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City Council Seeks Funds to Add Homeless Shelter to Barre Street Rec Center 

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Photo by Avi Zimet.
The Montpelier City Council on Oct. 25 passed a motion offered by Councilor Lauren Hierl directing city staff to seek state and federal funding to help support a homeless shelter and housing at the existing Recreation Center on Barre Street, increasing the likelihood that the building could see dual use as both a Rec Center and shelter for 24 people within a year or two.

Mayor Jack McCullough hailed the passage of the motion, saying “this is a chance to address a terrible need in the city.”

The motion came after the Council heard a report on the building’s condition from architect Tom Bachman of gbA architects and learned from City Manager Bill Fraser that the city is likely to receive a $1.5 million grant — requiring a $300,00 city match — to upgrade the mechanical and electrical systems at the building, and heard about a new idea to place the shelter in the basement of the recreation center instead of using the gym.

Good Samaritan Haven co-executive director Rick DeAngelis expressed enthusiasm for the shelter idea. “Having a year-round, low-barrier shelter is our number one priority,” he told the Council. For the past six or seven years, Good Samaritan Haven has operated temporary winter shelters in different locations, which have been “difficult to pull together every year,” he said.

Is Dual Use Doable?

While calling the rec center a “great location” for a shelter, DeAngelis also shared concerns about operating it while recreation programs are still occurring in the building. 

“One concern we have is the dual use, particularly if young people are there during the day,” he said. “It is one thing if you just have people sleeping there at night in the winter and then they are gone. It is another if you have a year-round facility. Even if people are leaving during the day, they probably will be congregating nearby to some degree. So we have to look at that very, very carefully.”

The city has been talking about building a new recreation center in the future (see article, page 1), but the opening of any such facility is a few years away, at best, so continued use of some portion of the existing building for recreation will likely continue for some time.

Asked after the meeting about the dual use issue, Recreation Department Director Arne McMullen said dual use can be challenging, and it “could be a big question for people who use the facility,” including parents of children using the gym. So far, however, he said he has not heard parents express any concerns to him about a shelter in the building, but “we might in the future.”

This winter, pickleball is a common activity in the mornings and early afternoons, according to the Recreation Center website, and McMullen said there is some youth basketball in the late afternoon. Evening Rec Center programs include open gym for youths and families from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. two days a week, dodgeball one night a week from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., and adult open gym from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m on Fridays. McMullen said private groups sometimes rent the gym in the evening as well.

Seniors Petition Against Shelter Across From MSAC

This fall, Montpelier resident Ron Merkin presented a petition to the City Council signed by 70 people, many but not all from the Montpelier Senior Activity Center across the street, objecting to placing a homeless shelter in the existing recreation building on Barre Street. The petition complained about homeless people making noise, smoking marijuana, and leaving paraphernalia in the parklet in front of the Senior Center.

Merkin told the Council some people signing the petition said they were doing so because of the recent shooting at a school bus from a homeless camping area, while others mentioned the earlier knife attack on a volunteer at the Transit Center homeless shelter.

At a meeting about the issue last summer covered by The Bridge (“Seniors Petition Against Montpelier’s Rec Center Homeless Shelter Plans,” July 7, 2023), Merkin said “there’s been no effort at all by the politicians or by the organization that recommended the Rec Center to come over here and talk with us at least, and see what we’re feeling about it.” 

The city has leased space to Good Samaritan Haven in its building at the Country Club Road property to provide emergency overnight shelter this winter for up to 15 individuals, but Fraser said at the Council meeting that homelessness advocates as well as the state would like to see Montpelier create a permanent, year-round shelter.

Parker Advisors, a local consulting firm, produced a homelessness assessment and action plan review for the city of Montpelier last March. It identified the Barre Street Rec Center as a potential “temporary shelter in inclement weather” and a “base for the city-supported street outreach workers.” If funding allows for it in the future, Parker Advisors recommended the city “build over time a one-stop location that will increase access to services and provide a focal point for Montpelier’s efforts at addressing homelessness.”

The $1.5 million grant possibility Fraser announced at the Council meeting would come from Efficiency Vermont and would involve upgrading the HVAC and electrical system and possibly the bathrooms, he said. He said the state has other grant money specifically available to create permanent shelters for the unhoused that Montpelier could tap for additional work on the building.

Previous discussion of using the shelter had focused on putting beds in the gym at night and moving the beds out during the day, and that was one of the possibilities studied by gbA. But at the meeting, Fraser said his staff has been investigating, at the suggestion of Councilor Cary Brown, the possibility of placing the shelter in the lower level/basement and allowing recreation programs to continue upstairs.

The basement, which once housed a pistol shooting range and did not get any water in it during the flood, is unused other than for storage. It has windows and would apparently be large enough to be used as a shelter. Such a plan might require further building analysis, Fraser said.

The gbA report on the building that was presented to the Council was designed as an overall evaluation of the building “with an eye towards determining whether the building has value, is salvageable, and if so, offering some possible concepts for how the building might be used,” the report said. The basement concept was not included, because that idea just came up recently.

In Good Shape … for its Age

Structurally, the building is in “good shape for its age,” architect Bachman told the Council, and the structural deficiencies could be fixed at a cost of $265,000. But the building’s systems “have not been updated for decades,” he said.

His report said the boiler is in fair-to-poor condition, some radiators have failed, and plumbing systems are considered poor. Improving and replacing these systems would cost $325,000 to $550,000. All the electrical wiring and lighting should be replaced, and a fire alarm system, smoke detectors, and security cameras should be added, the report said. This work would cost $140,000 to $565,000, depending on the performance level selected.

The building contains asbestos and has lead in the old shooting range, but Bachman said most old buildings have issues like this and mitigation would not be a “show-stopper.”

The gbA study looked at three possible new uses. One was providing public restrooms in the lower level, accessible from a ramp adjacent to the main stairs. These would be open to all members of the public. The cost for this would be $646,250.

The second concept was using the building as a dual-use facility, with a nighttime overflow shelter for up to 24 unhoused individuals, using the gym for sleeping quarters. An elevator and sprinkler would be needed and accessible bathrooms with showers would be added on the main level. The cost estimate for this was $2,043,580.

The third concept was to discontinue use of the building as a rec center and offer the building to a developer to build housing. If the units were small micro apartments of 500 square feet, another level was added to the gym areas, and the lower level was used, 24 units could be built, the report said. The cost would be $8,965,000.

At the meeting, Fraser noted that if the basement was used as a shelter, the number of small housing units that would be built would drop to 16. These could be used as transitional units for unhoused people or as affordable housing, he said. But that could likely occur only if and when a new recreation center is built.

The gbA report stated: “There are many other potential uses for the building and we are in no way recommending any of the three concepts mentioned above — these were developed purely to show that the building can accommodate change and be put to better use than it currently is.”

While the report did not examine updating the Rec Center and keeping its use for recreation only, the city did pay for a 2019 study that examined just that. Bread Loaf architects of Middlebury estimated the costs to create more usable space and put the building in compliance with federal accessibility laws ranged from $3.9 to $4.7 million, according to reporting in The Bridge dated Nov. 26, 2019 (“Council Weighs Rec Center Estimates,” by Tom Brown).

Then-Assistant City Manager Cameron Niedermayer was quoted in the article saying the city would pursue other sources of funding for the project, such as federal grants or corporate partnerships, before setting a bond vote. Not long after that, the pandemic began. A bond vote never happened and the homelessness problem mushroomed.

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