GROTON — The town manager suffered a setback when members of the Municipal Building Committee for Prescott School decided not to move forward on his proposal to convert the rear of the Prescott building into public parking.
The decision came at the committee’s meeting Wednesay when members expressed reluctance about moving too fast in the use of the Main Street property before they had time to even get started on their mandate from the Board of Selectmen.
Selectmen formed the committee when the question of what to do with the Prescott School building was thrust upon them after a vote at fall Town Meeting.
There, a request to grant the board authority to sell Prescott to developer Gregg Yanchenko failed to acquire the two-thirds vote needed for passage.
After a number of failed attempts to find a buyer for Prescott, Yanchenko stepped forward with an offer to turn the building into office space while allowing some community use of the property to continue.
Excited by the offer, selectmen brought it to Town Meeting last spring where it was rejected by voters. Trying again at the Oct. 21 Town Meeting, the measure again failed to earn the needed two-thirds of voters.
With that, the Municipal Building Committee was established with a mandate requiring the group to look at the Prescott School again and establish costs dealing with the building, identify potential users or buyers, gather input from residents, and make recommendations to selectmen by June of 2015.
But no sooner had the new committee met on Jan. 7 than Town Manager Mark Haddad appeared before it with the request that members consider letting the town take over the playground area behind the school so that it could be converted to much needed public parking for the downtown neighborhood.
Haddad told committee members that plans were already in the works to buy a lot off Station Avenue and adjacent to Town Hall. The lot is currently being leased by the town on an annual basis and has been partially improved for parking purposes.
At the same time, talks were also ongoing with a local bank for use of its parking area which would be improved by the town with access given off Station Avenue. Money for the improvements would be sought at Town Meeting.
But with still more space needed, Haddad asked Reuse Committee members to consider allowing the town to create more parking in the back of the Prescott building and preserve its rights to use it after the former school has been sold or leased.
At the same time, the Haddad said that he would go ahead and raise the subject with selectmen at their meeting of Jan. 12.
It was following that meeting that the Reuse Committee took up the question and subsequently turned it down on the basis that it was “premature” to make a decision on the use of any of the property surrounding the school building before members had taken the time to consider options for the future of the site.
The comments followed a site walk of the property conducted by committee members prompting one to note that the walking distance from the rear of the building to Main Street was “like a football field” in length.
It was questioned whether people with business on Main Street would want to walk all that way or simply continue to seek spaces on the street.
Even a suggestion that the committee spend $4,500 on a site survey before it began to discuss what to do with the property was questioned.
“This is too early in our own process to give it our support,” concluded committee Chairman Greg Sheldon.
Following their decision to hold off on the parking request, committee members identified a number of tasks that they needed to complete on the way to submitting a final report to selectmen by June 30 among them civic engagement, gathering information about the Prescott building, identifying its potential uses, community desires, fiscal responsibilities, communications, and drawing up a final report.
To accomplish all of that, Sheldon suggested that members break up into two subcommittees, one to handle issues of research and analysis and the other public-engagement matters.
The two subcommittees are expected to hit the ground running while the committee as a whole is scheduled to meet next on Feb. 4.