By Alan Burke
---- — The replacement for Higgins Middle School will be taller, but not too tall. It will be large, yet taking up less ground. And it will be built even as the current school continues to function next door.
The Peabody School Committee received the design plan for the project last night. It’s slated to go before the state School Building Authority on Feb. 14. Approval there will win vital state aid for the project of up to 59 percent of the cost, which is estimated at $83 million.
“It’s a very important milestone as we move forward,” said Ken DiNisco of the architectural firm DiNisco Design.
Vivian Low of Daedalus Projects, a firm helping manage the process, announced a goal of achieving a groundbreaking in June 2014.
The current building would function as normal during the two years of construction. If all goes well, Low said, the nearly 50-year-old school would go under the wrecking ball in the summer of 2016.
Sports fields would replace it.
With digital images projected on a screen, DiNisco introduced the board and guests, including state Rep. Ted Speliotis and City Councilors Dave Gravel, Barry Osborne and Tom Gould, to a school divided by two courtyards, with academic classes on one side and a gym, cafeteria, auditorium and administrative offices on the other.
The academic wing, he said, will house “clusters” of students on three levels for grades six, seven and eight. Yet, it will be no higher than surrounding homes. DiNisco said the project takes into account the concerns of neighboring residents.
“This school has to be a good neighbor,” he said.
Further consultations with residents were promised by DiNisco and Mayor Ted Bettencourt, chairman of the School Committee.
The tree-lined roads depicted in the presentation “are not totally fictional,” DiNisco said. They are planned as part of the project. The roads will be designed to segregate bus routes from auto traffic and send all vehicles on loops that take them smoothly in and out.
Around 450 parking spaces are planned.
Concerns for security are also accounted for, according to DiNisco. Three secure entrances to the building are remotely controlled and monitored by a closed-circuit camera.
It’s a project that takes care of the environment, as well.
“We will be looking at ways to capture roof runoff for irrigation,” DiNisco said.
That benefits the city, he said, by decreasing the flood risk downtown. The roof is also geared to support solar panels.
While the board seemed pleased by what they saw, member Ed Charest questioned why the city would build a school for 1,340 students when it currently has 1,341 kids in the middle school.
“You’re not anticipating any increase in the population?” he asked.
“You’re starting on a decline now as far as enrollment,” said DiNisco aide Donna DiNisco-Crawford.
“It’s a beautiful building,” Charest said. “You know the old saying, ‘If you build it, they will come.’”
“We had to fight to get the 1,340,” Ken DeNisco said. “(The state) did their own analysis. It’s set in stone.”
Current Higgins Principal Todd Bucey explained that the figure mainly applies to lockers. As there are a number of spaces available for special classes in a pinch, the school could withstand an expanding population.
Councilor Osborne was clearly unhappy to hear that the state had decreed that it could not pay for the school auditorium, determining that it does not address the educational needs of the school.
Bettencourt explained that he wanted the auditorium included anyway, at city expense, to serve students active in the performing arts, as well as residents. It will seat 500 people — in other words, one grade at a time. The state did agree to pay for the stage.
“So the show can go on,” Osborne said, “we just can’t watch it.”
“I’m very impressed with the thought that went into the building,” said board member Beverley Ann Griffin Dunne.
“The building looks wonderful,” member Brandi Carpenter said. “I’m very excited.”
“Always err on the side of what is great,” colleague Dave McGeney said. “This is going to be a statement ... and something that will be remembered for a long, long time. ... Once in a generation, a city gets to define itself and say, ‘This is who we are.” ... This seems to be that kind of moment.”