NORTH ADAMS -- The planned removal of the four staircases on the west side of the Conte School property is not sitting well with several members of the city's Historical Commission.
Chairwoman Justyna Carlson informed the commission of the change during an update on the project, which was the primary focus of its meeting this week.
"In the letter from the School Building Committee, it states the staircases will be removed, not replaced as we were originally told," she said at Monday's meeting. "The letter says the state School Building Authority [MSBA] limits site work costs to 8 percent of the total budget. At their latest meeting, the budget for site work was over that and they are trying to keep site costs down. It also states that they had heard from faculty and staff there is little interest in using Colgrove Park for a play space, as it would take too long to get children up and down from the building in the time allotted for recess."
Renovation plans for the former Silvio O. Conte Middle School originally called for the replacement of two of the three staircases on the upper slope, closest to the school building. The new staircases would have led down to a play area on the terraced area above the adjacent Colgrove Park.
In June, the School Building Committee voted to eliminate the staircases entirely, as replacing or repairing the crumbling staircases became cost prohibitive. Plans for a play space on the west side of the property were eliminated earlier in the year when it was deemed too expensive to support.
Carlson said the letter did not ask for the Historical Commission's approval or support, but she felt the members might want to weigh in on the change, since they had supported the original designs.
"Why can't they afford it now?," Jake Elder, commission secretary, asked. "What makes it cost prohibitive? I'm opposed to this. The west side of the building is the original main door and walkway for the school. We can make the case that from a historical point of view, [the removal of the stairs] changes the look of the property. It changes a historical aspect of that entire area."
Member Alan Horbal, one of several members surprised by plans to remove the lower staircase which sits in the middle of a retaining wall marking the boundary between the school property and Colgrove Park, questioned the need to remove it.
"Playing devil's advocate for a minute, we can say that those stairs are in deplorable condition and are not up to code the way they are," Darrell English, a commission member, said. "We can hold their feet to fire and ask for a better plan. Or we can admit we're fighting an uphill battle."
The commission voted to take no action until it could get more clarification from the School Building Committee about the change. The Conte School plan is expected to go before the city's Planning Board on Aug. 12.
Although commission members were not aware that the lower staircase would be removed, architect Kristian Whitsett, of Margo Jones Architects, said Wednesday that it shouldn't be a surprise.
"The intent has always been to remove the lower stair at Colgrove Park," he said in an email. "This scope was included as part of the Schematic Design package, and even during the feasibility study sketches. The existing stairs are in very bad shape and there was the desire on the part of the School Building Committee to provide some separation between Colgrove Park and the rest of the site. The retaining wall will remain and act as a visual delineator between Colgrove Park and the rest of the school site above."
To reach Jennifer Huberdeau, email