Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Post for the Week of February 10-16, 2008: Newburyport Medical Center and Senior Center

To those who actually look forward to reading my ramblings here, I apologize for my disappearance.

After being sworn in with the Council, the Mayor, and the School Committee in early January, my wife and I adopted a new daughter from China which necessitated my traveling overseas for two weeks. Don't worry---my Councillor duties were upheld by Councillors Shanley and Connell covering my phone calls and my wife Susanne covering a neighborhood meeting for me.

So with a happy daughter now home with us and with a keen appreciation, which only travel can induce, for all that we have in Newburyport, my thoughts on a couple of issues:

Newburyport Medical Center
As reported in the Daily News, the Council voted unanimously (with one recusal by Councillor Jones) on Monday night to approve modifications to the special permit for the proposed cancer center to be built off of Low Street and adjacent to Anna Jaques Hospital. This project has been supported by a strong majority of the neighbors, mostly because the access road has long been sought as a way to alleviating traffic impact on narrow residential streets.
The modifications were requested because a new developer Murphy & McManus will, after the necessary approvals are granted, complete the project. I voted 'yes' because the proposed modifications represent a 'de-intensification' of usage --a smaller building with slightly more parking--while maintaining the long awaited access road and providing much needed cancer treatment services to the Greater Newburyport area.

Senior Center
Jim Roy's column in last week's Newburyport Current asked a series of good questions to which I will give a brief answer:

1) "What is the constituency we’re talking about here, and how many of them are there?"
Out of a total population of 17,000, Newburyport’s population over the age of 60 is over 3,000 and expected to rise to over 5,000 people as the baby boomers age in the next 20 years. If 20% of the 3,000 seniors are in need of community, services, recreation, and a reason to get out of the house/apartment, that would give us 600 seniors who would use a Senior Center. Hopefully not all at once...;-).
The services provided would be similar to what is provided now in scattered rented/borrowed/begged sites and similar to what is provided in other municipalities. Yes, there may be bingo, but there will also be medical help, tax assistance, and outreach.

2) "Secondly, who is pressuring for this center?"
I heard a lot about it on the campaign trail last summer and fall. I've met with folks from the Council on Aging and unaffiliated seniors who are in favor. I've talked to members of the Siting Committee who've worked on this topic for years. Successive Mayors have worked on this issue.

3) "My third problem with this enterprise is location."
Newburyport has been looking for years at sites ranging from the Armory on Low Street, the waterfront, the Fulton Street Pit behind the Fire Station, and Cushing Park--which has emerged as the preferred site under Mayors Clancy and Moak. Jim Roy mentions Newbury's Little River Transit project as a possible partnership between the communities. I've looked at that idea--as have others. That town's proposed Senior Center is 5,000 square feet, which would make a huge house but a very small senior center; the proposal for Newburyport is 12,000 square feet.
I think Cushing Park, while not perfect, is a viable site:
a) it is centrally located essentially in the middle of our city; some seniors may actually walk there. While it is not close to senior housing located downtown, it is closer to senior housing located at Horton Terrace.
b) the City owns the land, lowering overall cost. Site control is key to any development project. In the recent Request for Proposals (RFP) for a CDBG funding put out by the MA Dept of Housing and Community Development -- this is the source often used by communities to specifically pay for capital costs for Senior Centers -- the first criteria of eligibility is 'site control'. This is why the site needs to be secured first, then the funding pursued. No foundation, state or federal agency, or private donor is going to give a penny until a site is in hand.
c) a Senior Center can fit into the neighborhood and I would say this if I lived right there on Kent Street. It will look better than what is there now—a dilapidated parking lot. The draft plans include quite a bit of parking which will cover snow emergency parking needs. The playground will remain intact. I was even pleased to find that the basketball court would remain. There is an outcry when a neighborhood school is closed; then there is an outcry when a service is proposed to be located in a neighborhood. Help me understand. Is it that we just don't like change?

In his column, Jim suggested that I'd be better off avoiding this 'minefield' which he incorrectly thought was in Ward 4 (Jim acknowledged this mistake in an email to me). As I've said before, I'd support the Senior Center and this proposed site whether I represented Ward 3, Ward 4 or the entire city and whether I lived on Kent Street, Oakland Street, or Plum Island.

To me, there is a need and a problem to be solved. We have a potential solution that works to address the problem, the capital funds to be raised will not harm the City's budget, the ongoing operating costs will be slightly higher than currently budgeted but the rent we now pay the Salvation Army would cover a great deal of the utilities and maintenance cost.

I think we need to keep moving on this.

Ed Cameron