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North Adams Council Rejects Housing Project Bid for Sullivan School
By Tammy Daniels, iBerkshires Staff
12:12AM / Wednesday, February 10, 2021
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Sullivan School has been put out to bid nine times. Two proposals for reuse that have made it to the City Council have both been rejected.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council unanimously rejected a proposal to turn the former Sullivan School into a mixed housing development of up to 75 units. 
 
This is the second bid on the vacant 12-acre property the council has turned down, the first being a plan for an advanced manufacturing school a year ago. 
 
Xenolith Partners LLC of Bedford, N.Y., and SanoRubin Construction Services LLC of Albany, N.Y., had offered $10,000, well below the assessed value of $2,333,350, and requested a 30-year tax incentive that set the tax bill on each unit and capped increases to 2 percent annually. 
 
It was the only bid on the property, which has been put out for requests for proposals nine times now. Approval would have given Mayor Thomas Bernard authority to negotiate terms with the developers. 
 
Neighborhood opposition was swift, with 125 people signing a petition against the project and more than 60 attending Tuesday's City Council meeting to express their displeasure. Councilors also noted they had been receiving dozens of emails and calls by angry citizens who felt this proposal was being sprung on them. A Facebook page, Concerned Citizens Against the Sullivan School Housing Project boasted 142 members — including Councilors Jason LaForest, Marie T. Harpin and Peter Oleskiewicz. 
 
About a half-dozen people spoke against the Sullivan proposal during open forum, citing traffic, noise, disruption, changing the neighborhood's character, aged water and sewer lines and other impacts the housing project could cause. 
 
"We propose you demolish the current school building, revitalize and expand Kemp Park into a neighborhood park, seeing our tax money put toward green investments and community space rather than more infrastructure," said resident Michael Fierro. "We are willing to assist the city in finding grants to help materialize the Kemp family's vision." 
 
Karen Bedard said 75 units would tax the already "antiquated sewer and water system that is constantly an issue in the city." Carol Boucher, who raised their family in the neighborhood asked the council not to make a hasty decision. "There is no need to rush," she said, adding, "I'll give $10,000 if you want for the piece of property."
 
Peter May of Summit Avenue listed a litany of problems associated with "low income housing" such as cars, noise, pollution and trespassing that would affect the "peaceful and well-kept neighborhood."
 
"There's plenty of existing housing that could be developed. I'm a landlord, I've never had any assistance, other major landlords have never had any assistance," May said. "This is a giveaway to the developer at $10,000 asking for a 30-year tax abatement, and it's at our expense."
 
LaForest, who motioned to deny the bid, read a lengthy statement saying he had expected the administration to put forward proposals "consistent with the path on which North Adams has grown over the past two decades."
 
"Not only does this proposal not hit any of the benchmarks I imagined, it sells North Adams short. This proposal is not worthy of the pride of our residents," he said. "It disrespects the progress of the immense hole we've been climbing out of since Sprague Electric Co. and the hospital close and countless other businesses, and frankly it dishonors the foundation of the new economy we've helped create in the Mass MOCA era."
 
The city has 13 percent low-income and affordable housing, he said, above the state's mandated 10 percent and that there are two subsidized housing projects at each end of Kemp Avenue, and a third not far away. LaForest described them as "segregated housing" based on economics that does not help the people who live in them. 
 
He also questioned the lack of studies, although these would generally follow when a project begins the permitting process. 
 
The Sullivan project would have been mixed housing, with no less than 20 to 40 percent considered "affordable" based on a percentage of the median income, which is $80,900 for two people in the Berkshire metro region. This would translate to about $54,650 for a couple at 80 percent. The developers did not indicate how many of the units would be market rate. 
 
Councilor Lisa Blackmer said she would vote against the proposal because of the size, which she thought would was far too large for the neighborhood. 
 
But, she said, the city's housing needs assessment showed there had been a net loss of nearly 600 affordable units.
 
"There's a difference what's needed based on people's incomes and what we actually have," she said. "So saying that we don't need it is more of a perception, or it's a perception of how we want our city to be."
 
Blackmer said most of the emails she had received were opposed to the project but others "didn't like the tenor of the conversation and how it was being handled." There was a tendency to blame low-income projects for policing issues and drugs, she said, adding the drugs in her neighborhood had been coming from two single-family homes and not the housing project across the street. 
 
She also noted that the Democratic State Committee platform that some councilors had voted on includes "upgrading the existing rental housing supply and efforts at all levels of government to encourage the production of new rental units." 
 
"There are great ideas on what people want to do with the property...to do those things that people want done cost money and investment," Blackmer said. "No one's paying anything on this property, it's costing the city, it's going to cost the city up to possibly over a million dollars to demo it."
 
Councilor Jessica Sweeney said she also was disheartened by some of the communications she's gotten over the issue.
 
"I've received many many, many emails, talking very negatively about people who are struggling right now in the middle of a pandemic," she said. "And that has been hard to hear. And I do also support and understand that this project is maybe not a good project for the space, and for the area." 
 
Councilor Benjamin Lamb said investment and growth didn't necessarily mean a business — the school was an investment for growth as is housing. To put it in perspective, he said, there are 22 people living in the hotel because there's not room in homeless shelters and no place to house them. 
 
"I'm in a similar mindset with Councilor Sweeney on the challenges of some of the language that have been used in the communications to myself and others around our low-income community and that specific strata of our neighborhoods in our community members and our friends," he said.
 
Lamb pointed out that mixed housing was in the city's master plan and that it had been proven to be a best practice. 
 
"Clark Biscuit is actually a pretty good example of what mixed housing looks like in terms of how the composition is built out, and you know that there are very few complaints or concerns when it comes to that complex, however, it does include low-income housing," he said.
 
Lamb said he would be voting against the project but noted there was a tendency to see these meetings as an "end-all, be-all moment" when a project that size would still have five or six more steps to go. 
 
"If we really want to engage and figure out what we want there. We need to have those conversations before any more RFPs," he said. "The market has told us two different things now and both have been turned down, very different ends of the spectrum." 
 
Councilor Wayne Wilkinson said he would vote against the proposal but was not opposed to sending it to committee if the council wished to debate it further. Councilor Keith Bona didn't see the point of wasting more time.
 
"What I plan to do is listen to the people that I've spoken to, I've messaged, and that are here tonight and that have signed on to a petition," said Harpin. "There's other things we can do this isn't the end of solvent school, there's there's other options out there. You know basic you know keep it simple subdivide it break it up, put some house I have houses on there. The the money that you make on the sale of it, you take down the school."
 
The proposal came from the latest requests put out by the city for a number of properties, many of which have been listed more than than once. This last round was extended to Jan. 22 for applications for the Mohawk Theater, Windsor Mill, Sullivan School, 568 Mohawk Trail and 367 Houghton St.
 
The Mohawk Trail property, with an assessed value of $30,700, had a bid at price and will be sold; Mohawk Theater received two bids, one incomplete and one rejected. 
 
The Houghton Street property had a bid of $12,000 from Kenneth Daly. The house is assessed at $79,900 but has been put out before with no bids. The council debated briefly on whether to accept the bid but Michael Nuvallie from the Office of Community Development pointed out it was one of the assets from the former Housing Opportunities, had been vacant for some time and that this was the fourth attempt to sell it. 
 
"The lack of on-site parking has been a detriment to this particular property, not to mention the extremely small yard or usable space," he said. "When the city owns a piece of property, it takes on a different flavor than if Mr. and Mrs. Smith owned that property and they were trying to sell it. The house has been vacant for quite some time during the ownership of HOI, and then in turn by the city. ... There's been signs of some possible squatting in there and some damage that was done to the toilets and some of the drywall.
 
"It is in my opinion time to sell."
 
The council voted unanimously to sell the property.
 
In other business, the council heard about the conditions at the police station and of the city's fire hydrants. It also approved the appointments of David Motta and Ashley Shade to the Human Services Commission with terms to expire Feb. 1, 2024, and an application by William H. Wheeler of Williamstown to drive for RJ's Taxi. 
 
Council President Paul Hopkins said there may be a special meeting of the council regarding candidates for the city clerk position. 
 
There were several references during discussion about "giving the school back" to the original owner of the land. The property is actually comprised of six different parcels with no buildings taken by eminent domain on Feb. 28, 1964. The largest was 5.8 acres from Edith Robare, Thomas and Rita Cardinal (1.3 acres), George and Annie Bourdon (0.9 acres) and William Netherwood (2.4 acres) as well as two pieces whose ownership could not be determined at 0.1 and 1 acre each. Each of the owners was paid a fee simple of $1 but were able to negotiate a price or take the city to court if they preferred. Robare settled out of court for $5,200. 
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