Building on a Legacy
While early-education provider Square One has a presence in several Springfield neighborhoods and serves residents city-wide, it has always been associated with the South End.
That’s where it’s been headquartered since the beginning, in 1883, when it was founded as Springfield Day Nursery by Harriett Merriam, the daughter of Charles Merriam, of Merriam-Webster dictionary fame, to meet a critical need for childcare among the city’s working families, said Dawn DiStefano, the agency’s president and CEO.
“We’ve always been anchored in the South End,” she said. “And it doesn’t take too much effort to walk into the South End and see that it is in woeful need of some attention.”
The bond with the South End was — and is — so strong that, when the agency’s facilities at 947 Main St. were heavily damaged by the June 1, 2011 tornado that devastated a large swath of that neighborhood and eventually razed, then-President and CEO Joan Kagan quickly pledged that the agency, which soon started leasing space at 1095 Main St., would rebuild in that section of the city.
But fulfilling that pledge has proven to be an enormous challenge.
“We’ve always been anchored in the South End. And it doesn’t take too much effort to walk into the South End and see that it is in woeful need of some attention.”
Indeed, although other options were looked at early on, it quickly became clear that, if the agency was going to rebuild in the South End, it would have to be on the property it owned, DiStefano said. And this property is fraught with challenges because of its small size, odd dimensions, contamination in the wake of the tornado, and other factors.
But, in a measure of its commitment to the South End, the agency is taking on all those challenges and moving forward with plans for a 26,000-square-foot, $12 million, three-story facility that will be built on the east end of the property that fronts Main Street.
Plans call for erecting a Butler-style building on the property, one that features a number of pre-fabricated elements, which serves to reduce the overall cost of designing and building a structure, DiStefano said.
“We’re savings millions of dollars because we’re not doing a traditional brick-and-mortar building,” she explained, adding that the agency is working with One Development & Construction LLC in Westfield, which specializes in Butler-style construction, on the project.
The current timetable calls for construction to begin late this year, probably November, with the new facility slated to open its doors in the fall of 2024.
The agency is in the early — also known as the ‘quiet’ — stage of a capital campaign for the new building, with nearly $3 million committed to date — $950,000 from the city in the form of ARPA money, and a $2 million commitment from the state.
DiStefano said early indications suggest a strong measure of support for Square One’s initiative, and she expects the nonprofit will be able to open its facility with little, if any, debt.
“It’s all achievable … but we’re not working with 10 acres here. We ultimately determined that we could do something with this site.”
“The most enjoyable, and most encouraging, part of this project has been how many people and institutions are compelled to give or have shown promise,” she explained, adding that the agency undertook a feasibility study on the campaign, one that surveyed 42 individuals and companies and revealed “100% intent to support the project.”
For this issue and its focus on the region’s nonprofit sector, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Square One’s building plans and how they reflect a nearly century-and-a-half-old commitment to a city and especially one of its proudest, and neediest, neighborhoods.
As she talked about the many challenges with building a new home for Square One, DiStefano said it’s good to keep things in their proper perspective.
Indeed, while there has been nothing easy about this building project, and it has a long way to go, the overall degree of difficulty pales in comparison — in most respects, anyway — with coming back from the twin disasters of 2011 and 2012 — and coping with the pandemic of 2020, for that matter.
The agency was completely displaced by the 2011 tornado; staff, teachers, and students were forced from the building and never allowed to return before engineers determined that it had to be demolished. In 2012, a natural-gas explosion downtown extensively damaged another Square One learning facility, to the point where it had to be abandoned. And early in the pandemic, Square One was forced to close its childcare facilities, as well as its operations on Main Street, before having to completely revamp operations after it was allowed to reopen to meet a huge need for childcare services.
The agency managed to push on and meet its broad mission — it provides early-learning services to more than 500 infants, toddlers, and school-aged children, and also offers an array of support services to more than 1,500 families each year — through all of that, DiStefano said, adding that the ability to do so offers strong testimony to the imagination and resiliency of its staff.
Those same qualities have been necessary for this building project, she went on, adding that, while rebuilding in the South End has always been the goal and the promise, it has proven to be a daunting challenge.
Indeed, the property that was ultimately destroyed by the tornado in 2011 was wedged into a narrow but deep lot, said DiStefano noted there was an administration building fronting Main Street and a two-story, L-shaped school building that extended eastward a few hundred feet. In a perfect world, or at least in a neighborhood with several alternatives when it comes to buildable lots and available property, Square One almost certainly wouldn’t rebuild on its former site, she added.
But this isn’t a perfect world. And Square One is building here only because there are few if any other options, she said, adding that she tried to purchase the brick property adjacent to former home of the agency, a move that would have provided considerably more frontage on Main Street, but was unsuccessful in that effort, just as her predecessor was unsuccessful in her efforts to secure other lots on which to build.
So the agency then focused its attention on building on its former home — an undertaking made challenging by the size and shape of the property as well as contamination from the demolition of the structures that once occupied the site.
“The bricks and all the materials from the homes that were razed obviously have asbestos and lead and other chemicals that have now seeped into the ground,” the explained, adding that the agency is currently working with a remediation company to determine just what is in the ground and what needs to be done to make the property ready for its intended use — as a home for programs for children.
Before even getting to that point, though, the agency had to conduct some due diligence to make sure it was feasible to build what it wanted to build on that parcel.
“This land is so awkward and small and weird that we didn’t want to buy it if we couldn’t build a building on it,” she explained, adding that Square One engaged in discussions with One Development to determine if its plan, its dream, was, in fact, doable.
Brad Miller, senior project manager with One Development, said that he and others ultimately determined that the answer to that question is ‘yes.’
“It is a challenging site because of its narrowness — it’s wedged between Hubbard and Williams streets,” he explained. “We only have so many options as far as the building footprint goes. The agency also needs a certain number of parking spaces, which we have to find a location for on that site, as well as a playground. It’s all achievable … but we’re not working with 10 acres here. We ultimately determined that we could do something with this site.”
The plans, still to be finalized, call for those parking spaces to be located on the Main Street end of the property, with the playground and building located toward the rear of the site, on a combination of the original site and a few smaller parcels acquired by the agency, DiStefano explained.
The planned structure will give the agency far more space than it has presently in the South End, she said, adding that the facility destroyed by the tornado had more classrooms than the currently facility.
Miller described what is planned for the site as a ‘Butler-hybrid’ building, a combination of conventional steel structure, with Butler components on the interior.
“This will a be steel-framed building with insulated metal panels on the outside, as well as some masonry on the first floor of the building,” he explained, adding that it will have a glass entranceway.
This pre-engineered building will ultimately save on design costs, he went on, adding that this is a design-build project, with One Development managing a large portion of the design as well as the construction.
While work continues on design aspects of the building project, Square One is proceeding with its capital campaign to raise funds to build the new facility.
As noted earlier, the agency has entered the quiet phase of the campaign, focusing on major grants from foundations and other donors, DiStefano said, adding that, by the start of 2024, she anticipates the process will enter the public phase.
Returning to that feasibility study on the capital campaign and the resounding support it revealed, DiStefano said those results validate the agency’s determination to clear a long row of hurdles and ultimately build in the neighborhood where it was founded back when Chester A. Arthur was patrolling the White House.
“Those results make it enjoyable — that pushes you when you’re ready to say that this piece of land is too difficult to build on and it’s going to cost too much to do this,” she said, adding that this vote of confidence provides another dose of determination.
And even more commitment for Square One to build on a legacy that’s been 140 years in the making.