Julie Sniezek of Guntlow & Associates explains the site plan for the Conte School project at Monday's Planning Board meeting.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Planning Board on Monday gave the OK for the proposed site plan for the $30 million Conte School project that includes taking out the stairs in Colegrove Park.
But their removal isn't a done deal yet.
The Historical Commission has asked the city solicitor to weigh in the project, specifically if state funds for the school project can be used at Colegrove if it is no longer an essential part of the school.
The area, once the front entrance to the former Drury High School, had been envisioned as a play area for Conte once it was reconfigured into an elementary school. But that option was rejected because of cost concerns and reluctance of teachers to use the area because of time constraints.
Justyna Carlson, chairman of the Historical Commission, said she wanted City Solicitor John DeRosa's opinion before making a decision. The commission is also concerned that the the state Historical Commission has approved a plan endorsed by the local commission last year that has significantly changed.
"As it stands right now, the first meeting we had a motion that we could not approve until we had further information," Carlson said.
Mayor Richard Alcombright said he expected a decision from DeRosa next week and believes the findings will support the park as being considered part of the whole school project. After the meeting, he said it didn't make much sense to put effort into improving the school and leave deteriorating stairs in front of it.
He did agree that making the park accessible to the school is not a priority since fewer students walk to school, the hill will be used less and the west door won't be an access point. The new entrance to the school will be on the south side.
"We were hoping to be able to make Colgrove Park accessible to everybody," said Julie Sniezek of Guntlow & Associates, but the ramp leading from the southwest side of the building to the park is "very far from ADA standards." A new ramp would require handrails and a zig-zag pattern to decrease the incline.
Sniezek said the most affordable option would be to take out the two sets of upper stairs and level the area, while leaving the paved circular area, ramp, wall and vegetation in place. The lower stairs, which are in very bad shape, would also be removed.
"We are not able to financially repair these stairs at this time ... we're working with the Historic Commission at the local and state levels to come up with a balance that is acceptable to both parties," Sniezek said.
In answer to a question, from the audience, Sniezek said the stairs would be completely different aesthetically because they would require being brought up to current code. She did not have a cost figure, although the consultants have said the project is close to the 8 percent of construction costs allowed by the state for site work.
One necessary fix is the retaining wall on the southwest corner of the property, which Sniezek said is in "dangerous condition."
That cost for repairing or replacing the wall has been estimated from $500,000 to as much $700,000, which might lead to cuts in other aspects of the project.
Owner's project manager Mel Overmoyer of Strategic Building Solutions expects to keep the budget on track.
"We have the budget from the MSBA that we're sticking to and that will remain the budget throughout the course of the project," Overmoyer said. "There will be no change in cost."
Kristian Whitsett of Margo Jones Architects said the goal is to "preserve the historic character as much as possible" of the century-old school. He said the most evident change will be the new, energy-efficient double windows.
Whitsett said the project is nearing the end of its design and development phase.
Planner Wayne Wilkinson asked about a wall to the east of the school that appeared to have loose stone; Sneizek said engineers had determined it was safe and needed only minor repairs.
The planners approved the site plan unanimously.