Photo: The scheme approved by the school committee for a new skating rink in Belmont
The Belmont School Committee unanimously approved on Wednesday, May 12, the latest design scheme for a new skating/hockey rink located near the present location adjacent to Harris Field.
The joint meeting with the Belmont Select Board did not address a pair of vital issues that still require answers: how to find the $18 million to replace the dilapidated half century old rink, and how to resolve a consistent clarion call of the town’s tennis community seeking to squeeze five courts into a site already bursting at the seams.
“We do need to close this matter out and move the discussion forward. It’s not fair to anyone to just keep dragging it out and providing any group with any false expectations,” said Adam Dash, the Select Board chair who co-hosted the meeting with the School Committee’s Amy Checkoway whose committee controls the land use where the rink would reside.
Responding to a request from the town, Steven Stefton, lead of the sports and recreation practice of Perkins&Will’s Boston office, presented a trio of schemes in which the rink, parking, and three sports fields occupy the area west of Harris Field. In quick order, the most attractive of the plans had the single-sheet rink place adjacent to the commuter rail tracks and Harris Field, about 90 parking spaces with three sports fields occupying the remainder of the land.
The two-level 45,900 square-foot facility would top off around 35 feet tall. The rink’s program would be quite modest with locker rooms that would be available for hockey and teams playing at Harris Field. The site will also allow for a three sports field configuration with a limited amount of overlap. It would take 15 months to build – the shortest time frame of the three schemes – at a total cost of $20.3 million with a $2.25 million credit from the Middle and High School Building project.
“There’s a myriad of opportunities with this design that we think we could really create a high-performing facility in the future. And then ultimately it’s the most cost-effective solution that can be phased easily,” said Stefton.
Checkoway said while the committee does have a preference on design, it will be necessary to “at some point figures out a way to finance it.”
“This [meeting] is really about holding a place for a potential new rink at some point in the future,” said Checkoway.
But for many of the 100 residents on the virtual meeting, the topic on the top of their agenda was finding some way to place five tennis courts on the site. Belmont High was once the home of ten courts – located on the northeast side of the existing building – before construction began on the new Middle and High School.
A decision in 2017 by the Middle and High School Building Committee in consultation with Perkins&Will (the architects of the new school) eliminated the courts in favor of new fields and parking on the site. In January 2020, the School Committee reiterated the earlier action with a promise to add courts at the nearby Winn Brook Playground.
Dash noted the select board and school committee devised a compromise in which an extra court would be built at the Winn Brook to allow the varsity tennis teams a “home” facility, albeit without changing and restrooms. The Community Reinvestment Committee will present a proposal to Town Meeting in June to pay for a single court at the playground for a total of five.
Not feeling heard
But even with a partial solution at the Winn Brook, “there are a lot of tennis players in town, tennis parents that feel disenfranchised,” said Select Board member Mark Paolillo.
Those advocating a return of courts to the school’s site gravitated towards two possible options, one of which would reduce the number of parking spaces from 90 to approximately 20 and install the courts close to Concord Avenue.
The School Committee’s Mike Crowley said with the need to deal with the climate crisis and for more sustainable approaches to transportation, “I don’t know that I want to see those students driving to school. So I’m looking at that space, I’m seeing tennis court potential.”
Planning Board Chair Stephen Pinkerton was then recognized who said while “it’s aspirational” to limit student driving, the reality is if those drivers are coming and if they can’t find parking at the school, they will on side streets.
Any attempt to reduce parking would require tampering with the agreement between the school district and the Planning Board on parking at the new school. As part of the Site Planning Approval encompassing the entire project, an agreement was reached where the project would have 400 parking spaces with 90 of those spaces located west of Harris Field, a settlement Pinkerton said was hammered out with numerous parties – residents from nearby neighborhoods, transportation groups – involving long and at times contentious dialogue.
In an apparent compromise that would return the high school tennis teams on campus, Select Board member Mark Paolillo raised the point of the need for a junior varsity baseball field west of the campus.
“Can we program around JV baseball so that we can get the tennis courts on the campus,” said Paolillo, noting the popularity of tennis and the removal of half the courts’ town-wide in the past decade.
“It seems strange to me that there are junior varsity fields on the campus and yet we can’t get a varsity sport on the campus and yet we can’t get a varsity sport on the campus,” said resident Lou Miller.
Town and school officials said removing baseball isn’t that simple due to the lack of an appropriately-sized baseball field in town. Jon Marshall, assistant town administrator and recreation director, said moving the JV team to another field “would have a ripple effect” on the high school and town sports teams as it would require altering small diamonds into “90-foot fields” – referring to the number of feet between bases on the standard adult playing grounds – which would affect the playing choices for regional and town baseball teams.
After the committee voted to OK its favorite scheme, it appears a formally installed working group to established to find answers to financing, parking, and land use will be a result of the meeting.