The city of Gloucester will officially request from the Massachusetts Legislature to be released from restrictions of the state Constitution’s Article 97 governing Mattos Field.

The City Council voted, 8-1, to request relief from Article 97 which protects open spaces from changes in use and development as the city looks to build a new combined elementary school at Veterans Memorial School campus at 11 Webster St., which includes Mattos Field. The new school would house schoolchildren who now attend Veterans and East Gloucester elementary schools. The project is expected to cost $73 million, much of which will be paid for by the state.

Councilor-at-Large James W. O’Hara cast the lone opposing vote.

Article 97 in the state Constitution states that, “lands and easements taken or acquired for conservation purposes shall not be used for other purposes or otherwise disposed of without the approval of a two-thirds roll call vote of each branch of the Legislature.”

While the city’s general counsel Chip Payson is treating Mattos Field as property with such protection, the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) has identified that a second parcel of real estate can be swapped with any Article 97 protected land as long as it is of equal or greater fair market value or value in use of proposed use.

The site of East Gloucester Elementary School at 8 Davis St. has been identified by the city as a property of similar size and value to Mattos 2, which is the site that is being argued to have a deed restriction. The field was dedicated to local World War I vet Joseph Mattos in 1934.

“Mattos 2 is currently comprised of approximately 2.7 acres and the East Gloucester School site is currently comprised of approximately 3 acres,” according to a packet handed out by School Committee members Monday’s at a public hearing. “As part of the new combined school building project at Veterans Memorial School and Mattos 2, the East Gloucester School will be razed and the land will be graded and restored as a grass field.”

The Article 97 relief would allow the city to swap the land, making Mattos Field a viable site for the new combined elementary school.

Parking lots and an augmentation of the Green Street athletic field have been the most recently discussed locations for the relocated softball field.

“The City is fully committed to relocating and rededicating the Mattos Field to Green Street,” Assistant to CAO Vanessa Krawczyk said on behalf of the Mayor. “We are getting excited.”

Krawczyk explained that preliminary planning has already been done. This includes surveying the land and attention to amenities, the backstop, accessibility, lighting and parking.

“We are getting excited,” Krawczyk explained. “It is a smart investment for the future of our city.”

Superintendent Dr. Richard Safier explained that by prolonging the vote, the city would be facing rising construction costs.

“How we educate our children has changed,” Safier said, referring to growing and changing needs of a 21st century community.

He explained that by limiting the modernization of learning space, the city is “putting handcuffs on our teachers” as they need additional space for growing programs and students.

Looking ahead

Following a packed week of meetings and big ticket decisions, Councilor at-Large Jennifer Holmgren explained that the School Committee will work with school architects Dore & Whittier to complete the schematic design phase and submit it to the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) in July.

If the MSBA decides to accept the design in August, the School Committee will need to show that the city owns the land to develop and it will come to the City Council for the transfer.

During all of this, Holmgren said, the City Council will be working on drafting the debt-exclusion ballot question that will be available for registered voters to answer come November.

“This could all still happen if the Article 97 effort fails, but it’s more likely we would be delayed by a lawsuit if it fails,” Holmgren explained, “And a delay would kill the project altogether.”

Fuller Street condos

Mattos Field wasn’t the only property talked about on Tuesday night. 

The City Council voted, 7-1, with Sean Nolan absent to adopt three special permits for 35 Fuller St. as its developers look to increase the number of residential condominium units from two three-bedroom units to four two-bedroom units and two one-bedroom units for a total of six units. 

Councilor-at-Large James O'Hara was the lone opposing vote. 

"I am very comfortable to moving to adopt this," Ward 4 Councilor Valerie Gilman said, expressing her thanks to the other councilors for a detailed process to get to Tuesday night's vote. 

The lot, at the corner of Fuller Street and Norman Avenue, had been home to a three-story structure that housed Magnolia House of Pizza, a hair salon and apartments. 

The once three-story structure is now nothing but an empty lot at the center of Magnolia due to a fire in 2014. 

Six years since flames engulfed the building, the owners are looking to go bigger and better with construction of a new building. 

The City Council voting during its Jan. 15 meeting to grant Boston-based Beauport Shores LLC, Boston, the owner of 35 Fuller St., special permits to increase the number of residential building units from two to six, and to decrease the minimum lot area per dwelling unit and minimum open space per dwelling unit. 

In addition to a public hearing, council members discussed the project's impact on traffic flow and safety, adequacy of utilities and public services, neighborhood character, qualities of natural environments, and potential fiscal impact. 

As the city works to do things by the letter of the law, as Council President Steven G. LeBlanc, Jr., said on Jan. 15, Tuesday night’s vote will be the next step in the process of finalizing this project. 

Staff writer Taylor Ann Bradford can be reached at 978-675-2705 or tbradford@northofboston.com.

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