Opinion: This game is really, really rigged – Thoughts on the old police station

Dec 12, 2023

There’s so much to unpack here. To some, this is just small-town politics. To others, it’s an example of the measure of respect afforded to the Dartmouth Historical Commission—very little! Historic preservation and adaptive reuse of an existing building are much less appealing to Town officials than a parking lot although adaptive reuse is much more carbon friendly. 

When Town officials make decisions without much public input, democracy doesn’t apply. Yes, Town Meeting voted affirmatively on an article to squirrel away demolition funds (over $500k) for the former police station, but I maintain that this plan was backwards and should have been preceded by the review process currently underway. Demolition should be a last resort for this building after a study has been conducted to determine whether it’s viable. Town officials may be effective at obfuscation but planning with transparency? Not so much.

At its December 11 meeting, the Select Board’s Town Administrator, Shawn MacInnes, presided over a rehash of the same old arguments against a conceptual adaptive reuse proposal under the auspices of this agenda item: “Old Police Station Demolition and Environmental Assessment Discussion.” Regardless of going on record at its October 30 meeting to collaborate with the Commission, the opposite was true. Without any information sharing, never mind collaboration, with the Commission, Town officials prepared to dig in their heels on their demolition plans.  

How? At its October 30 meeting, the Town Administrator offered an estimated cost of about $50,000 for this so-called study.  Last night, the Assistant Town Administrator, Chris Vitale, reported that he hired Brewster-Thornton Architects (at what expense?) which estimated that a study to move forward would cost the Town about $46,000. Coincidence? What’s wrong with this picture.? Expensive architects to outsource engineering which the Town could have pursued without a broker is an example of how ridiculous this has become. 

Was it too much work to “suss” out environmental and structural engineers? The Commission had recommendations. Some of us know that environmental and structural assessment costs are nowhere near that. Predictably, the strategy was to use a high price tag for a study as a reason to demolish that building. The Commission had estimated up to $10,000 for this work but it was thwarted by the Town which could have been funded with Community Preservation Act administration funds. 

Over the course of months, the Town Administrator and two Select Board members, David Tatelbaum and Stan Mickelson, only feigned interest in working with the Commission. Stan Mickelson’s Trumpian performance about Legionnaires’ disease from yesteryear demonstrates that he hasn’t kept up with the latest remediation advancements. The drama with which he continues to instill fear in our residents has gotten tiresome at best.

Here's another twist. Town officials brought in their “big guns” on Monday night. Town Counsel Anthony Savastano opined that the Commission had no standing to save the “old police station,” an argument he used in a letter to the Commission to cease and desist at its public hearing on July 12 to determine to “preferably preserve” this building, built in 1926. The hearing continued because timing was on their side. Where was Savastano during those intervening months? 

I wish to congratulate Shawn McDonald and Heidi Brooks on their vote to progress with a study which won’t cost the Town $46,000. I am grateful to these two Select Board members who wanted to keep their commitments to the Commission. Unfortunately, the vote ended up in a stalemate of 2 to 2 with the fifth member, Frank Gracie, absent last night.  Town officials have been playing games with the Commission, showing an unprecedented and utter disrespect and disregard for all its good faith efforts to date. Should Savastano firm up his opinion that the Commission has no standing in this process, that building could come down tomorrow! 

But wait, maybe there’s another solution.  David Tatelbaum’s suggestion to sell the building is actually a good idea and should be pursued. This requires Town Meeting approval and gives more time to thoroughly address the options. That $20 million recreation center that has driven Town officials to demolish the old police station has an uncertain future given talks about a Prop 2 ½ override. What’s better for the Town? In this time and place, I’m betting on the adaptive reuse of the police station if Town officials would stop their stonewalling. 

Diane Gilbert

Dartmouth, MA

Editor’s Note: A town spokesperson told Dartmouth Week this opinion contained incorrect information. The town did not “hire” Brewster-Thornton Architects at any expense to the town; rather, they received a quote for how much the study would cost.