Friday, January 23, 2009

Holyoke to demolish 'hazardous' building at 506 Maple St.

by The Republican Newsroom

Friday January 23, 2009, 4:30 PM


HOLYOKE - A building deemed hazardous by city officials will be torn down as early as June using $400,000 of city funds.

"We have this (project) on a fast track," David A. Martins, chief procurement officer for the city, said Wednesday.

City officials wish they did not have to use city funds to tear down a privately owned, Maple Street building, but they insist the city needs to do something soon for public safety reasons.

"I'd love to let it sit there and rot," City Councilor Todd A. McGee said Tuesday, adding, "This building is a hazard and the potential for harm is high."

On Tuesday, the council voted 11-3 to appropriate $400,000 in free cash to demolish the building at 506 Maple St. Councilors John B. Brunelle, Rebecca Lisi and Donald R. Welch cast the three dissenting votes.

Free cash is a term used by the state for unused appropriations from a previous fiscal year. The previous fiscal year ended on June 30.

Councilors were advised by the city's building inspector and Fire Department that the Maple Street building should be torn down. They were warned the building was in danger of collapse.

"You have a building held up by straps," McGee said. And in one corner, the building is "actually pitching out" and on the verge of falling over, according to Councilor John J. O'Neill.

Upon hearing about Tuesday's vote, Martins contacted Forbes & Wheeler of Holyoke that same night to discuss doing an asbestos survey of the building. A contract with the company has not been finalized, Martins said.

The asbestos survey will likely take two to four weeks. Bids will then be solicited to remove asbestos. The actual asbestos removal will then take three to six months. During that time, demolition bids will solicited. Based on this timeline, Martins said he hopes demolition work will begin in June and take 90 to 120 days to complete.

Some city officials strongly object to using city funds to demolish a privately owned building. "There's no way I'm going to invest $400,000 to tear down a private building," Lisi said. "We need to reclaim the land for the city and get it back on the tax rolls."

The city has been trying to do just that, McGee said. But McGee and other councilors noted that the city's attempts have been thwarted by the property owner, a New York-based company listed as S3W Realty, LLP, according to city records. State records list the business as having a Springfield address but no phone number or person associated with the business.

The city took the company to Housing Court in Springfield, which Mayor Michael J. Sullivan said ruled that property owner was responsible for making repairs to the building. But officials have been unable to reach the property owner, Sullivan said.

Some city councilors Tuesday questioned why police don't arrest the building's owner. But since the company's owner has not committed a criminal offense, that person can only be arrested in this state, Sullivan said. Finding the owners of such vacant buildings is also extremely difficult, Sullivan added.

And because the building is privately owned, the city cannot use federal Community Development Block Grant money to tear it down as suggested by some councilors, Councilor John P. Brunelle said.

Either way, many councilors agreed the city needs to develop a city-wide plan for dealing with vacant and decrepit buildings on the verge of collapsing. "We have to try and find a way to keep landlords responsible," City Councilor Anthony M. Keane said.

More than 200 vacant and decrepit buildings in the city need to be demolished for safety and economic reasons, Sullivan said.

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Holyoke council rejects charter change board

Friday, January 09, 2009

HOLYOKE - Many city councilors support the idea of creating a charter commission to study possible ways to change the city's government structure.

But councilors are divided over who should initiate the drive to create such a commission, which would review issues like the size of city council and who should appoint certain city officials.

Some believe the council should initiate the process. But a majority of councilors Tuesday rejected a proposal to place a question on the November ballot. Instead, many of the councilors who voted against the proposal said they believe residents should initiate the drive.

"Let's get the people involved," City Councilor James M. Leahy said. "Let's just wait and see what the people have to say."

Others agreed. "If you're really serious about this, I think the people should be involved first," Councilor John P. Brunelle said.

The council voted 8-7 against placing the question on the ballot. The seven councilors who voted in favor were Anthony M. Keane, Rebecca Lisi, Joseph M. McGiverin, John J. O'Neill, Timothy Purington, Peter R. Tallman and Donald R. Welch.

O'Neill introduced the resolution to place the question the ballot. At Tuesday's meeting, O'Neill spoke at length about the importance of creating such a commission.

"There are many issues that are out there," he said. In particular, O'Neill cited proposals to review whether to reduce the size of the 15-member City Council and to review the city's management practices. In recent years, there has been much debate about who should appoint certain city officials: the council or the mayor.

"It makes sense to do these things together," he said. "Things have changed in 35 years and it's high time we looked at it again."

Tallman agreed. "I think it is important we do take a look at what's happening in our city," he said.

But like Leahy and Brunelle, City Councilor Kevin A. Jourdain said he believes residents need to initiate the process, not the council. Jourdain also noted that the process is a very long and expensive one. "To actually have an informed decision about this will require a lot of resources," Jourdain said.

In order to create a charter commission, 15 percent of the city's registered voters need to sign a petition requesting the creation of a charter commission, according to City Clerk Susan M. Egan. A question requesting the creation of a charter commission can then be placed on a ballot for residents to vote on.

The earliest such a question could appear on a ballot would be this November, Egan said. If approved, any changes recommended by the charter commission would not go into effect until 2013.

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Sunday, January 4, 2009

Zone-change presents unique opportunity for Holyoke

Holyoke has a unique opportunity to leverage a development agreement with SK Properties Development Corporation to ensure that the proposed Lowe's project has real benefits for the residents of Holyoke. Unfortunately, the conversation regarding the City Council's vote to re-zone the 18-acre parcel of land on Whiting Farms Rd. has slipped into a divisive for-Lowe's or against-Lowe's argument. This has distracted our community from having a meaningful discussion about what is involved in the zone change process, and what is at stake.

This is not a simple, black-or-white issue. It is a serious decision that merits careful consideration by the city's leadership to be sure that we are doing what is in the best interest of all our constituents. SK Properties is currently petitioning the city for a zone-change from "Industrial use" to "General Business use" for the Whiting Farms Parcel. The new use should develop the land efficiently and avoid public costs associated with haphazard development.

If a zone change is approved by the City Council, the developer can contract to bring in a specific project, in this case the development of a Lowe's. The zone change grants the developer the "right to build," so any modifications must be deemed "reasonable" by the developer. At that point, the city must rely on the developer to implement the conditions set by the Planning Board. Any modification deemed "unreasonable" by the developer can actually be grounds for legal action against the city.

With this in mind and while we are now deliberating the zone-change the city has an opportunity to request concessions from SK Properties to ensure: (1) funding for the city to conduct an independent traffic study of the area; (2) bonding to ensure that traffic mitigation is completed along Whiting Farms Rd. from Northampton St. to Lower Westfield Rd.; (3) financial support for a downtown economic development fund; and (4) restrictions on the building's size and environmental footprint. In fact, many municipalities across the Commonwealth, including Danvers, North Attleboro, Woburn, Weymouth and Hadley have used "contract-zoning" to secure added benefits for their communities in negotiating contracts up-front with petitioning developers for Lowe's projects.

The Town of Hadley, for example was able to secure a package of $410,000 for farmland preservation, parks and recreation, and long-range planning. Other cities have negotiated packages that include extensive traffic mitigation, bonding to ensure that it is completed to the municipality's satisfaction, financial support for master plan assistance, wetlands protection, landscaping and more. These development agreements were secured up-front in exchange for the desired zone-change.

The city of Holyoke holds a lot of power in this process and should not sell itself short. We need to learn from the precedents set by our neighbors in order to understand how we can use these tools to our advantage. Lowe's has expressed interest in Holyoke. This interest is based on scouting a location which has convinced them that they will make a solid return on their investment. If they want to site a store in Holyoke, then we need to exercise our right to ask that they invest in our community in return.

As City Councilors, we are looking to work with the city’s leadership to take an active role in negotiating the terms of those concessions now, while we still can. The citizens of Holyoke should expect nothing less than the citizens of Danvers, North Attleboro, Woburn, Weymouth and Hadley.

City Councilors-At-Large
Rebecca Lisi and Elaine Pluta

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