MADISON — The Board of Selectmen voted unanimously to recommend the sale of the former Island Avenue School to Our Lady of Mercy Preparatory Academy in a meeting Tuesday night.
The academy, which has been leasing the building since 2019, offered the town $2.3 million for the purchase of the 9.3 acre property, with plans to use the property as the permanent home for the kindergarten through eighth-grade Catholic school.
The academy was one of three organizations making offers on the former school. The other two, Newport Realty Group and Beacon Communities, planned to develop the property into rental apartments.
Newport’s proposal would have converted the former school building into 12 market-rate apartments and constructed an additional 10 luxury townhouses, all for residents over 55. Beacon’s plan would have constructed 70 multi-unit affordable apartments, 80 percent for residents over 55 and 20 percent for families with children in foster care.
The three groups presented their competing plans at a public hearing immediately prior to the meeting of the Board of Selectmen.
Vlad Coric, a board member of the Our Lady of Mercy Academy, emphasized that having another school purchase the building would mean that residents did not have to worry about changes that could affect the neighborhood.
“It will look exactly as it looks today,” he said, “No traffic concerns or security concerns or concerns about blasting or demolition.”
Coric said that the school’s enrollment, currently180 students, continues to grow, and he said that the town would benefit from having parents visit local businesses. He said that residents could also continue using the school facilities and playgrounds on the weekends.
Coric also contrasted the academy’s market-rate offer — the town’s assessment of the property is $2.045 million — to offers by Newport of $300,000 and Beacon for $250,000
Tony Vilardi, a managing member at Newport, explained at the hearing that his company’s offer reflected the amount the company would be investing in the project. Dara Kovel, CEO of Beacon Communities, said the lower price would allow the company to pass along the savings in the form of lower rents.
As a for-profit entity, the school will also add value to the town’s tax rolls, but the academy did not provide an estimate of how much tax revenue the town could expect yearly.
“Part of the neighborhood”
Apparently, a significant factor in the Board of Selectmen’s decision was a provision in the deed giving heirs to the property the “right of first refusal” — meaning that they can purchase the property, and potentially sell it, as long as they match any competing offer.
Selectman Al Goldberg explained that it would be much easier for heirs to match the lower offers of Newport and Beacon. He also pointed out that the heirs had specifically requested to the board that the site remain a school.
First Selectwoman Peggy Lyons agreed that the right of first refusal posed a significant risk. Lyons also said that Our Lady of Mercy was part of the community.
“It’s part of the neighborhood. It’s part of the fabric of Madison, and it’s the least disruptive,” she said, adding that local residents have expressed concerns over the past year about development.
Members of the public still raised a variety of possible issues with the school proposal. One resident asked about how the school would manage the traffic jams during drop-off and pick-up. Another asked about the cost of providing busing and nursing services to the school. But Our Lady of Mercy’s proposal appeared to be the favorite of local residents.
According to a survey conducted by the Island Avenue Future Use Committee in June, residents favored selling the property to Our Lady of Mercy over any other use, including multi- or single-family housing.
Selectwoman Erin Duques said it gave her “some pause” that, according to Coric, the official owner of the property would not be the Academy, but a separate, private LLC that she “did not know anything about.”
Selectman Bruce Wilson said that while he appreciated the benefits that affordable housing could bring to the community, he didn’t believe that Beacon’s proposal was feasible on the Island Avenue property.
“That project is not going to sustain that many bedrooms on that land from a septic perspective,” he said.
The Island Avenue Future Use Committee previously determined that the property could support a new septic system that would serve 25 multi-family dwellings or six single-family houses.
Wilson said he felt that the Academy brought “intangible” benefits to Madison.
“Madison is a community that is fundamentally anchored by the quality of its schools,” he said.
Selectman Scott Murphy said he saw the value of keeping the building as a school.
“We’re not going to change much of the streets, the facade, the structure — things that are important to that community,” he said. “It’s been a school for 70 years … I think that it enhances our community, it brings diversity to our community and it brings families into our community to celebrate the power of Madison.
The vote on Tuesday allows the first selectwoman to begin negotiations with the school. The proposal will still need to be reviewed by the town’s Board of Finance and Planning and Zoning before it can be presented to the town for approval.