Select Board Hears Consultant’s Report on Bedford Museum Site ~ Discussions to Continue

The question of how to accommodate two local institutions in Old Town Hall is no closer to resolution after the release of a long-awaited consultant’s report at Monday’s meeting of the Select Board.

The architect determined that not only is shared space between a town museum and Bedford TV impossible, but the prospect of moving the television operation to the depot building at 80 Loomis St. is a non-starter.

After meeting with architect Julia Marsh Rabin, the Select Board agreed that the space needs issues should be addressed as soon as there is space in the agenda.

There is some urgency, as the Bedford Historical Society, which would operate the museum, must abandon its present quarters in the police station by the end of the year so renovations and expansion can get underway.

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Old Town Hall at 16 South Road was the recommended museum site in a Spencer & Vogt Group feasibility study early in 2018. That report suggested that Bedford TV relocate to the depot or to space in Town Center.

But the issue of moving Bedford TV, which has been doing business on the middle floor of Old Town Hall for more than a decade, now threatens to send the museum site decision back to square one.

More than a year ago, the board engaged Rabin and her firm JMR Architecture and Design of Beverly to determine if the two entities could share the middle floor space. Also on the task list was to determine if the historic depot building at 80 Loomis St. could accommodate Bedford TV.

The answer was succinct: No, and no.

Rabin reported that not only is Bedford TV maxed out in Old Town Hall even without sharing space, but also the depot building is too small and poorly configured to accommodate the broadcaster.

She suggested that the depot would be a better destination for the museum, acknowledging that the footprint would be hundreds of square feet smaller than the prototype proposed for Old Town Hall that has been the basis of previous studies.
The depot building is not a practical destination for Bedford TV because of physical limitations, Rabin said. Ceilings are too low to accommodate studio needs and the building is too narrow to configure the control room adjacent to the studio. Also, some windows would need to be blackened, which could violate restrictions on exterior changes for a structure in the National Register of Historic Places.

The consultant tried a few combinations, none of which she said was acceptable. The ceilings are too low for Bedford TV to relocate to the bottom floor of Old Town Hall. A museum on the first and third floors sandwiching Bedford TV is at best a temporary arrangement.

Relocating Bedford TV will be “quite an expensive proposition,” Rabin said, such as installation of fiber optics. She said she learned that Old Town Hall actually isn’t an ideal location for the TV operation. There is no soundproofing, and additional space would be useful.

Rabin had no suggestions on other potential destinations for Bedford TV. But she did make a strong pitch for converting the depot to a museum, even though the structure is hundreds of square feet smaller than the criterion used throughout the selection process.

The depot is historic, sits in a prime location, and is an “appropriate face,” she said. Along with the town-owned former VFW building and the Friends of Bedford Depot artifacts in the old freight house nearby, a museum could make that campus “a true historic center for the town.”

Currently, there are four business tenants in the depot generating more than $28,000 in annual revenue.

Rabin said the original museum study committee ignored its own charge in the 2015 report by only considering a museum footprint of 3,500 to 4,500 square feet, and not smaller options. The depot was rejected by the ad hoc committee because of that consideration.

The report stipulates that the size options were overridden by the Historical Society’s conclusion that anything smaller than 3,500 square feet would be setting up the project to fail. The report declares, “The committee used the 3,500-4,500 square foot museum size in its deliberations.”

Select Board member William Moonan, who chaired the ad hoc study committee, pointed this out to Rabin. She said she “peer-reviewed” the report, as well as the feasibility study, and determines “there were issues in both studies.” Rabin also questioned other criteria that were foundational to the earlier recommendations, such as the size of exhibit space and the number of concurrent exhibits.

“We need to focus our attention and define what problem we want to solve,” Moonan told his colleagues. “We really need to set some firm criteria on how to make a decision. The Select Board needs to talk some more about it before we try to find compromises between groups.”

Select Board member Emily Mitchell said the conversation should include other public space considerations, including the prospects for the empty former VFW. “We have other municipal buildings that may be coming into play. We have a fire station that is no longer adequate for our needs. Could that be repurposed?”

“What we need is to look at all of these pieces….who fits in what space and how do we make this work for the long term. It requires opening our minds to different possibilities.”

Chair Margot Fleischman agreed with Mitchell and acknowledged the time factor. She said she will work with Town Manager Sarah Stanton to schedule the discussion.

Mitchell suggested a subcommittee of two board members could do some of the advance work, but Moonan wanted the entire board to address the issues together. “At this point, everybody is pretty well locked into their positions and we don’t have criteria that we want to use to make a decision.”

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763

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Sandra L Hackman
May 30, 2021 11:56 am

I strongly support the idea of housing a museum in the Depot Park area. This location–itself historic–would be accessible to out-of-town visitors and residents alike. The addition of the museum could provide a critical piece in enabling this area to become a vibrant gathering place in Bedford. I hope the Select Board will figure out a way to make this happen.

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