Brookline ZBA Unanimously Approves Runkle School Expansion

On Thursday, February 4th, Chairwoman Enid Starr, Jesse Geller and Mark Zuroff, collectively the Zoning Board of Appeals, unanimously decided to approve the expansion of the Runkle elementary school at 50 Druce Street in Brookline. However, the decision came with the condition that there must be a Transportation Department traffic study to ensure safety in the area surrounding the school prior to the anticipating reopening of the school.

Enid Starr concluded, “I, for one, personally, am convinced that the need of the Runkle School for an addition far outweighs the municipal needs. There has been ample evidence presented that the overcrowding in this school has a substantial detrimental effect on  the students.”

The project is essentially a new wing that includes a cafeteria, kitchen, gymnasium, and several new classrooms. The School Department says that the expansion is necessary because of the district-wide problem of overcrowding; the Runkle was designed to hold 420 students, but currently contains 516 students as well as staff. The expansion would cost $29.1 million would receive approximately $12 million in funding from the Massachusetts School Building Authority. The main argument by the School Department was the 60-year-old Dover Amendment that allows educational and religious institutions to be exempt from local property development laws.

The Runkle School expansion was originally pitched by the School Department to the Zoning Board on January 14th, but was delayed after the school’s neighbors in the Fisher Hill area criticized the proposed design, memorably comparing it to the overbearing super chain Wal-Mart. Due to the substantial size of the expansion, the School Department sought special building permits that would exempt the project from violating local zoning regulations. Also the proposed project would eliminate the school’s 17-spot parking lot and the staff parking would be moved into residential streets, requiring additional permission from the Zoning Board.

Robert F. Bell of the Design Partnership of Cambridge, the head architect of the expansion, showed the ZBA six alternate plans for the expansion, noting fault in all of them. He stated, “This was described as a Wal-Mart and it’s anything but. It’s important overall to consider our goals going into this were to certainly meet the educational and programmatic needs but also to create a school that is in harmony with its surroundings. This design supports safety and supervision…we think it does respect the neighborhood”

ZBA Vice Chair Jesse Geller defended the design but showed empathy for the neighbors of the school, “I am not in any way, shape, or form minimizing the neighbors’ concerns. Let me answer the question on everyone’s minds: would I like this structure behind my home? And the answer is no, I would not. But that’s not relevant.”

PTO Co-President, Amy Hummel asserted, “Having been involved in the project from the start, my view is that the plan is a sound one. It’s the best possible outcome for all concerned given the available funding and real estate. Any additional compromises will, in all likelihood, diminish the building and outdoor space for the children. My hope for the evening is that the ZBA grant the special permit without any caveats.”

Hummel’s wish was fulfilled as Chairwoman Starr announced “The Runkle School is entitled to an exemption…I’m satisfied that every effort has been made to keep the bulk as small as possible and still meet the educational needs of the children.”

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