Senior Center 01.18

BOTH STILL UP FOR GRABS! During a recent ReCalc meeting, Select Board member Mark Dockser advised committee members that both the vacant Walgreens Pharmacy building on Harnden Street (left) and Haven Street’s old Rite Aid property (right) are still being eyed as potential replacement locations for Pleasant Street Center. The town is also expected later this month to open bids received as part of yet another RFP inquiring about the availability of other private sites across town.

READING – Now what? That simple question was the theme of last week’s meeting of the Reading Center for Active Living Committee (ReCalc).

With the clock ticking on another round of RFPs aimed at finding a home for a new senior/community center, ReCalc members discussed the next steps for the seven-member committee tasked with exploring “the current and future needs of the Community, and initiate planning for a potential new Senior/Community Center in town.” 

ReCalc took one vote, with members voting 7-0 in favor of an “intergenerational community center” and not just a center solely focused on seniors. The vote assumed that the core needs of the seniors are being met in whatever new facility is built. It also mirrored what residents supported in the UMass study released last month.

If you’ve been busy cleaning up after the holidays it’s important to know what’s still in play. The list includes expansion of the current Pleasant Street Center, the Walgreens building, Symonds Way, Oakland Road, the Rite-Aid building, and other potential mystery sites.

If you thought Walgreens was out because it was recently sold, ReCalc member and Select Board chair Mark Dockser started Wednesday’s virtual meeting with an update.

“The former Walgreens site on Harnden Street was sold. It was actually sold to a family member of the previous owner. What that means is that it’s a new legal entity. But what it doesn’t mean is that things are necessarily done. That may still be in play,” said Dockser. “So, I know a number of people have said to me, ‘well, Walgreens is done.’ That entity is done. But it’s not necessarily the case that it may not continue to be of interest to us.”

Rite-Aid is the newest option.

As reported in the Chronicle last month, according to town records the old Rite Aid building dates back to 1938 and sits on a parcel containing a little less than a half-acre of land. The site is currently assessed at a little over $2 million.

The listed owner is 25 Haven Street, LLC, a company based out of Wakefield that is managed by Walderi and Claire Lima. In May of 2020, the couple bought the Haven Street site for $2.225 million from Middlesex Investment Partners, a Stoneham real-estate management firm that has redeveloped a number of prominent properties in Stoneham Square.

“I did tour 25 Haven Street, which is the old Rite-Aid building,” said Dockser. “We seem to be stuck with Walgreen’s former properties … In my opinion, it’s a tear down that would be required. We’re going to get a little more information on what it could be from an architectural point of view, and what it would take, and get an idea on what costs would be. Don’t know if the owner will do the RFP or not. I know that they’ve received it. But they still have a few weeks so we’ll see what comes in.”

The mystery option refers to the third round of Requests for Proposals sitting on the town’s website. While the vacant drugstores are known commodities, could there be something else in town?

“The town issued new proposals, similar to the one we did before but because we know that there’s another building in the downtown that the owner might want to sell it and it might be interesting to us, we issued another RFP,” explained Dockser.

“We’ll have all of the bids in by the 23rd of January. And there’s a Select Board meeting on the 24th and there will be an executive session that night to look at those bids and see what the board might be interested in pursuing. I think that there could be more than one bid that comes in; I hope there’s more than one bid that comes in. But I wouldn’t presume that anything is in or out at this point. “

All this leads to that opening question. What will ReCalc’s role be in the months ahead?

It starts with communicating all the information the group has collected since its first meeting in December of 2021. Committee member John Sasso is leading the communication effort and in the coming weeks he’ll compile a summary of the group’s findings.

“We need to package that up and put it in a form that we can communicate out as well,” said Sasso. “That’s still an output that ReCalc needs to finish. We just need to coordinate amongst the groups all the different pieces that are coming out. We heard from the feedback from UMass that the community still wants more communication on this. So, we need to make sure we check all the boxes and provide them information across the board.”

Part of that information is making sure residents know there’s more involved than just picking a building.

“Like a broken record, I have indicated many, many times, that this is more than just about a building. There are a lot of other pieces that have to come together,” said Sasso. “I actually think there’s an opportunity even now, with the materials and information we’ve collected, and with the work we’ve done and with the additional funding from ARPA, to look at other appropriate approaches for some of these needs we’ve identified. I don’t know who should be doing that, certainly one could argue that is really a town staff, elder services thing, but I think it’s certainly something either COA and maybe even ReCalc could be involved in.

“Regardless of where we end up, we’re still going to have to look at what are the plans for addressing transportation in general, what are the plans for addressing the types of services and support people feel they need? What are those things that have to be done? What sort of staffing is going to be required? … Even if we build a new building, if we don’t have all these other pieces answered, I think it’s going to be a really tough sell.”

The RFPs should provide an answer to what build(s) are available. If not, there’s another option.

“Another is that we kind of go back to what our original plan was, which was to do a feasibility study that would look at multiple locations, multiple kinds of activities, and explore what the possibilities are,” said Dockser. “I have a feeling we’ve done some of the work, that that study would accomplish, but certainly not all of it. Through ARPA funds, there is a substantial amount of money, not quite $300,000 available, to kind of take the next step. I think it would be great for ReCalc to take the lead in what those activities should be based on showing the community, here’s the need, here’s the opportunity, wherever we go, this is what we’re going to be looking for. And then figure out the next steps.”

The biggest step members agreed on was communicating those needs to residents.

“It all should be driven by the needs,” said ReCalc chair John O’Neill. “That should be the driving force.”

Part of that communication is being handled by the Council on Aging, which currently has information displays at both the Reading Public Library and the Pleasant Street Center. In addition, COA is holding monthly coffee hours and a community forum will be held at the Pleasant Street Center on Jan. 31.

“I think there’s good momentum to describe in more detail, for the residents of the town, what the needs are in terms of the Pleasant Street Center not sufficiently meeting the needs of the community,” said Dockser. “I think a great thing for us to think about, is how do we communicate with the community? How do we let everybody know what’s going on? How do we coordinate between ReCalc, which has a limited time frame, at this point only thru June, with the Council on Aging, and with the town. How do we coordinate all that to communicate to the community about the needs? About the fact that this is a key priority for the town.”

That communication will be even more key when the residents become voters who will ultimately decide if a new intergenerational center is worth the cost.

“When dollars are being tossed around, then you know we really have to have our act together,” said O’Neill.

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