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Petition Voices Objection to Proposed Williams Art Museum Site
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
03:34AM / Tuesday, December 01, 2015
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A portion of the parcel at the corner of Main and Southworth Streets that is under consideration for development.

The view looking north down Southworth Street, a heavily residential area.

Williams College's main library as seen from Southworth Street on Sunday evening.


WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — While Stephanie Boyd's online petition opposes a new Williams College construction project, she does not see the college as an opponent.
 
Rather, she says the petition is meant to help the college gauge community opinion of a proposal to build a new williams College Museum of Art at the corner of Main and Southworth Streets.
 
"I view this as doing a service for the college," Boyd said on Sunday evening. "It's difficult for them to know how to gauge community response to a project. It doesn't make sense for thm to survey the town.
 
"The only way one can communicate how important an issue this is for the community is to step forward and say, 'This is important to us.' "
 
At issue is a new site for WCMA. The college acknowledged through a spokesperson that it is in the preliminary stages of developing a plan that could see the museum move out of Lawrence Hall, an 1846, oft-renovated structure on the south side of Main Street (Route 2).
 
Williams Media Relations Director Mary Dettloff said the college has a committee looking at options for the museum and the college's art department, both of which currently reside in Lawrence Hall. That committee is yet to go so far as to present a plan to the college's board of trustees.
 
That said, the Southworth Street site appears to be near the top of the list of possibilities.
 
"Having looked at a half dozen sites, Southworth has the strongest programmatic appeal, due to the proximity to the library, faculty in humanities and social sciences and the Spencer art studio building," Dettloff wrote in reply to an email seeking comment. "Before a proposal is brought forth for consideration, however, we would need to study traffic, parking, geology and cost. We also need opportunities to have quality conversations with the community, and that includes many opportunities for input. This is all months away, or perhaps as long as a year away."
 
Boyd sees her petition as one "quality conversation."
 
By late Monday, some 200 people had signed the petition, which Boyd said went live on Friday. Several of the virtual signers are identifiable as employees of the college, and the list includes the names of a few town officials, including one member of the Board of Selectmen.
 
The petition notes that the Southworth and Main parcel in question is owned by the college and currently home to residential and office buildings owned by the school. It also is at the head of a residential neighborhood that, as the petition points out, already has been negatively affected by "light pollution" from the recently constructed college library.
 
"I live quite near to it, but it's not that it affects me personally or my house," said Boyd, who lives on Waterman Place, which runs parallel to Southworth to its east. "I'm doing this on behalf of my community. I like Williamstown. I like walkable neighborhoods. I like people friendly neighborhoods.
 
"The town has come up with a plan for development on our zoning maps, and we'd like to keep that a residential street."
 
As the petition points out, Massachusetts law exempts educational institutions from local zoning regulations. That means the college has wide latitude as long as it complies with building height and setback requirements and environmental regulations.
 
Boyd, an artist, served as director of Williams' Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives from 2007 to 2014. She said that while she appreciates the need to support the art museum and the art department, she also is concerned about the environmental impact of building a new complex.
 
"I'm sensitive generally to the idea that we as citizens are using up resources and thinking we need to build more," she said.
 
On the other hand, she recognizes the instances where Williams has been a good neighbor and thinks the school "wants to do things the right way."
 
Not everyone commenting on her petition gives the college the benefit of the doubt. Some of the 30 or so comments posted as of Monday morning refer to the college's "encroachment" on the town, "mow[ing] over our history" and "slowly devouring" the community.
 
One of the comments suggests that the college build its new museum on the town-owned former town garage site, a 1.2-acre parcel on Water Street that appears to be the solution to everyone's problems.
 
In the last couple of years, 59 Water St. — currently a de facto parking lot — has been bandied about as a site for subsidized housing, market rate housing, retail shops, a police station, a fire station, a parking lot, a parking deck and, now, a museum.
 
Boyd takes no position on where else the college could put a museum if it decides to move WCMA out of Lawrence Hall.
 
"The campus is pretty big," Boyd said. "There is lots of space on campus itself that they could use.
 
"[An alternative site] is not something I personally have been concerned with. I don't know all their programming needs."
 
Boyd is concerned with preserving the character of the Village Beautiful.
 
"We are losing downtown neighborhoods, which I think is an important part of town life and culture," she said. "We're slowly losing neighborhoods like Hoxsey Street and Stetson Court, etc.
 
"The word 'petition' sounds like you're contrary. To me, this is just a way to collect a common voice."
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