Facilities News Spotlight

2024-01-30 Spotlight: Fernald School: Waltham is letting a historic property fall apart

*Boston Globe, January 29, 2024
By The Editorial Board

The city bought the 190-acre property in part using money from the state and promised to preserve the site. But it has let the buildings fall into disrepair.

The shameful state of records left behind at the shuttered Walter E. Fernald School is a big scandal and a window into an even bigger one: How the city of Waltham, aided and abetted by the state of Massachusetts, acquired the Fernald property and then let the buildings on it fall apart, despite a pledge to properly commemorate their history.

As a recent report by Oliver Eggers for the Globe’s Ideas section revealed, thousands of confidential records that were left behind when the Fernald school closed have been treated with the same disdain as were the people with intellectual disabilities who once resided there. The piles of files that Eggers found inside decaying buildings, as well as outside on the grounds, are a gross violation of privacy, for which the state of Massachusetts is responsible. As Eggers reported, when the state sold Fernald to the City of Waltham in December 2014, state law required that the Department of Developmental Services remove all sensitive documents. The actual cleanup was assigned to the state’s Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, which left the job unfinished. Those agencies are now committed to rectifying the situation, state officials in the administration of Governor Maura Healey told the editorial board.

But what about the old, crumbling Fernald buildings in which those confidential records are so poorly housed? How do they fit in with Waltham’s pledge to preserve the site in a respectful way? According to Waltham Mayor Jeannette McCarthy, the city is now nearly halfway through “a 20-year plan” for the site, and still working toward that goal. “Everything takes money,” she told the editorial board. “We’re building a high school. We need a police station. I’m trying to balance everything.” But where McCarthy sees a need to balance budgets and priorities, others see close to ten years of intentional foot-dragging.

“I suspect the city doesn’t want to do much of anything with the property,” state Senator Michael Barrett told the editorial board. “It’s time to consider sale to a nonprofit or private developer, contingent on protection of historic buildings and the cemetery that remains there.” Barrett, whose district includes Waltham, believes the property should be used for some combination of open space and housing. “We desperately need market rate and affordable dwellings in greater Boston. A smart plan would preserve the beauty of the site and still provide housing for human beings,” Barrett said.

Established in 1848, the Fernald School was the first publicly funded facility in the country for people with intellectual disabilities. Over time, it evolved into a place infamous for its abuse and mistreatment of residents who were sent there as children and grew into adulthood sequestered from the rest of the world. After a class action lawsuit was filed in the 1970s, conditions improved. But after a decision was made to close the school during the administration of Governor Deval Patrick, the state sold it to the City of Waltham for the bargain price of $3.7 million. City money was used to purchase 50 acres of the land. For the 140 acres that make up the bulk of the property, Waltham received $2.7 million under the state’s Community Preservation Act. In return, the city committed to historic preservation and reuse of the buildings, sitewide security, and restoration of wetlands, including a pond, in order to alleviate major flooding in the community below the site.

Very little of that has happened.

“Is it sad about those records? Yes,” said McCarthy, who insists the city is “working diligently” to deliver what it promised to the state. So far, work on the pond has been completed and the city has moved its waste management facilities to the southern portion of the site. According to local news reports, a recreation proposal that includes playgrounds — including one for children with disabilities — a spray park, an 18-hole miniature golf course, and an electric train was also put out to bid recently. McCarthy also told the board she is open to putting some housing on the site. But she’s not shy about acknowledging that to her, acquiring the Fernald property primarily meant that the city of Waltham instead of a private developer would determine what happens to it. Whatever the challenges, “it’s worth it because we got control of the property,” she said.

It should not be unfettered control. When Waltham purchased the Fernald property, McCarthy also signed a memorandum of understanding with DCAAM, the Massachusetts Historical Commission, and the Waltham Historical Commission, under which she pledged the city’s commitment to historic preservation. What has happened instead is what Alex Green — a lecturer in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School who was Waltham’s history expert when the Fernald site was purchased — calls “demolition by neglect.” According to Green, at the time of the agreement, 37 buildings should have been subject to federal standards for historic preservation. Back then, he said, all that would have been needed was proper security to keep vandals away, boards on the windows and new gutters and downspouts. Instead, he said, copper thieves stripped elements of the buildings that were designed to prevent water damage. As a result, he estimates that only about 17 structures are currently salvageable for reuse as housing and/or a museum or other memorial. But because of all the damage, the costs are much higher now. The rest of the structures, he said, must be destroyed, “perhaps only saving facades to show people in the future what it looked like”. To Green, what was allowed to happen suggests that Waltham was never committed to the historic preservation aspects of the site. But while Waltham may prefer decay to conservation balanced by reasonable development, the Healey administration should not let that happen. If Waltham can’t deliver on its promise, someone else should.

Boston Globe: Fernald School: Waltham is letting a historic property fall apart