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Senior Center Hearing Provides More Fireworks over Greene’s Field Issue

Public hearing gets heated at times; Chairman has to warn audience

For over two hours Tuesday, Needham residents debated the proposed locations for a new senior center, but at the end of the night, no clear consensus had been found and Selectmen were dismayed at the lack of synergy in the room.

The meeting, held before the Board of Selectmen, began inauspiciously enough with Joel Bargmann of architectural firm Bargmann, Hendrie & Archetype restating the three sites for a potential new senior center, including Greene's Field, Rosemary Street and Ridge Hill.

As anyone who has followed Needham issues long enough knows, though, you cannot mention Greene's Field without evoking controversy in a room, a fact that Bargmann seemed to be aware of as he addressed a near capacity crowd in the Needham Library Community Room Tuesday night.

"We have to ask the question, 'How can you best use the site?'" he said in relation to looking at different areas to build. "We're trying to be positive and it's not our decision whether to build on Greene's Field; we're presenting what would happen if you build on Greene's Field."

Bargmann emphasized cost as a key element to any project like this one and cited demolition, topography, soil type and collateral improvements among cost driving items.

Blueprints for Greene's Field show four different options, all of which would in some way impact the current park. Proponents of the field have come out to try and save their beloved green space, but most seniors at last night's meeting pushed to build a new senior center on the property.

"There is not room for a baseball diamond and I think it should relocate," resident Jim Hunter said, adding that keeping a tot lot or diamond on Greene's Field is not worth the extra $3 million in costs to build on alternative site Rosemary St.

"Seniors don't want Rosemary," Hunter continued to applause. "We use (the Center), so we should have some say. If Rosemary prevails, you'll be sentencing seniors to a place they don't want."

Carol Ditmore of the Friends of the Needham Board of Health, and volunteer at the Senior Center, cited the steep grade at Rosemary as a problem.

"Seniors don't like using elevators, they get claustrophobic, and they really don't like going up and down stairs," she said of Rosemary blueprints calling for multiple levels.

Another proponent of building on Greene's Field was Ruth Sutter, who related that she was speaking for "the seniors who can't be here tonight."

"I speak with a loud voice for hoping to keep the Center at Greene's Field," she said.

Not everyone in the room was in favor of modifying the field, though. John Kirk, a member of the Greene's Field Forever group, told the crowd that it is important to take a step back and look more at the need for a new senior center more than the actual location.

"There is a large number of people in town who are not only in favor of preserving Greene's, but also improving it," he said. "The Palmer Center is a dump and not worthy of our seniors. We want to improve it and there can be a way to do that without…"

At this point Kirk was interrupted by shouts from the audience and had to cease speaking. In a scene that resembled Joe Wilson shouting, "You lie!" at President Barack Obama, members of the audience at the Needham Library levied questions such as, "Where?" and "In your backyard?"

The crowd created such a fracas that Chairman John Bulian had to rise and shout over the outbursts.

"Everyone has a right to their say and has to be respected. If you do not, you will be asked to leave," he commanded.

As the crowd quieted, Kirk continued by stating that people want a new senior center, but that a better option than Greene's must exist.

"Let's find a way to identify a location that brings people together, because many will oppose Greene's," he said.

Lee Betcher is another resident who voiced her displeasure over building at Greene's Field.

"I'm for a senior center very strongly and I heard about Rosemary and the big room overlooking the lake (that would be constructed). Families could be brought here and it seems like a place that people would really want to go," she said.

Betcher also cited Bargmann's assertion that work at Rosemary would provide much needed improvements to the water there, specifically water in which residents bathe.

Senior Guy Comprioni spoke of his previous work building homes and stated that he doesn't like the Rosemary or Greene's Field options, citing hills and overpopulation.

"We're seniors. We don't do mountain climbing. We need flat land and Rosemary would be a nightmare," he said. "With Greene's, you build more and more and then you have nothing left. I think it should be preserved."

At the end of the public forum, Selectman Moe Handel stated that he was "saddened" by the lack of cohesiveness that he was hearing.

"Current users (of the Center) won't accept any option other than Greene's and others won't commit to an override. Nobody's willing to give space for compromise," he said.

Handel suggested that residents stop fighting and try to get on the same page, otherwise "we knock each other silly and don't have a senior center."

Selectman Jerry Wasserman suggested that the best option might lie in taking the Stephen Palmer Building through eminent domain. The building, which currently houses tenants, is due to see its lease expire in 19 years, but Wasserman related that a "taking can be done" and that it could be in the Town's hands by December.

"To ignore it is pitting parents against seniors and I hate that," said Wasserman. "This is still something that needs to be looked at."

Selectman Dan Matthews stated that each of the proposed properties has both pros and cons, but that a consensus should be made sooner than later so that the Town knows exactly what kind of price tag it is looking at.

"The determining factor is cost," he said. "We need to figure out how to pay and, ideally, I'd like to do that without an override."

Selectman Denise Garlick also stressed the need to pick a location and expedite the process.

"If we do not move ahead, will the person who believes that seniors should stay in the Stephen Palmer basement please stand up? Nobody wants that, but we're trying to build now in a tough economic time and if we don't we'll get stuck and time will pass the center by."

Garlick stressed that "these are your neighbors in the room, your friends," and that all viewpoints need to be looked at objectively.

"Tonight I hear that we are still on the location issue," she said. "The prize is not the location; the prize in the new senior center."

Bulian closed the evening by echoing the Board's sentiments that residents must find a way to come together and make concessions in some areas.

"We need to arrive at a consensus," he said, "and I, like my colleagues, am not hearing that. We have more work to do."

The Senior Center Exploratory Committee will be meeting on June 2 at 7 p.m. at the Stephen Palmer Senior Center to discuss the future of a potential senior center.

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