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Holyoke City Council Notes #1

City Council exercises more hindsight than foresight with Lynch School rezoning approval

By David T.

Citizens seeking to preserve the John J. Lynch School were rebuffed at an Oct. 2 meeting of the Holyoke City Council, with councilors overwhelmingly supporting a zoning change that will enable redevelopment of the site.

The council voted 11 to one to support the zoning change, converting the 1575 Northampton St. parcel, where the long-closed school now stands, to highway business zoning. The zoning change comes in the wake of an agreement by the city to sell the property to developer Colvest Group to construct what opponents fear will be a crappy, depressing strip mall.

About a dozen residents discussed the zoning change during the council meeting’s public comment period, with 3 supporting the change and the rest opposing. Council members subsequently spent about an hour discussing their motivations for casting their votes, creating an aura of controversy around what was essentially a unanimous decision. An 11th-hour advocacy campaign by pro-preservation partisans, despite producing yard signs, a website, numerous phone calls to officials, and just a large amount of noise in general, drew no one to their cause.

Some city councilors were perhaps slightly more catty than was absolutely necessary. Ward 3 Councilor David Bartley, for example, felt the need to pull rank a little bit in justifying his vote. He noted that, “I’ve been involved for 6 years,” in the process of determining a disposition for the site, as opposed to the “two months” that preservation advocates have been active. He went on to add that “I am encouraged by comments from new people coming to town. New relative to me, anyway.” Aren’t we all just trying to construct a little meaning for ourselves in a chaotic and uncaring world?

To be fair, a number of the preservationists set themselves up by admitting that they only moved here in the last decade. One Preserve Lynch leader, Paola Ferrario, argued that the Lynch should be saved because the housing market is “hot” right now, and historic preservation is the type of thing that appeals to the type of folks who are starting to move here with increased frequency as they get priced out of Northampton and Easthampton. She went on to produce a bracelet that she described—no kidding—as being decorated with a 14-karat-gold tiger with rubies for eyes. Ferrario utilized her opulent prop to illustrate a well-constructed, if perhaps slightly tone-deaf metaphor. She suggested that she could get a pittance for it at a pawn shop, or small fortune if she sold it to an expert, but that the real value would be preserving her family legacy and passing it on to her offspring. She asked, regarding the Lynch, “Are we going to the pawn shop?”

Wad 2 City Councilor Nelson Roman did not respond directly to Ferrario’s metaphor, but his comments provided an interesting counterpoint regarding the idea of inter-generational wealth. Noting that he was homeless when he first moved to Holyoke, he said the first job he got was at a retail store in the Holyoke Mall. “Lets not devalue or throw away potential jobs that would benefit the people of Holyoke,” he said. There was no substantive information provided regarding how many jobs the Colvest plan would create, or whether it would create more or fewer jobs than any other use for the site.

At-Large City Councilor Rebecca Lisi gave perhaps the most quixotic performance of the evening, declaring that she intended to oppose the zoning change “to give voice” to constituents opposed to the redevelopment of the site, even though, she said, she personally supports the change. She stated that she is an advocate of “smart growth” but that she feels it is “not sustainable” to bring “boutique in-fill development” to the entire city. She said she believes that such revitalization efforts should be focused on downtown. Based on this one meeting, it is not entirely clear that Lisi is advocating for a style of development that would make Holyoke only marginally distinguishable from Northampton and Easthampton, but it kind of sounds like it.

In the end, the most convincing argument for supporting the zoning change was that developers interested in preserving the school as space for residential, retail, performance, or community space had their chance to submit a bid, and did not. As Councilor Roman noted, the only uses excluded in the Request for Proposals were motor vehicle services and drug stores.

It is not hard to take issue, however, with the pronouncement, made by multiple community members and city Councilors, that the district between Hampden Street and St. Jerome’s Cemetery as currently constituted, represents a traditional business highway district. For one thing, it is beset on all sides by dense residential neighborhoods, meaning there will not likely ever be enough parking for a significant car-oriented, much less Riverdale-Road-like, development. For another, the strip is flanked at Hampden Street by a now-closed Rite-Aid and a former Days Inn that now appears to be scraping by a residential motel. The Lynch itself sits directly across from two long-vacant properties at 1548 and 1550-1554 Northampton streets. This two-block strip certainly has a business highway vibe, but in reality, it is pockmarked by vacant and underutilized space that, redeveloped with a comprehensive vision could redefine the corridor.

Incidentally, per Hampden County registry of Deeds records, the long-neglected property across from the Lynch at 1550-1554 Northampton St. is owned by Eric Suher, who has demonstrated in the past that property ownership and management is not his strong suit, and is likely annoyed that his hopes of opening a casino in Holyoke have been dashed. One almost wishes there was a legal means by which a city that put together a comprehensive redevelopment plan for an area, could exercise some leverage over a property owner, who, whether due to bitterness or incompetence, is holding that city back.

Eric Suher’s spirit was evoked at the meeting by At-Large City Councilor Daniel Bresnahan, who used the example of Suher’s failed casino efforts to suggest the city should take a more laissez-faire attitude toward development. Pondering the paucity of the city’s current commercial tax base, he briefly but emphatically lamented the missed opportunity to bring a gambling establishment to Holyoke. After outlining his “regret”, Bresnahan, who was sporting a mountain-man beard, stated “the bottom line is, we need business” and suggested that he was demonstrating his commitment to bringing business to Holyoke, and his brave leadership on the subject, through his vote.

At Large Councilor Joseph McGiverin noted that the highway business zoning designation is in line with the zoning previously called for in the area in the City’s last master plan (which I was not able to immediately find on the city’s website). Neither preservation advocates nor city officials, however, appear to have made any effort to get a handle on what residents from adjacent neighborhoods would like to see happen to the Northampton Street corridor as a whole.

It looks likely that the Lynch will be demolished and Colvest will, in fact, build a strip mall. If the city will develops the will to pursue the highest and best use for the Northampton Street corridor, though, the process will require robust democratic participation by the strip’s diverse array of adjacent neighbors. Ideally, it would include residents from the Highlands and Oakdale as well as folks living in the former Days Inn and in the neighborhood between Dwight Street, St. Jerome Ave., and Sargent streets.

David T. is The Shoestring’s Holyoke correspondent.

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