PORTSMOUTH — Local residents have gotten their first public glimpse of a plan to transform the Elmhurst property into a public waterfront park.
On Monday night the engineering firm of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. (VHB) showed the Town Council four different drawings depicting a mix of open space, walking trails, terraces, gardens, a pavilion, play area, parking and more on the land.
The Town Council is negotiating a deal with the nonprofit Aquidneck Island Land Trust (ALT), which is offering $1 million toward tearing down the Elmhurst School — closed in 2010 — in exchange for an ongoing conservation easement which would include the public waterfront park.
David Faucher, the town’s finance director, said the town received three bids for the demolition project, the lowest being $431,000 from the J.R. Vinagro Corporation.
Council Vice-President John Blaess said since the council is still in negotiations with ALT, there wasn’t a lot it could accomplish at the meeting. “We still need to go to the voters for the best deal we can get from ALT,” he said.
In addition to tearing down the school, the town is also wrestling with what do to with the school chapel, which was never designed as a stand-alone structure, said John Stabach, project manager for VHB. Two of VHB’s designs call for leaving the chapel, but it could cost up to $275,000 just to “mothball” the building and even more to renovate it for a different use.
Andrew Kelly, a member of the School Committee, said he wanted to see the chapel preserved. “I think it’s an asset to our community and could be a beautiful performing arts center for Portsmouth,” he said.
The property’s boathouse, however, didn’t receive as favorable reviews. Mr. Stabach said the building is in disrepair to the point of being unsafe. “It is a liability to the town,” he said. “You can climb into the building.”
James Garman, the town historian, said he didn’t see the point in keeping the boathouse, despite the fact that it has some historic value. “I really don’t see any adaptive re-use of the boathouse other than, ‘This was really nice in 1935,'” he said. “What are you going to use it for?”
Mr. Stabach said developing the area into a park would cost about $600,000, but could be developed bit by bit as money becomes available.
‘Town’s most valuable asset’
Not everyone at Monday’s meeting supported the plan.
Duncan Ingraham told the council that the Elmhurst/Glen Manor area “is the town’s most valuable asset” and shouldn’t be used for what he characterized as a picnic area. Since the property is valued at $12 to $15 million, he suggested moving the park plan “back 500 feet” to land “that’s valued at $50,000” rather than $15 million.
“There may be a time … when we may need that money for a school,” said Mr. Ingraham, adding that the town’s Economic Development Committee — which voted against ALT’s proposal — was never asked to analyze the plan’s economic impact. “Let’s not make a deal with the Land Trust now.”
Conni Harding, however, said ALT’s proposal was “very generous” and would open up an invaluable waterfront vista to everyone.
“We have more waterfront than any town in the state,” she said, “and I don’t have any place to go. This is our gold mine.”