By Laura Hayes, Contributing Writer
SHREWSBURY — One evening, Julie Ross was sitting on her front porch on Hascall Street, watching a group of girls and their fathers practice softball on the diamond behind the Beal Early Childhood Center.
She watched, sharing over the phone with the Community Advocate when one of the girls caught the ball or made it on base.
“It’s hysterical watching the girls,” Ross said. “They’re so much fun.”
Ross may soon have a new view from her porch.
For the past several years, a Shrewsbury committee has examined how to reuse the old Beal school. Recently, one developer has proposed constructing two mixed-use buildings.
In response, some neighbors have voiced concerns. Ross hopes that any building matches the architecture of the neighborhood. Karin Holovnia, who grew up on Wesleyan Street, expressed concern about effects on stormwater.
Several neighbors also expressed a desire to preserve open space behind the school under town management. Holovnia offered to help if funds are needed to do that.
“Municipalities have an obligation,” she said. “They have an obligation to commercial and residential space, but it should not preclude green, open space.”
Neighbor Meagan Gormally takes her two young kids on daily walks, often to the Beal park. It’s a quiet and safe place to let her son ride his bike.
Her concern is that the town will sell the land and lose the opportunity of having open space in the neighborhood.
“Once it’s gone, it’s gone,” Gormally said.
Developers propose ‘Beal Commons’
Currently, developers Civico and Greenly Development are proposing a development called “Beal Commons,” which would be a mix of apartments and businesses on the ground floor.
This whole process dates back to at least 2017, when the town got the green light to build the new Maj. Howard W. Beal School. It subsequently formed the Beal Reuse Committee to study the future of the old Beal property.
In July 2019, the reuse committee delivered its recommendations to the selectmen, which included exploring either an adaptive reuse of the school or a total replacement of the building.
A year after that, in August 2020, Town Meeting adopted rezoning of the town center.
During a Selectmen’s Roundtable June 29, the selectmen revisited the Beal reuse process, with Selectmen Maurice DePalo, who was chair of the Beal Building Reuse Committee, saying that Beal was an integral part of the rezoning process. He called Beal redevelopment an “urban renewal project.”
“The intention always had been from the start is something to go there that would help invigorate the center,” DePalo said.
He said the committee came up with a set of recommendations of what should be included in the RFP (request for proposals) process. One of those recommendations was open space. Another asked that developments contribute to the vitality of the Town Center, DePalo said.
The reuse committee became the RFP committee, and Civico and Greenly was the only developer to respond to the RFP. The selectmen met with them in May, at which point Civico and Greenly presented their conceptual plans for the site.
In the meantime, DePalo said town officials spoke with industry experts who told them that more people would have applied if this was just exclusively a housing project. On top of that, he explained, the site is too small for a large developer and too big for a small developer.
“Not everybody could bid on something like that,” DePalo said.
Chair John Samia said some residents have asked if the town needs more housing. He said that, when mixed-use projects have been successful in other communities, having housing means there’s an immediate audience for the ground-level commercial spaces.
“That creates that buzz, that foot traffic that we’re really looking to see here,” Samia said.
Shrewsbury is working with Civico and Greenly on creating a more concrete concept, Samia noted. He anticipated that the developer will be back at a selectmen meeting in the summer, and the public will be able to weigh in during a public hearing either also in the summer or in early September.
“We’re still in negotiations, for lack of a better word,” said Vice Chair John LeBeaux. “We haven’t awarded this project yet.”
Civico and Greenly’s draft plans presented to the selectmen in May showed a potential pocket park or dog park. Some neighbors wondered if they would be able to use it.
Neighbors have spoken with town staff, written letters and followed town meetings.
Ross noted that she’s specifically spoken with Mizikar and the town planner, who she said did a “good job sharing what they could.”
“I’m in the center of town,” Ross said. “My expectations are reasonable. I know there’s going to be stuff around me.”
In an email, Mizikar noted that the selectmen have suggested that the amount of green space should be increased in this particular proposal.
Beal conversation follows Open Space and Recreation plan
Open space and green space in particular has been a major topic of discussion before. In 2020, Shrewsbury prepared an Open Space and Recreation plan.
According to the plan, when residents were surveyed, 79 percent said it was either very or somewhat important to be able to access open space and recreation destinations in town by walking, biking or taking the bus.
Further, most of the respondents said they supported efforts to require residential developments to include conservation and open space areas in their plans.
Back in the neighborhood around Beal, community members especially emphasize the value of such facilities.
Neighbor Lynda Camarra said there are 20 kids in the neighborhood. Gormally added that, while she does take her kids to Shrewsbury’s sprawling Dean Park, it’s busy.
“What kills me is that really there’s only Dean Park, aside from playgrounds at schools, but you can’t always go to those during the day,” Gormally said.