SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

May 4, 2013

School plans change slightly

Peabody: Higgins project nearing council approval

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — The new Higgins Middle School won’t be on the straight and narrow.

Rather, it will be skewered, according to designer Ken DiNisco, from DiNisco Design, with one building moved to a spot where it is at an angle to the adjacent building. Connected by walkways, they create a kind of trapezoid. One of those structures will contain three stories of classrooms, the other, at two stories, will contain the administration, cafeteria, auditorium, gym and additional classrooms, among other things.

The change in the placement of the building is designed to take advantage of better “footing” for the structure. While the design is no longer symmetrical, that shouldn’t make much difference and it didn’t stop a City Council finance subcommittee from swiftly and unanimously deciding on Wednesday to endorse spending $92.6 million on the project.

A final vote on that spending is expected at the May 9 City Council meeting.

The small change in the placement of the structure will mean big savings, explained School Committee member Beverley Griffin Dunne. A test boring showed a lot of fill at one end of the footprint.

“In order to support the building they would have had to sink a pier 18 feet,” she said. Moving the structure “really does make it look a bit nicer. It’s a far better fit.” One of the two courtyards planned between the buildings will be a lot roomier, she pointed out.

The state has agreed to pick up more than 56 percent of the cost of the new school, leaving Peabody taxpayers responsible for nearly $49 million. Nevertheless, under the law, the city must first agree to spend the whole amount — hence Thursday’s vote.

The interest charged on the city’s share of the money — estimated at 4 percent — will cost Peabody an additional $36 million, bringing total local spending to $76.5 million.

It will mean an increased tax bill, according to Finance Director Patty Schaffer, of $108 for the average homeowner, paid per year until 2044.

That estimate is based on the 4 percent interest rate, but the city has an AA1 bond rating and recently borrowed at 2 percent, which opens the possibility that the actual cost might be lower than projected. “It puts us into a position to get a very low interest rate on the bond,” noted Mayor Ted Bettencourt during the meeting.

Schaffer told councilors the city will be in the curious condition of deciding if it should borrow the money now, before it’s needed, in order to take advantage of historically low interest rates, rates that could begin to rise again at any time.

“We don’t want to miss an opportunity,” she told the board.

“The stars are aligned to make this happen,” commented Councilor Dave Gravel.

The overall cost of construction has risen from an earlier estimate of up to $89.6 million to $92.6 due to evaluations of the site.

The City Council is expected to take the final vote approving the project on Thursday. According to a timeline distributed to the council, construction would begin in June 2014, with the school ready for occupancy in September 2016. The demolition of the older building would start around the same time.

The designers are promising to hold meetings with area residents to discuss ways to alleviate problems stemming from the construction.

“Everything we’re doing,” said DiNisco, “is to ensure that this is a good neighbor.”