Old school's new future: loft apartments, co-working space?


Submitted 5 months ago

Bob Flint, executive director of the Springfield Regional Development Corporation (SRDC),  Matt Dunne of the Center for Rural Innovation in Hartland, Vermont, and Bill Doucette, a project developer from Winooski, Vermont gave a presentation to the Springfield select board on Aug. 13 that included computer-rendered fly-throughs of redesigned spaces in the former elementary school building. The SRDC intends to remake the structure — which was built in 1895 and 1929 — into an integrated community that combines work places, residences, and recreation. In addition to being the home to the parks and recreation department and the senior center, there would also be 22 loft apartments and a number of “co-working” spaces.

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This is a long way from a 2015 proposal by former select board member David Yesman who, during a campaign for re-election, recommended razing the 30,000-square-foot 1895 portion of the building in order to create space for parking. He calculated that razing the building would save the school a great deal of money in heating costs as well. At the time Yesman calculated that the school district was only using half of the 100,000 square feet of the building. This proposal was made at a meeting of the Park Street School Committee and reported by the Rutland Herald and posted at the “Happenings In and Around Springfield Vt.” Facebook page.

Flint described the Park Street School as a “no man’s land” and “mostly mothballed.” This irked him because he had gone to school there himself and remembered it as an attractive building. He was encouraged to go forward with a development in part because past renovations “didn’t screw anything up” but had instead mostly covered parts of the interior with dropped ceilings and other modernizations.

Dunne comes to the project with experience working with Americorps/Vista and with Google. At the latter corporation he “worked to set up entrepreneur centers to create new businesses … people working remotely, start-ups, and with schools to start computer science initiatives for the seventh and eighth grades.” Dunne, who once managed the Briggs Opera House in White River Junction, pronounced the Park Street School “a magnificent building.”

Doucette is an old friend of Flint’s. “I work on the real estate side,” he said, “to make sure that banks or other loan sources provide funding.” He said that it was necessary to include multiple uses in a building to make the project attractive to financiers. 

“That gym is one of the most magnificent public structures I’ve ever seen in my 25 years in this business,” said the project developer, “certainly in Vermont. [I’d say] the same about the theater. We need to figure out a way to keep it a public resource rather than use it for something else.”

“Younger entrepreneurs like to live, work, and recreate in the same place,” said Dunne. “They like loft apartments, even in small towns. The building lends itself to that kind of a mixed use. You can create an energy crossover to all pieces [of the building].”

Doucette said that it would be important to redevelop the entire building. “It’s hard to get people moving again if only part of the building is renovated,” he said.

Flint said that so far the SRDC had worked with the National park Service to get historic status for the structure. The Phase I environmental study has been completed and both engineering and site design work has been done. 

Flint and Dunne narrated a PowerPoint presentation for the select board that included photographs of the present conditions that transform into computer-generated images of the redesigned spaces. One of the aspects of the project that excited both of them was the change made to the rear of the building. In the new scheme it would become the main entrance. This is proposed because removal of several feet of fill from the area — formerly the school playground — would allow full exposure of the ground floor windows and create a walk-in basement. It would also make possible ADA-compliant entrances. Once inside you now enter the cafeteria, but the redesign would remove the ceiling of that room to make a two-story central atrium.

The site at 60 Park Street is on a bluff overlooking the Black River west of downtown Springfield. The new design includes a 125-space parking lot that zig-zags down the slope to Mineral Street and the Park Street Bridge, which leads to downtown.

Among the businesses that SRDC believes can be attracted are film and video companies, which require high-speed internet connections in order to reliably transfer large amounts of data. Flint noted that VTel’s fiber optic network in Springfield has — rather improbably — caused the town to have perhaps the fastest internet speeds in the country.

After the presentation the group took questions from the select board and from the audience. Everyone was generally supported, but there was a question as to whether all of the uses at the present community center would be moved to comparable spaces at 60 Park Street. Flint and Doucette said that yes they would because although they would have 25,000 square feet in the new space versus 29,000 in the old, many uses now are allotted much more space than they need because that was what was available in the converted factory building that now serves as the community center. The one feature of the community center, Flint admitted, that would not be brought along were the bowling lanes. 

-- BILL CHAISSON

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