By Bill Densmore
Williams College has abandoned a controversial idea to locate a new, 60,000-square-foot art museum at the corner of Southworth and Main streets, said Fred Puddester, the college’s vice president for finance & administration and treasurer, at a January 20 meeting of the Williamstown Democratic Town Committee. He added that a college committee is now looking at other sites for the art museum “on the campus”, and that it would be “an interesting scenario” if the town’s voters were to encourage Williams to purchase for museum use the site of the old town municipal-equipment garage on Water Street.
Puddester’s disclosure came during an hour-long discussion with about 15 people at the meeting. He took many questions about the college’s building boom, and also quipped briefly about national politics.
“Some folks in town didn’t like the Southworth site,” said Puddester. “We met with them as we would have done eventually anyhow, and they accelerated that part of the process. So based on community input, we decided we’re not going to build there. The site is no longer being considered for the museum.” But study of other college-owned sites is continuing. “They are looking at lots of sites,” he said of the campus committee. One audience member asked whether the college would consider seeking to acquire the present site of the Williamstown Savings Bank. Puddester replied that he had no reason to believe it was available.
In a wide-ranging summary of Williams’ plans, Puddester made these points:
- $200-MILLION SCIENCE PROJECT Construction will begin soon on a $200-million, two-building science center that will take four years to complete and will include the demolition and replacement of the 52-year-old Bronfman Science Center. At its peak, some 200 construction workers will be on site. To alleviate public parking congestion, the college is requiring the contract to provide satellite parking and a shuttle service for the workers.
- SPRING STREET BOOKSTORE Ground will be broken this summer on a three-story commercial building at the corner of Spring and Walden streets which will house a new textbook and retail trade bookstore on two stories and office space on the third story. The college will continue to contract Follett and existing staff to run the bookstore, replacing the Water Street location. An in-store café will be run by one of three local restaurateurs to be selected and announced soon. The new store will carry Williams clothing and paraphernalia in competition with Goff’s Sports.
- ZONING CHANGE SOUGHT Williams will seek a zoning change by a two-thirds vote of Town Meeting in May before it begins definitive designing for a 100-room hotel at the bottom of Spring Street to replace the current 125-room Williams Inn. Puddester said the college “has no Plan B” should the zoning-change request fail to win voter approval.
- ENROLLMENT STEADY The college has no plans to expand enrollment. A new 60-bed residence hall nearing completion on Stetson Court is intended to provide “swing space” so the college can more easily manage cyclical renovation of its 37 dormitories and student residence houses.
- NEW ROAD Williams perceives town support for construction of a road connecting Walden Street with South Street and would consider donating to the town some of the cost of doing so. Much of the road would be carved out of college-owned land. Building it now would eliminate the need for tractor-trailers carrying steel beams for the science project to negotiate Spring Street or Hoxsey Street.
- LICKETY SPLIT RELOCATION The college hopes to facilitate relocation of the Lickety Split ice-cream parlor in the Denison Gatehouse building elsewhere on Spring Street, because that house would be razed to make room for a new hotel. Puddester observed that all three constituencies served by Spring Street (where he said about 40% of the businesses are in college-owned buildings)—students, tourists and townsfolk—patronize Lickety Split.
- MERCHANTS LIKE INN ON SPRING ST. Puddester took a number of skeptical questions about the need to construct a hotel at the base of Spring Street. He said Spring Street merchants generally support the location, and the current Williams Inn location, in his view, is too far from Spring Street. He said experts have advised him that the present hotel at Field Park, which the college owns, is not capable of being rebuilt and operated at the same time. During graduation and parents’ weekends, he said, “we need an inn, the college does, and I think the town does at all times.”
- WILLIAMS INN A PARK? If a new inn is completed in 2019 or 2020 on Spring Street, said Puddester, the college will thereafter tear down the current Williams Inn. “Our intention, right now, is we’re going to build a park there,” he said in answer to a question about what would be next for that site.
- B&G MOVE “VERY LONG TERM” The college’s Towne Field House is being structurally assessed this year to assist in deciding its future, Puddester said, and it is no longer judged acceptable for holding track meets. In the long term, he continued, the college will likely consider replacing it and possibly,“in the very long term”, moving the college’s adjacent facilities building. But by that time, in Puddester’s plan, decisions about a new inn and art museum will already have been made and the buildings, hopefully from his point of view, completed.
On the question of using the old town garage site for building a new college art museum, Puddester pointed out that consideration of that site, if there were a Town Meeting petition asking the Town to negotiate with Williams on it, is “a hypothetical,” but “interesting”. He added that this site, as it is now, does have the purpose of providing parking especially for busses and he wonders where they would go if the site is used for building. Puddester answered no to the question of whether the college has considered as an art museum site, the former college children’s day-care center on Park Street, a 300-by-120 foot parcel bordered on the south by the St. John’s Church rectory and parish hall and the college’s development office to the north. A museum located there could front on a circular drive and parking lot built to serve the ’62 Center for Theater and Dance.