Sunday, June 29, 2008

Cushing Park and the Senior Center--Why I Will Vote for a Change in Designation

In the Planning and Development Committee, I voted in favor of changing the designation of Cushing Park from Municipal Parking to Municipal Parking and a Senior Center. The full Council is likely to take a vote at the Monday night, June 30th meeting which starts at 7:30PM at City Hall.

The Committee process allowed for several public meetings, including one at the site. I especially appreciated the input from citizens on both sides of this question, who respectfully tried to learn from each other. I learned a lot.

Below I will try to briefly outline the argument FOR the change in designation and the arguments AGAINST with my own take on these arguments and why I'm in favor of Cushing Park as the site for a Senior Center.


To me, it's a basic city service just as we provide schools, libraries, roads, and sidewalks. The services offered for seniors help to connect them to their peers, help them stay independent and active, and let them know that their community values their contributions.

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 we baby boomers age in the next 20 years. Currently about 11% of our seniors, approximately 350 people, use the current delivery system of scattered, fragmented services provided in multiple rented or borrowed or begged sites.

While Newburyport spends almost $20 Million each year on public education, the $193,000 operating budget for the Council on Aging is less than one half of 1% of the city budget.

A Senior Center as a Vehicle for Services
As Roseann Robillard, the head of the City's Council on Aging, has said, there are two types of services/programs needed now. She and her staff do the best they can but space and money have been the major constraints. I would argue that, while money will always be an issue for the Council on Aging as it is for other City departments, the Council can act to address the space constraint.

Life Maintenance services include nutrition, housing, health care, transportation, insurance help, tax help, and information/referral. These services will continue to be needed during the next 20 years by those aging among us. Sometimes these services are delivered in program space, sometimes they are delivered in the person's home.

Life Enrichment programs include support groups, volunteer opportunities, foreign language classes, dance, choral groups, theater trips, computer classes. These activities enhance the lives of elders by providing stimulation and socialization - important to reduce loneliness, prevent depression, and keep elders engaged in the community.

According to the U.S. Administration on Aging,
Literally thousands of senior centers are operating in the United States. A vital link in the service delivery network which older persons may avail themselves of, senior centers are functioning as meal sites, screening clinics, recreational centers, social service agency branch offices, mental health counseling clinics, older worker employment agencies, volunteer coordinating centers, and community meeting halls. The significance of senior centers cannot be underestimated for they provide a sense of belonging, offer the opportunity to meet old acquaintances and make new friends, and encourage individuals to pursue activities of personal interest and involvement in the community.

As to the future, we can anticipate similar types of needs. It will be very important, as with other City services, to be innovative.

This from a New York Times article on March 25, 2008:
Experts predict that baby boomers will not walk in the door of outdated centers, which are often in church basements, reminiscent of high school cafeterias before the advent of food courts, with few activities besides bingo and transportation to the mall.
"If they don't innovate," said John A. Krout, director of the gerontology institute at Ithaca College, "they will die."
Fierce competition for the older-American market has inspired a search for new models and an emerging consensus about the elements the senior center of the 21st century should include.
Among them are fitness activities, chronic-disease management, fall prevention and other aspects of healthy aging; continuing education both practical and intellectual; volunteer and work opportunities for those not ready for retirement; a handsome environment that accommodates the physical limits of age without looking institutional; and some programs aimed to the "young old," those from 55 to 65, to begin changing their negative view of senior centers.

I feel that it is clear that there will be a depth of need in the future just as there is now--a Senior Center is a vital part of a community-wide response to that need. But to more accurately tailor future services, whether the Cushing Park designation is changed or not, I will be advocating for the City of Newburyport to replicate a community outreach and education model to count and catalog the needs of each resident age 60 or older. "Seniors Count" is an effort used in Boston and Lowell in which two-person teams of trained and screened volunteers visit every senior citizen living in the city, find out his or her needs, and get him or her information about social services. Grant dollars and volunteer time would support this important effort.

Capital and Operating Costs

The question before the Council now is not one of funding---it is a question of changing the designation of Cushing Park.

That said, the cost of construction could be in $5 million area. On going operating costs will be similar to what is spent now, since many of these services are already delivered just in multiple sites.

Obviously, the City doesn't have $5 million tucked under the mattress. Cost of construction will need to be covered by a mix of fundraising, City and State funds (House Speaker Sal Dimasi pledged $600,000 in October 2004 which has recently been reiterated by Senator Baddour). We should also work with our U.S Senators and Congressman Tierney for assistance. If the site designation is changed, yet down the road the City is not in a position to afford this, I will not advocate for the City to put its financial position at risk.

The Site
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.

Site Selection Committee has worked for many years on finding a centralized site for services.

• National Guard Armory on Low Street---three different sites on that property were looked at. After 9/11, no longer viable. Senator Jajuga had committed $600,000 which has been reiterated by Senator Baddour.
• DPW property/Foundry on Merrimac Street was developed into housing.
• DPW site in Industrial zone is considered too remote and an incompatible use if the goal is to present an attractive space to seniors
• Baptist Church on Green Street later was redeveloped into two restaurants
• Cashman Park was too prone to flood, now used as soccer field
• Hope Church rented out space to a different use.
• Fulton Pit behind Fire Station would require $9Million to build and install utilities. Also there were environmental and engineering concerns.
• Port Rehab on Low Street decided not to build additional capacity
• Parking Garage on Green Street was not advanced by City
• Waterfront East and West has never been seriously considered by NRA. Also would be too congested during summer tourist months.
• YWCA was discussed with that agency but that site would not allow enough space for senior purposes and parking was not adequate for both Y and Senior usages.
• Cushing Park has been looked at over the years.
• Library was considered at Cushing Park during Library renovations planning but doesn't have enough space.
• Donoghue Motors space on Winter and Merrimac was converted to housing/commercial.
• Belleville Church doesn't have accessibility and parking is not adequate.
• Coast Guard Station would not work.
• Basement of City Hall doesn't provide enough room.

Site Selection Criteria has included:
• Cost
• Parking
• Storage
• Interior space needs to be flexible/expandable
• Proximity to downtown, not segregated in industrial zone

Cushing Park
I think Cushing Park is a viable site:

a) it is centrally located essentially in the middle of our city; some seniors may actually be able to walk there. While it is not as 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) The Senior Center would have a modest footprint and reasonable height at the Kent Street side of Cushing Park. The current playground would not be impacted, the current basketball court could be improved, and most of the on-site emergency parking would be retained. Additional snow emergency parking needs could be met by allowing parking on a designated side of a street.

Changing the Cushing Park designation to include use as a Senior Center is only the next step. Much work would remain to be done obviously on fundraising. In terms of design and implementation, the neighborhood and seniors are the most important stakeholders.

The creation of a Senior Center Building Committee provides an opportunity to engage the community and neighbors to design a public space that will result in a Senior Center for that population and an improved public space for neighbors and the entire City. That Committee (in my opinion) should include a balance of Mayoral appointees from the COA, Councillor appointees from the Council, Ward 3 Councillor appointees from the neighborhood, the City's Planner, and the Executive Director of the COA.


I’ve addressed other arguments above, but these are some of the other arguments I’ve heard against Cushing Park as a site for a Senior Center.

Snow Emergency Parking

Neighbors are concerned that they will not be able to park in the parking lot if spaces are taken away. A commonly agreed-upon fact is that a maximum of 120 vehicles have used the lot during snow emergency. The proposed design (this design is merely a placeholder based on a study approved by the Council) includes emergency parking for approximately 75-80 vehicles.

I think we can manage snow emergency parking in a more efficient manner. Let’s evaluate the need for and the implementation of better snow emergency parking regulations.

I know we are not Boston but like Boston we are a city of dense neighborhoods. Like Boston and other municipalities, we can allow snow emergency parking on designated sides of certain secondary roads.

ZBA and "Deeded" Parking

Over time I have heard varied statements that that the ZBA had in the past given residents a 'right' to park at Cushing Park. At one of the Planning and Development Committee meetings, a Cushing Park neighbor said that he had 'deeded parking' from the City. I researched that particular ZBA decision from 1982. The then-owners had petitioned the ZBA for permission for a lot split.

In that decision, the ZBA wrote:
"If this Board grants the [petitioner's] request for a lot split the ordinance requires two parking spaces per unit for a total of four parking spaces.
[Lot address] does not have four parking spaces. At best there is room for one (1) large automobile or two subcompacts.
Furthermore because of the close proximity of the dwelling to the boundry (sic) line it is not possible to create any further space on the premises for parking.
However the [petitioners] do comply with the Newburyport Zoning Ordinance, Section VII-Parking, in that [lot address] is within 300 feet of a municipal parking lot. The [petitioners] or sucessors in title are permitted to utilize said parking facilities and therefore the Board is satisfied as to the parking issue."

The ZBA acknowledged the ability to park in the municipal lot as a factor in granting a variance. This is very different from the City issuing a property transaction (a lease, easement, sale) to give the actual right to park.

Since the conceptual plan for a possible Senior Center includes most of the current parking, I don't believe that this "ZBA argument" even if it was correct –which it isn't-- should be a reason to vote against the change in designation.

The Open Space Argument
The argument has been made that the neighborhood is too dense and that the area should be preserved for future generations. I would say, yes, it is dense and so is most of the City—that's part of the reason why this has been difficult. Again, the proposed building has a modest footprint to keep impact to a reasonable amount. Most of the open space remains open. I agree we have open space needs in this community and it is a desirable goal. However with the demonstrated need for a Senior Center, I believe we can manage a solution at Cushing Park. This is an opportunity to improve Cushing Park so that it could be more like a park, rather than just a parking lot with a playground and basketball court. We can keep the trees, we can install benches and other amenities. Kids can still learn to ride their bikes on the new parking lot and basketball court.

Generalized Impacts on the Neighborhood

Traffic, hours of operation, and access would all be studied during the design and implementation phase. The space can be accessed by multiple streets which would distribute any increase in traffic. The Council on Aging has vans which provide transportation; such public transportation and car pooling can minimize the number of vehicles. Council on Aging has stated that wish to accommodate neighborhood wishes on hours of operation. Some neighbors have told me that they desire a building which could be used by neighborhood groups after hours. Other neighbors feel the opposite. I believe all that can be determined by an inclusive planning, design, and implementation process AND an ongoing Neighborhood Advisory Committee in the future.

The Legal Argument
Opponents argue that the City will be sued for not complying with Article 97 of the Amendments to the Massachusetts Constitution, which prohibits the sale or change in use of public parkland without special legislative approval.

In the opinion of the City Solicitor dated April 23, 2007, "it is my opinion that the portion of the land known as Cushing Park proposed to be used for senior center purposes was not 'taken or acquired' for public parkland purposes and has not been formally held for such purposes since 1954. As land held for municipal parking, it is not subject to the restrictions of Article 97." The City has received correspondence from Executive Office of Environmental Affairs and MA DCR concurring with the City Solicitor's opinion.

The Seniors Have Rejected Sites

See the above list of possible sites.

Segregation of Seniors

This model of services is used in thousands of communities across the country. Just as schoolchildren have certain needs based on their age, so do seniors. A well-located Senior Center with services targeted mainly to elders (though there are ways to be somewhat multigenerational through volunteers and internships) is not a bad thing.

The Waterfront
With respect for the wonderfully passionate George Roaf, he is leading a one man parade here. His survey did indicate a preference for the Waterfront. George Roaf telephoned 154 Golden Agers. 47% wanted the waterfront, 43% wanted Cushing Park, and 17% didn't care. Golden Ager members told the Planning and Development Committee that at a monthly meeting after George's survey, virtually all in attendance indicated that they liked Cushing Park.

The Karp Senior Center on the Waterfront
The City has many criteria for development along the Waterfront. Adding a Senior Center into the negotiating mix with Karp and New England Development does not seem wise nor realistic.

Kelley School
The City seems headed to using the site for Youth Services. Representative Costello obtained a substantial earmark with that use in mind. Parking would be difficult: the notion of simply moving the basketball court and the playground across the Bartlett Mall to make room for the parking needed for a Senior Center seems unlikely to me.

Sharing With Newbury
That option went the way of the Little River Transit Village.

This change in designation may not be what every neighbor and citizen wants, but it is a step this City needs. This Council is sitting in a place where we have the chance to move ahead to provide an important support for seniors in our community. This may be a controversial and divisive vote, but it will also be one of the most important we cast in this term. I will be voting 'YES'.


Councillor Edward Cameron