The Town of Madison is preparing to hold a referendum on several long-term projects, including the development of the former Academy School into a community center, the sale of the former Island Avenue School and a building project that will overhaul the schools in the local district.
First Selectwoman Peggy Lyons said that she wanted to move the projects forward as soon as possible. She said she wanted to get all of these issues on a single ballot.
“I think it would be the right thing to aspire to that. We need to make decisions and move on and allow the community to finally weigh in on all these important issues in our town.”
Lyons said that a November referendum wouldn’t be possible, but that the Board is considering dates in December and in February.
Town lawyer Kari Olsen pointed out that, with the exception of the school district project, the town did not need to have a referendum. However, the selectmen said they wanted to give the public as much opportunity as possible to give feedback, particularly regarding the Island Avenue School.
“This is unprecedented for the town, to sell an asset of this level,” said Lyons. “I think all along people have expected the opportunity to weigh in on those choices.”
Island Avenue School
The town has been trying to find a permanent solution for the Island Avenue School property since the school closed at the end of the 2018-19 school year. The following year, the town rented out the building to Our Lady of Mercy Preparatory Academy, a K-8 Catholic school. The school is currently leasing the property through August of next year.
The former school is located on 9.3 acres of land, including wetlands, and has been valued at $2.045 million. Deed restrictions prevent the building from being used for commercial or industrial purposes.
The town’s Island Avenue Future Use Committee recommended in January that the town put out a Request for Proposals for individuals interested in converting the property into a private school, multi-family housing and single-family housing. The committee determined that the property could support a new septic system that would serve 25 multi-family dwellings or six single-family dwellings.
The town has received three proposals for the former school. One is from Our Lady of Mercy, which wants to purchase the building for $2.3 million and continue to use it for the school.
A second proposal came from the Newport Realty Group, which plans to use the property to create 22 multi-family housing units restricted to individuals aged 55 and older. Twelve of the units would be in the existing school, and 10 would be multi-unit condo townhouses. While the group will “re-use where possible the existing building’s main structure,” it plans to demolish the newer addition of the building.
The group would pay the town $300,000 for the property, and said it estimates development costs to total an additional $4.692 million. The units in the school would cost $2,000 per month to rent and the townhouses would cost $1.5 million each.
The third proposal is from the Beacon Communities Group, which plans to develop the property into a senior housing community including nine residential buildings containing 70 mixed-income rental homes. Fifty-six of the units would be reserved for residents over the age of 55, and 14 would be for foster care and kinship care families.
About 81 percent of the apartments would be for individuals who make 60 percent or less of the Area Median Income; the remainder would be market-rate. The plan also includes common areas, a “clubhouse” for social gatherings and “outdoor play areas” that would be open to the public. The group is offering the town $250,000 in purchasing price and estimates development costs at “under $30.1 million.” It is also requesting a tax abatement for the property.
In a survey conducted by the Island Avenue Future Use Committee in June, residents favored selling the property to Our Lady of Mercy, followed by allowing the property to be developed for multi-family housing and selling it to be developed for single family housing.
Olsen said that the heirs of the property’s original owners, who have the right of first refusal, indicated in a letter that they wanted the property to remain a school.
The Board of Selectmen voted to hold a public hearing for the Island Avenue School at 6 p.m. on August 3, where the public will be able to review the three proposals and hear from the bidders. The proposals will be available on the town website.
A Makeover for the School District a New Community Center
In a Board of Education meeting last week, the board voted to recommend to the first selectman that a referendum be held in February of 2022 to approve a four-part, $85 million building project that would overhaul the district’s schools.
The project includes four parts: constructing a new pre-kindergarten to fifth grade elementary school, closing Jeffrey and Ryerson Elementary Schools and the Town Campus Learning Center, converting Brown Intermediate School into a kindergarten to fifth grade school and renovating Polson Middle School. Completion of the project is aimed for 2025.
At the Board of Selectmen meeting, Superintendent Craig Cooke said that while the Board of Education could prepare for a referendum as early as December, the Board would prefer a February referendum in order to give the members more time to get more information to the public, particularly since the COVID pandemic made it more difficult to engage with the public.
The project has to be approved by June 2022 in order for the town to apply for state grant money. Lyons said that the referendum delay has put all the district’s capital improvement plans on hold.
The town is also trying to make permanent plans for the former Academy School building, which has been vacant since 2004.
“This has been an albatross around the town’s neck for a long time,” said Lyons.
In 2018, the town commissioned a survey of residents, the majority of whom said they favored that the building be developed into a community center. The Academy School Community Center Design Committee contracted with Colliers International to develop a design plan. A recent assessment of the building in February of 2021 estimated $17.8 million would be needed to make the building usable.
Bill Stableford, chair of the Academy School Community Center Design Committee, said he believed the community center would be highly beneficial for the town as a center for arts and music, as well as a place for senior services and youth and family services, both of which, he said, were in need of extra space. He said he had also discussed with Beach and Rec the potential to relocate facilities to the community center.
Lyons said that they needed to update the project cost estimates and make more detailed plans for how the municipal departments would use the building.
The town will continue to discuss the projects and referendum timelines at its future meetings.