WHS Project Update

Published by Chris Wangler - March 9, 2020.

To minimize environmental damage, mayor Jeannette McCarthy is considering a plan to move the parking garage for the WHS project off 554 Lexington Street to an adjacent 6-acre parcel.

The city council is supportive, but the Waltham Land Trust is trying to block the measure as it comes up for a final vote Monday.

The WLT says that the 46-acre former Stigmatines property is sufficient land for the project and that Jericho Hill was acquired as open space, not for development.

All the local and state funding for the $374 million Waltham High School project has been approved, but there’s one catch: state money ($118M) won’t be approved until all state agencies sign off.

Late last year, the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act Office (MEPA) ordered Waltham school building officials to prepare an environmental impact report, citing multiple environmental thresholds that the project exceeds, including traffic.

Currently project architects are preparing a draft version of that report, which includes mitigation measures to reduce any environmental damage.

Meanwhile, Mass DEP, a separate agency, is concerned about a planned parking garage near a wetland and intermittent stream.

In response, mayor Jeannette McCarthy asked the city council last week to transfer Jericho Hill, a city-owned parcel, to the school department for the WHS project.

The proposal calls for the 450-space garage with athletic fields on top to be moved west to minimize environmental impacts.

In addition to saving the wetland, the mayor told the council that the proposal would minimize blasting and deforestation and keep the project moving.

The mayor discussed her plan with the council last Monday. The city councilor for Ward 2, Caren Dunn (left), worried that there was not enough information to vote for a transfer that would impact her constituents, but the mayor insisted that the matter was urgent.

It would also appease vocal Lexington Street neighbors who don’t want the oversize garage so close to their homes, fearing that extensive blasting will worsen existing stormwater flooding.

Jericho Hill has never been considered for the new high school, and the garage plan has not been studied by project architects for feasibility.

After a lengthy closed-door executive session last Monday, the council took an initial vote to approve the transfer, with certain conditions.

Since then, the Waltham Land Trust has mobilized its members to block it.

Roughly 60, including four city councilors, walked the property on Saturday to see where the mayor is proposing to place the garage―on undeveloped land with steep grades, not far from Trimount Avenue in Lakeview.

To date, the WLT has not opposed the high school project at the former Stigmatines property.

It is upset by the current proposal because it would unnecessarily convert part of a pristine wooded parcel with views of downtown Boston into a parking garage.

The acquisition of Jericho Hill by the city in 2001 helped to establish the Land Trust, Waltham’s leading open space advocacy group and a key city conservation partner.

In a statement, the WLT said it was “very concerned” over the land transfer, arguing that the city clearly intended to preserve Jericho Hill as open space in perpetuity when it was acquired in a friendly taking.

But the order of taking for the property specifies any municipal use, not exclusively open space, meaning that the garage plan appears legally valid.

The council is expected to vote on the mayor’s request to transfer Jericho Hill on Monday.

The current garage proposal, which is only an alternative at this point, leaves some key questions unanswered.

The unanimously chosen site for the new WHS cannot accommodate the entire project.

Were the serious environmental limitations of the Stigmatines property made clear during the WHS site selection process?

The mayor said last week that a pedestrian path, not a secondary access road, would connect the Jericho Hill garage to Trimount Avenue. Does the new plan affect a proposal for an emergency access path for first responders?

And will moving the garage shift the significant blasting impact from vocal Lexington Street project opponents to unwary neighbors in Lakeview and Piety Corner/Glen Circle?