjacent to the Belmont Savings Bank will be dedicated in late spring as well. This year will also see a new parking system coming to Belmont Center including automated meters on Leonard Street.
Sports: My predictions!
Both Basketball teams go deep in the 2016 tournament especially the girls’ who have ten players who could start on any team in the league. (Watertown comes to town on Tuesday, Jan. 26.)
Baseball will take the Middlesex League Liberty Division and make a run in the sectionals behind the strongest and deepest pitching staff this side of the Chicago Cubs. That’s right, the Cubs!
Girls’ Track (in and outdoors) continues to run away from opponents with underclassmen leading the way including sophomore Anoush Krafian.
Girls’ Swimming: The team will see Jessie Blake-West, one of the program’s greatest swimmers, breaking records at Brown in 2016 and will miss a slew of great seniors from the 2015 squad, but its foundation is set on the shoulders of three-time state champion sophomore Nicoletta Kalavantis.
Football will have a winning record, make and win a game in the playoffs and place a whopping on Watertown on Thanksgiving in Belmont.
Girls’ Soccer will be scary good with a mature, stronger team – a young defense with a year under their belts – that is aiming to score goals, lots of them.
Field Hockey, which recorded a program’s best 16-3 2015 record and was Belmont High’s “2015 Team of the Year” will meet some surging squads next year – Winchester, Wilmington, and Lexington – and ponder who will take over for midfield star Serena Nally. But don’t bet against the team from reaching the sectional finals as they lost only five seniors, return a half-dozen exciting underclassmen, have a solid back four and are led by Division 1-bound AnnMarie Habelow. Although it would be nice if the team could welcome a few transfer students from the Netherlands next season.