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The Metrowest Daily News

What's next for former Eliot School building in Natick? Select Board has four choices

By Jesse Collings, MetroWest Daily News,

2023-03-14
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NATICK The Select Board on Wednesday is expected to make a key decision regarding the future of the former Eliot School building on Auburn Street.

Board members will be tasked with selecting from among four proposals to purchase and redevelop the former school site, at 5 Auburn St. The Select Board reserves the right to select none of the proposals, if it doesn't find any to be suitable for the site.

"The Select Board is essentially either picking one of the four proposals, or they do reserve the right to not sell at all to any of the four, which would then lead to a revamping of the proposal criteria to solicit more responses," Town Administrator Jamie Errickson said.

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Three bids propose housing for the site.

Southborough-based Trask Development Inc. would subdivide the property into three sections, with two containing large duplexes and the third, which includes the school building, would be converted into additional units, making 10 units in all.

Metro West Collaborative Development Inc., a Newton nonprofit builder, proposes converting the building into 32 apartments, all of which would be classified as affordable housing. Sixteen of the homes would be open to residents making 60% or less than the Area Median Income (AMI), with the other 16 open to residents who make as little as 30% or less than the AMI. Metro West Collaborative has made a similar proposal to redevelop the White Cliffs mansion property in Northborough.

The Natick Affordable Housing Trust seeks to create affordable housing in the community. But its proposal calls for it to seek out its own proposal for the property, as opposed to redeveloping the property itself.

In January, the trust announced that it supported the MetroWest Collaborative's proposal, because it would create 100% affordable housing on the site. The trust also said it would be willing to contribute $600,000 in funding to support any project that would build 100% affordable housing at the site. However, accepting the trust's proposal is still an option for the Select Board, should it not find MetroWest Collaborative's proposal suitable.

Errickson said the creation of more affordable housing has been a focus in Natick recently, with the town approving the adoption of the Community Preservation Act last year in order to help fund affordable housing projects. However, because the CPA was just adopted in November, the town has yet to collect any funding.

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"Any project seeking to create affordable housing may end up requesting CPA funds, which would be voted on by Town Meeting, since that was one of the primary reasons for the town adopting the CPA last year," Errickson said. "However, that isn't baked into any of the proposals. The town hasn't collected any funds and will not until the end of the current fiscal year (in June), so none of the proposals are seeking CPA funding right now."

School for students with ASD also pitched

The final bid comes from Grace Gable Manoirs, LLC, a Natick company that proposes to convert the property into a school for students with autism.

Trask's bid for the property is $2 million, while the bid from Grace Gable Manoirs is $1.3 million. The bids linked to the affordable housing proposals are for ceremonial values $100 from MetroWest Collaborative and $1 from the Natick Affordable Housing Trust.

The school was originally constructed in the 1920s and spent most of its existence as a public school, the Eliot School, up until 1981. More recently, it was home to the Eliot Montessori School, which left the property in 2020, leaving it vacant.

Building needs 'substantial work'

Town Meeting voted in 2021 to grant the Select Board the power to sell or convert the property, which led to the town seeking proposals for the property last August. The Select Board also formed the 5 Auburn Street RFP Committee to oversee the RFP process.

The property comprises 2.84 acres, with the 14,000-square-foot school building as the primary structure. The site also includes ample green space and a playground, and faces both Eliot and Auburn streets. Errickson said that while the interior structure of the building is strong, it will need significant renovations for something new to move into the building.

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"We currently have the building mothballed because the heating system does not work," he said. "It also isn't ADA compliant we briefly had an after-school program in the building in the summer of 2020 and we had to have a temporary handicap ramp. The building also doesn't have energy-efficient windows, no cooling system. It needs some substantial work."

The RFP Committee held neighborhood meetings throughout last year to understand what residents were interested in seeing happen to the property, with popular suggestions being to maintain the main school building as much as possible, and for options such as a community art space or affordable housing.

Errickson reported that the town has received nearly 200 emails so far with residents giving their opinions on what should be done to the property. While the possibility of more affordable housing is exciting for some residents, abutters who live closer to the property have been concerned about an increase in traffic and other impacts.

"It's very natural that more direct abutters of the property are concerned about traffic, and the physical impact of new buildings being built on the site," Errickson said. "What I think people need to keep in mind is that the Select Board is bound by the legal component of the RFP, that they have to pick a project that best matches that criteria if a suitable project is proposed. That was why the 5 Auburn Street RFP Committee sought out public input when they developed the criteria."

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