The School Committee and members of the public, which included a few immediate neighbors to the project, got a good look at the schematic designs for the new Higgins Middle School Tuesday night. A few city councilors and state Rep. Ted Speliotis were also in attendance.
Those designs are far more detailed with floor plans, the shape of the building, exterior layout of the site and specific traffic patterns than the conceptual renderings the public saw this past summer.
DiNisco Design Partnerships also created a three-dimensional "fly-through" view of the new school campus.
"It looks like we’re getting close to this dream becoming a reality and it looks spectacular," said School Committee member David McGeney when it was time for feedback.
"I grew up in a house that is one of the closest abutters to that site. I can remember watching the [existing] Higgins being built," he said.
McGeney, noting there will be many finer details over the next three years that come and go in order to build the school, still urged the design team and Higgins School Building Committee to err on the side of "great." He said it will pay "huge dividends" later on.
"Once in a generation, a city gets a moment to define itself and say this is who we are…this seems be one of those moments," McGeney said. "This is probably the last best chance we’re going to have to do something like this [in consideration of state funding]."
Questions from committee members, city councilors and the public were directed to traffic flow, safe demolition of the old school, recycling building materials, landscaping, drainage and site runoff and exactly how many students could fit in the new school.
On the latter point, the building is only approved by the Mass. School Building Authority for an enrollment of 1,340 by the time it's complete three years from now. Currently, there are 1,341 students at the Higgins, down from 1,400 at the start of the year.
Committee members Ed Charest and Brandi Carpenter believe more parents will want to enroll their students at the new school and both questioned whether capacity was going to be an issue right away.
Higgins Principal Todd Bucey and School Business Manager David Keniston said they "had to fight" to even keep the number where it is.
Bucey said the new school would be able to fit more than 1,600 students at full capacity, however; the design is based on 24 students per classroom, five clusters each per grade, 120 students per cluster and 560 students total per grade.
The DiNiscos noted that the arrangement of classroom spaces and scheduling could be adjusted to accommodate more students if need be.
What does the new school look like?
In terms of the layout presented Tuesday night, the school campus will have lots of greenery, possibly some community gardens, and athletic fields where the existing school building is now. Parking lots will be separated between staff and students and traffic patterns will be clearly routed for buses and parents shuttling their children to and fro.
A retention pond for site runoff will also be enlarged and overall the new campus will have less impervious area than exists now.
The floor plans show a three-storied school building that is much more contained and orderly than the rambling and inefficient layout the Higgins has now and will largely keep each grade to separate floors for classes, as opposed to trekking back-and forth across the school.
"The existing building is rambling and goes on and on and on; [there's] difficulty controlling who’s going where and when," said Ken DiNisco. There's also far too many doors, he added.
The ground floor
The schematic plans place the gym and cafeteria side-by-side at one main entrance along with a 500-seat auditorium and music rooms. Another entrance is located on the other side of the auditorium to allow students direct access to the athletic fields -- central offices would be at the intersection of the two hallways -- and there will a separate service entrance and one for faculty and staff in the rear of the building.
Security is also a main concern. DiNisco said that after students arrive, all access to the building would be from the two main entrances and monitored by security cameras and staff. He said all four entry points to the building would be under camera surveillance.
DiNisco said Peabody is part of a regional school security planning group and as such is well prepared in the event of an emergency.
As for the 12,000-square-foot gym and the auditorium, both would be open to use by the public during non-school hours, along with the athletic fields.
City councilor Barry Osborne asked why the city is still fighting for the auditorium to be included in the project, in terms of financial reimbursement.
"They [the MSBA] say it’s not really tied to the curriculum of the school. We dispute that," Mayor Ted Bettencourt said, noting the city had to argue for the larger gym as well.
Bettencourt said an option presented by the MSBA was for a "cafetorium" (similar to an elementary school), but he didn't feel that was appropriate with the brand new school and the existing performing arts programs at the Higgins.
"We have some incredibly talented students and incredibly talented teachers…I wanted to have an auditorium that reflects the great work being done there," he said.
He added that the 2,000-square-foot stage, however, would be reimbursed because it would have been part of a cafetorium.
Level 2 and above
The second story of the new building would contain the school library, foreign language, art and special education classrooms. Space for culinary and technical programs will be on both floors.
The front half of the building will then be connected to a three-story academic wing by a central spine or hallway flanked by a courtyard on either side. The rear wing will house most of the classrooms and students lockers, retaining the cluster organization the Higgins uses now.
There will be two elevators, lots of windows, dedicated science labs, built-in access to state-of-the-art technology and the building will be air-conditioned.
Both Superintendent Joe Mastrocola and his predecessor Herb Levine, who is a member of the building committee, are working on a technology plan for the school, but did not offer further details Tuesday night.
The design team says the new school would be more energy efficient, have a smaller footprint and meet green building standards to qualify for additional reimbursement from the state.
Another step forward
The School Committee will be asked for a vote soon to accept the design and then the schematics, along with a budget and project schedule will be submitted to the MSBA's board of directors by Feb. 15 for approval.
Once that happens in April, a proposal would come back before the City Council for funding, which would also be subject to review by the MSBA.
Once a funding agreement is in place, the project can move toward construction, which is slated to begin in June 2014 and finish in the summer of 2016. The old Higgins would be demolished once the new school is built.
"This is another important...step in the process until we have a beautiful new school for the city and most importantly our students," Bettencourt said, referring to getting through the schematic design phase.
He said the latest figures on financing at this stage of the project will be available within the next week. Tuesday's presentation itself will be posted to the website maintained for the project.