HARVARD -- It wasn't quite déjà vu all over again, to retool a familiar old quote, but the two public forums selectmen hosted recently to mine for new ideas on the stalled Town Hall building project did bring to mind a couple of public information meetings at Volunteers Hall a couple of years ago, when architectural plans for the proposed renovation were at the schematic design stage and the most talked-about topic at one well-attended session was what to do with the second floor.

At issue then was whether rescuing open space and restoring the stage on the second floor of Town Hall should be part of the renovation plan or pursued as a separate project, funded by private donations.

Now, the issue is how to modify the existing, overall design and complete the project within the remaining budget, which may or may not include a second-floor gathering space.

Town Meeting endorsed the design concept forwarded by the Town Hall Building Committee and in 2012 appropriated $3.97 million to implement it.

But later versions of the budget showed a sharp rise in construction costs and a projected price tag $1 million more than the original.

Townspeople did not react favorably to the cost hike, and after voters rejected a request to fund the higher amount at a Special Town Meeting and subsequently at the ballot box earlier this year, selectmen put the project on hold while they discussed next steps.


As they continued to mull their options, the wind of public opinion shifted the project back in their direction. People spoke and they listened, taking control with an eye to realigning the re-do with funds they had available to pay for it, even if it meant settling for a less ambitious makeover than the design called for.

At some point, they agreed to host the public forums, asking again for townspeople to weigh in, this time hoping to harvest new ideas to help in the decision-making process.

"We have a task, which is to renovate Town Hall," Chairwoman Marie Sobalvarro said at the start of the first public forum, which was held in the evening and drew a good crowd.

There seemed to be no question -- at least among those in attendance -- that Town Hall must be preserved. The question was how to do it without going over budget.

Building Inspector Gabe Vellante suggested a step-by-step approach, advising the town to "design what it wanted and then figure out how we can phase the project," he said.

Ron Ostberg, who is an architect and chaired a previous municipal building committee, said a phased-in approach would be more expensive, however.

The general tenor of the discussion was clear: Get it done, yes, but keep the lid on costs. Shore it up, fix it up, but stop short of some of the fancier items on the wish list.

Former Selectman Bill Marinelli said the current board's task was to "get value from the money appropriated," rather than trying to find other funding sources.

At their recent meeting, the selectmen discussed the takeaway from the forums, grouping common themes.

Folks apparently appreciated being asked what to do next, Selectman Lucy Wallace said, but she didn't see a clear directive in the outcomes.

Sobalvarro said that based on her summation, two options on the table were to keep the existing addition, built in the 1950s, or raze it and build a new one, smaller than the first.

The question now, she said, was whether to ask LLB, the architects, to do a feasibility analysis, which seems like the next logical step if they want to wrap the design decision by February.

The funding is there for the study, but it would be important to know that LLB was amenable to the idea of downsizing their own design.

"I think there are three options," Selectman Ron Ricci said: to take the addition off and re-do the upstairs stage, go forward with the design as planned (not much of an option, all things considered) or do as Selectman Leo Blair has suggested: Take care of the exterior of the building, insulate walls, shore up the foundation and re-configure the interior to a lesser extent than the current design calls for, keeping the existing HVAC system versus a new one, the cost estimate for which made up a substantial chunk of the higher budget. 

"There's no evidence of serious problems" with the existing addition foundation, Blair put in, basically debunking an earlier notion that the foundation was in trouble and it would cost too much to fix it.

The cost-driver is that you'd take apart a 150-year old building to get a "brand new look," Blair posited. Instead, he said the existing building and its aging systems could be fixed to last another 100 years. "It's all doable," he said. "I think the path is clear."