Many Participate in Future Use of Old Winthrop Middle School

Seventy-four residents on a midsummer Tuesday night participated in a ZOOM meeting about the future development of the old Winthrop Middle School property.

That’s a large turnout and indicative of the significant interest in the large, centrally located property on Pauline Street that sits adjacently to the Larsen Rink at the Mike Eruzione Center.

Geoffrey Morrison-Logan of the planning, design and development firm, VHB, moderated the forum, effectively keeping the discussion moving and helping to generate different ideas for the property. Some residents suggested a mixed-use for the property of residential and retail, an idea that would boost the economic vibrancy of the nearby Winthrop Center business district. The construction of a new combined public safety (fire and police) building on the site was also brought to the table.

Town Manager Austin Faison was present at the meeting while Council President Phil Boncore and Precicnt 5 Councillor Peter Christopher led a contingent of town officials participating in the meeting.

One resident asked why the town had been delayed in its efforts to develop the property, noting that it was clear seven years ago that the Winthrop Middle School was going to be part of a new Winthrop Middle/High School that opened in 2016. Today Faison and town officials seem poised to advance on what would be a transformational development for the area – in fact, the next meeting on the Middle School property is slated for August.

Those who remained through the end of the meeting heard Sean Driscoll, director of parks recreation, and Debbie Kneeland Keegan, executive director of For Kids Only, propose using the property for the development of a recreation center.

Both Driscoll and Kneeland Keegan bring years of experience and expertise to the issue of having sufficient recreational and after-school programs available for youths. Driscoll has been the town’s parks and recreation director for 21 years. In fact, Driscoll’s office has been located inside the former Middle School building for the past nine years. Meanwhile, Kneeland Keegan revolutionized after-school programming with the founding of For Kids Only (FKO) that has served thousands of area youths and become a national model. She is FKO’s executive director.

Driscoll spoke about the construction of a new recreational center during the meeting and in an ensuing interview.

“There is a need for a recreational center and a gym because of the mistake that was made when they built the new high school/middle school – they only made one gymnasium – and space is tight there and you can’t do events because it’s booked with high school sports, which it should be,” said Driscoll.

Driscoll would also like to see a police and fire public safety built on the Pauline Street property.

“Instead of thinking about putting in condominiums and more storefronts, the town is in desperate need of a public safety building for our fire and police departments and I think it’s time,” said Driscoll. “You could have a nice, little setup there and use Ingleside Park as a gateway to a new recreation center and over to a new Winthrop Center,” said Driscoll. “I think it’s important to maintain Ingleside Park as a centerpiece in our town. To me, Ingleside Park is our Boston Common.”

Kneeland Keegan followed Driscoll and thanked the meeting organizers for “a well-organized” format and “allowing the opportunity for information-gathering and community input.” Kneeland Keegan said she is developing a new FKO facility in Precinct 1.

“I agree that this is all about balance,” began Keegan Kneeland. “I feel the future of this parcel should be mixed use of residential space, retail space, and a dedicated space for youth and community access – and most of all, preserved green space.

“I feel strongly that our youth need healthy spaces to grow and thrive. It is our responsibility to provide green spaces and physical structures for open access for physical, recreational, and social opportunities for our children and youth. We should be learning some valuable lessons from COVID-19 in that our breath is vital to our existence and we are interconnected beings to our earth,” continued Kneeland Keegan.

“I fully understand the need for revenue and appreciate that, which is why there is a need for balance in the development of this parcel – however, I do now want to sacrifice our green space, nor space for our town youth and seniors for physical recreation, the arts, and social interaction. Winthrop does not have a YMCA, we do not have a Boys and Girls Club. And yes, we are very unique in this way. Why? Because we are an intimate community armed with tremendous opportunity to allow for innovative use of space. I feel the blended use of space for all of us to enjoy such things as the arts and physical activity is imperative in terms of developing this space.”

Boncore and Christopher both thanked residents for their participation in the meeting.

“I would like to thank the 74 people that joined in to the conversation with their ideas and with their comments,” said Boncore. “I picked up some valuable information and I thought some of the people were really brilliant in their thoughts. I encourage them to join one of our committees in the town and we need some volunteers.”

Christopher added, “It was really encouraging to see the amount of people who came in and were able to participate. It really exceeded anything that I would have expected. And the feedback was excellent.”

Town Manager Austin Faison called Tuesday night’s meeting “productive.”

“I thought the meeting was productive as the Town continues to make progress towards the utilization of that site,” said Faison. “We are gaining a clearer picture of what zoning could look like, which will be the eventual result of this committee’s work. There are many conversations to be had on the topic and I’m excited that so many people in the community are engaged,”

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