Panel pushes for analysis of 2 possible Meriden senior center sites

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MERIDEN — The panel tasked with developing a plan to relocate and build a new senior center, combined with a new location for the city’s health department offices, asked the city’s consultant this week to develop plans for two different sites. 

The Senior Center Building Review Committee, during its meeting Wednesday night, was scheduled to recommend a site for the combined new senior center and health department project. Instead, the committee opted not to select a site, with its members appearing to agree that more information needed to be gathered regarding the two primary locations under consideration: 116 Cook Ave. and the former Westfield Care & Rehab facility on Westfield Road. 

The cost of studying and designing plans for two sites instead of one is expected to be an additional $40,000. It will also push back the deadline for when the committee was set to present its senior center recommendation to the City Council. The previous deadline was early August. Now it will be early September. 

Mayor Kevin Scarpati during Wednesday night’s discussion said even though there is increased cost associated with developing plans for two locations, that increase does not mean there will be cost overruns. Last November, the City Council authorized spending $250,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funds to design plans for a new senior center. The project is currently within that spending limit. 

During a public meeting last week, design consultant EDM and its partner firm SLR discussed the advantages and disadvantages of the Cook Avenue and Westfield sites, as well as three others that were under consideration for the senior center and health department project. 

On Wednesday, a week later, City Councilor Bruce A. Fontanella,  the Senior Center Building Review Committee chairman, asked project manager Chris Wante, of EDM, what has happened since that meeting when options were presented. 

Wante said his team took a look at the data given by City Manager Timothy Coon — primarily the cost to purchase the Westfield property versus the cost to remediate the Cook Avenue property. But they still need to dig into the numbers a little bit further. 

Wante said based on his best estimate, the cost to acquire and develop Westfield, which the city does not own, would be between $1.5 million and $2 million. But, he noted, there are still “a lot of variables in there.”

Meanwhile the site development cost for the Cook Avenue property, which the city does own, is currently estimated to be between $500,000 to $1 million, as much of the costs to remediate will be handled by grants the city already has received, Wante said. 

Wante proposed working with the environmental analysis currently being completed by the engineering firm Fuss & O’Neil, to develop what he called an environmental use restriction plan for the property while developing a site plan for it as well.

Wante said his firm would work with Fuss & O’Neil to “nail down exactly what” the environmental costs will be.

Fontanella asked if there is any possibility that the environmental analysis would find that no building of the size sought for the senior center could be built on the Cook Avenue site.

“We’re under the impression that that would not be a concern,” Wante said.

Scarpati had concerns about potential restrictions due to the areas on the Cook Avenue site that are presently capped. He asked if the study would take into consideration extracting that capped contamination.

Wante responded that it would — determining what areas are most ideal for building structures, green space, parking and how much contaminated soil would need to be removed from the city.

“It will give us exact specs for what’s in the ground. Would be able to give us a good idea what that site development cost would be not to remediate, but prepare the site for our structure and our site development.’”

Fontanella asked Wante if the costs for developing the Westfield or Cook properties are separated “by millions, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands.”

Wante said his gut tells him the building costs and site costs would be fairly similar, but he estimated a “$1 million delta” based on the procurement costs for Westfield and the environmental cost at Cook.

Wante explained it would cost an additional $40,000 to study the second site. The firm would request an additional month to complete both site analyses.

Fontanella said based on the questions lingering he believes the committee should authorize spending $40,000 to retain the consultant to do a further analysis of both sites, for a presentation at a later date, followed by a more informed decision. 

“So postpone until a date when we have more information, more definite numbers, program evaluations, to lead us to make a better decision,” Fontanella said. 

Fontanella raised the question of whether the city had permission to build on Cook Avenue. 

Scarpati said the $2 million grant the city received from the state Department of Economic Community Development to tear down the building at 116 Cook Ave. doesn’t prohibit the city from building a senior center there. However, if the state deems building a senior center on the site is not permitted under the grant, the city would need to pay back the grant through a loan. 

Coon responded to concerns raised about 116 Cook being within the flood zone. 

“The building is outside of the practical flood zone,” Coon said. “When work is completed it’s going to be completely out of the flood zone.”

The city manager also noted a substantial amount of environmental remediation has already been completed to date. 

“We know exactly what is beneath the slab,” Coon said, adding that the remediation work will be completed “regardless of whether a senior center comes onto this site or not.”

Committee member Dennis Tobin raised concerns about what becomes of the site that is ultimately not picked. “If we don’t pick Westfield, what are our options, what kind of tax base, economic development — what’s that going to mean to the town?”

Fontanella asked Coon if there has been any talk regarding the implications of the sites if they’re not used. 

Coon responded  there has not been much talk regarding the Westfield property. “The only thing I’m aware that there is a possible use for is residential,” the city manager said. “Certainly 116 Cook has a lot more opportunity for development.”

Coon noted that the city owns 14 acres of property in the vicinity of the Cook Avenue site.

Members of the public who addressed the committee had mixed thoughts regarding both sites. Some expressed a preference for Cook Avenue, given its central location and accessibility, while others felt Westfield offers a potentially quieter and more set back location.



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