By Shawn Regan
---- — HAVERHILL — When city officials get to work next month on an $800,000 analysis to determine the size of the proposed new school in Bradford, they will be paying close attention to a housing proposal that includes 360 new apartments within easy walking distance of the troubled Hunking Middle School.
Recent repairs to Hunking are expected to last about five years, and the city is planning to replace that school and nearby Greenleaf Elementary with a building that could potentially accommodate up to 1,200 students in kindergarten through grade eight.
Hunking was partially closed last school year over fears the building's north wing could collapse due to structure problems. Temporary repairs allowing full use of the building were completed this past summer.
Greenleaf is also deteriorated and needs costly repairs if it is to remain in use, school officials said. The other school in the area, Bradford Elementary, is new and in good condition, but it is one of the city's most crowded schools, officials said.
Given the state of the three Bradford schools, local and state officials will be keeping their eyes on an upcoming Zoning Board of Appeals meeting at which developer Louis Minicucci Jr. is scheduled to pitch his plan to build 360 townhouses and garden-style homes on 113 acres across from Academy Plaza on Route 125. The site is behind the sprawling Presidential Gardens and Forest Acres housing developments, just up the road from Hunking.
The original Ridgecrest development, as the project is called, was approved in 2005 as home-ownership condominiums. That plan stalled due to the poor economy and slumping real estate market, however.
Minicucci, of Northpoint Realty Development, returned last year with a new plan to build rentals instead, including 75 more three-bedroom homes than were in the old plan.
Economic Development Director William Pillsbury, among others, have raised concerns about additional children the three-bedroom homes are certain to bring to already overcrowded schools in the area — concerns that have been underscored by the problems at Hunking and Greenleaf.
The Appeals Board is scheduled to consider the Ridgecrest proposal Oct. 17, but Pillsbury said the city has yet to receive critical information about water and sewer tests or information it has requested about the three-bedroom units. Pillsbury said the developers have also yet to provide specifics about how the project is to be financed, called a pro forma.
At a City Council meeting last year, Mayor James Fiorentini said the Ridgecrest project would likely add about 260 children to the school district. A recent school report projects 92 more school children will live in Bradford in a few years.
Fiorentini recently declined comment on the Ridgecrest proposal because he said it could end up in court. He did not return a new message for this story.
School Superintendent James Scully said it's inevitable that a lot more homes are going to built in Bradford.
"Sooner or later someone's going to build a lot of homes over there, that much I know," Scully said. "I just hope the politicians and bureaucrats entrusted with making the decisions (about a new school in Bradford) aren't short-sighted and do what's right."
Some have suggested the city should try to renovate Hunking or replace it with a smaller school with a less expensive price-tag, since Haverhill taxpayers will have to share the cost of the new building with the state. The city is expecting the state to pay 68 to 72 percent of the cost, estimated at $50 to $62 million for the large, K-8 building.
District-wide, Scully said school overcrowding is "the worst it's been in some time." Bradford Elementary, he said, is probably the city's most crowded school.
"This is a city issue, not a Bradford issue," Scully said. "because the children will have to be sent somewhere if there's no room for them in Bradford."
The new Ridgecrest plan, like the old one, is proposed under the state's 40B housing law. That law allows developers to bypass local zoning rules and build more homes than would normally be allowed in exchange for including affordable housing in their plans.
If the zoning board rejects the proposal, the developers can appeal to a state affordable housing board and then court.
Minicucci did not return a phone seeking his comment for this story. But in a prior interview, he said the modified Ridgecrest plan is better in several ways.
For example, he said the new plan also offers more "green" space." By condensing the proposed buildings, the amount of "impervious surface" - paved areas - has been reduced by 4 acres from the original plan, he said.
Minicucci said the developers will also pay for a new traffic light on Route 125 at the entrance to Presidential Gardens, as well as sidewalks and play areas inside the Presidential Gardens complex.
The plan includes three garden-style buildings that will have a total of 192 apartments. In addition, there will be 168 townhouse-style apartments. Minicucci predicted construction activity would add $50 million to the local economy.