On Wednesday, September 10, the Devotion School Building Committee presented options to renovate and expand the school at a public hearing held in the Devotion School auditorium, starting at 7 pm. At least 12 of the 20 committee members were present. The audience numbered around 150 and included four of the five members of the Board of Selectmen and several School Committee members.
Town bylaws require building committees for construction, alteration or repair projects going beyond routine maintenance. The state’s School Building Authority (SBA) also requires such a committee to include specified school and municipal officials. The Board of Selectmen assembled the largest building committee ever, including representatives of Devotion School parents, preservationists and the business community.
Background: After the Devotion School project appeared for at least ten years in Brookline’s capital improvement program, active planning began in the summer of 2012, with appointment of the committee. Devotion School was last renovated between 1974 and 1976, when the current north wing along Stedman St. replaced a handsome but dilapidated building opened in 1899.
Local architect Robert Kaplan moved the north wing eastward from the 1899 site, away from Harvard St., opening up community space and providing a more respectful setting for the Edward Devotion House. The house was begun around 1680, when the then-unincorporated town was known as the Muddy River hamlet of Boston. It was built out to its current form around 1745. The town bought the property in 1891 for school uses.
When the current school opened in 1976, it was rated for 650 students, although during the 1950s the student population had reached around 900. In a conservative interpretation of “open schools,” then in vogue, Mr. Kaplan provided flexible partitions in the 1976 north wing and generous spaces for woodworking, home economics, music, art, science, assembly, library and community uses. A stately auditorium in the central building, opened in 1915, was divided into a large library below and a low-rise auditorium above.
The woodworking and home economics programs were disbanded in the 1980s, as Brookline reacted to Proposition 2-1/2 with many cutbacks in both municipal and school services. With Devotion’s student population increasing steadily since about 2005, the School Department used the north wing’s flexible partitions to create more classrooms, then added sub-partitions and cubicles.
The former community room, special program rooms, open areas and almost every other usable indoor space have now been taken for classrooms. This fall’s student count is about 815. The 2012 fall town meeting appropriated $1.75 million for a feasibility study and preliminary plans. Brookline hired HMFH Architects of Cambridge for the work. In 2013, the SBA authorized expansion of school capacity to 1,010 students.
Plan options: The main design options are explained in a document from HMFH, available for several weeks on Brookline’s municipal Web site. At the public hearing, committee chair Betsy DeWitt, a member of the Board of Selectmen, summarized the background of the project, some of the objectives and the ongoing process. Objectives, she said, are “driven by educational programs…grade clustering, access to common space.”
Guiding criteria that Ms. DeWitt showed on a projection screen include preserving the central building opened in 1915 and the historic Edward Devotion House. These and the other exhibits are supposed to be available from the municipal Web site but were not found the following morning. Ms. DeWitt described a schedule.
The committee plans to meet September 26 and designate a preference for one of three options, to be sent to the SBA by October 2. Review by the SBA is expected at a November 15 meeting. If favorable, Brookline will prepare preliminary plans, aiming for SBA approval in March of 2015. Ms. DeWitt said members of the Board of Selectmen expect to propose a tax override next January, to be submitted to voters the following May.
George Metzger from HMFH. assisted by Deborah Collins and Andrea Yoder, presented the three design options now before the committee. Option 1 retains the site layout, replacing the current north and south wings with larger structures of the same heights. A new north wing would extend about 100 feet eastward down Stedman St., compared with the current one. A new south wing would be wider, shrinking the outdoor area near Babcock St.
Option 2 removes the current north and south wings and builds a large structure behind but connected to the current central building, three stories toward Babcock St. and four stories toward Stedman St. Option 3 is similar to option 2, but the new building becomes five stories toward Stedman St. It moves back and disconnects from the central building–no longer to be part of the school–taking up most of the current field area. With any option, current underground parking would increase from about 45 to about 65 spaces.
Ken Liss, for the Brookline Historical Society, and Sara Patton, for the National Park Service, described the historical significance of the Devotion School site. Mr. Liss said it had become the community’s unofficial “town green.” He named other historical buildings demolished from the 1940s through the 1960s, saying that the town now “values its past by building for the future.”
Sara Patton, lead park ranger at the Kennedy birthplace site less than two blocks away, recalled that four of the Kennedy family began their educations at Devotion School, including former President John F. Kennedy, shortly after the central building opened in 1915. She said the National Park Service coordinates educational programs every year at Devotion School, focused on the neighborhood history.
Questions and comments: When Ms. DeWitt invited questions and comments, an audience member asked to see the options superimposed, but HMFH architects had not thought to compare their designs graphically and could not respond. Some in the audience appeared to dismiss options 2 and 3, focusing on option 1. They wanted to know how much of the field area in back of the school would be taken. Again, HMFH architects were unprepared.
George White, a Precinct 9 town meeting member, asked about enclosing open spaces in front of the school along Harvard St, as done now with the south portions. He said it “could be like the Public Garden” in Boston. Once more, there was no clear response from the architects. Mr. Metzger was straightforward, however, about going above five stories, saying that would “make it impossible to meet the educational plan.”
Devotion School is just 2-1/2 blocks from the Coolidge Corner transit station, a candidate for the selectmen’s recently announced town-wide transportation demand management. William Lupini, the superintendent of schools, did not seem to think it applied to his department. “Teachers need to park. They don’t always come from places with public transportation.” It sounded as though the fifth and sixth floors at Town Hall aren’t connected.
Toward the end of the hearing, parents of Devotion students began to speak up. Some were angry over the guidelines’ emphasis on maintaining historical structures. In particular, they seemed to see the 1915 central building as an obstacle. Mr. White sounded irritated, saying, “There are some people who don’t think we knock everything down in Brookline and build a Howard Johnson’s.”
Ms. DeWitt reminded the audience that a tax override was going to be needed. Many voters who have no children in the schools will have to support it, in order to win approval. A narrow focus on school needs alone won’t help. “It is the most expensive project the town has considered,” she said. “I will campaign for it very hard, and everybody here should be prepared to do the same.”
– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, September 11, 2014