Burlington High School's Institute Road campus, which closed in September 2020
Burlington School District leaders are getting closer to deciding where to build a new high school. The longtime campus on Institute Road has been closed and deemed unsafe since last September because of the presence of carcinogenic chemicals.
At a meeting Tuesday night, school board members unanimously approved Superintendent Tom Flanagan's recommendation that three sites be considered: the north side of the Institute Road campus, where the PCB-contaminated high school and technical center currently sit; the south side of the Institute Road campus, where the high school sporting fields are located; and the downtown Gateway Block, which includes Memorial Auditorium, a city-owned parking lot and several privately owned parcels.
Flanagan said he used site analysis from real estate consultants White + Burke and feedback from the community to come up with his recommendations.
White + Burke used a scoring system that ranked 12 potential sites based on a set of 16 criteria, including community support, occupancy schedule and overall project costs. The consultants deemed the south side of Institute Road as the top site and the north side of Institute Road as the second-ranked site. The Gateway Block scored eighth.
White + Burke project manager Joe Weith explained that the two Institute Road sites scored highest because of a number of factors: the property is already owned by the school district; it has historically been used for education; it's in a low-density area so there would likely be little community opposition or issues with zoning or permitting; it's large enough to accommodate educational programs and parking; and it's located on a bus line.
Before a new building could go up on the Institute Road campus, it could cost some $20 million to demolish the old building and haul away contaminated dirt.
The Gateway Block scored lower, because construction would likely be more costly for a multistory urban building; there would be a higher probability of zoning and permitting challenges; and historic preservation issues related to Memorial Auditorium could arise that would add to the cost and time frame, Weith said.
Flanagan said that about 85 percent of community members he's heard from want the new high school to stay on Institute Road. The superintendent said he feels that location is "a responsible choice from a cost and time perspective."
However, he said, there has been "a smaller, but sizable portion of people" who are interested in a downtown high school. Flanagan also cited Mayor Miro Weinberger's support for the Gateway Block as a reason to keep it in the running.
In a letter to Flanagan and school board members sent on September 10, Weinberger wrote that choosing the Gateway Block could potentially save the school district tens of millions of dollars. Weinberger said the city is open to a "land swap," in which the school district would receive rights to the Gateway Block and the city would take on some level of responsibility for the Institute Road campus.
Weinberger also raised the possibility of a partnership between the Fletcher Free Library and school district, which might eliminate the need to build a new high school library. The city could also partner with Burlington schools to redevelop Memorial Auditorium into an "outstanding quality gym/auditorium in an uplifting, historic space," Weinberger wrote.
Several school board members weighed in on the sites during Tuesday's meeting.
Commissioner Martine Gulick said she believed the high school campus should remain on Institute Road. She called the location "a gem," noting it abuts 30 acres of forest, is accessible to the bike path and lake, and is already equipped with playing fields.
"And best of all, we already own it," she said.
Gulick said Memorial Auditorium should be considered as an ancillary educational site that could possibly be used for the technical center or early education center.
Commissioner Monika Ivancic said that there were too many unknowns about Memorial Auditorium.
"We have no idea what's wrong with that building," Ivancic said. "It's been condemned ... water has been seeping into the building for many years ... We know what's wrong with [Burlington High School] at Institute Road. So my question is, 'Do we have time to investigate?'"
Flanagan said the district will rely on White + Burke to help figure out the feasibility of each of the three remaining locations. The firm will work with an architect and civil engineer to draw up preliminary site plans. The next phase will also focus in more detail on geotechnical and environmental issues, said David White, president of White + Burke.
"I know that there is an old ravine, for example, under the Gateway Block site, and that ravine reputedly has fill that is not structurally sound and it also supposedly has a major storm water drainage pipe through it," White said. "So we need to look at that ... and understand what constraints or added costs may be involved with those."
White said there also might be structural issues that affect the north and south sides of Institute Road.
"We aren't going to answer every question in this next phase. We don't have enough time to do that," White said. "But what we're trying to do is, with each site, try to get a better level of understanding of what the potential risks and opportunities are so that we can weigh them."