Citizens packed City Hall on Monday night to argue the pros and cons of a big-box retailer at William Stanley Business Park.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Citizens packed City Hall on Monday to argue for and against the proposed development of an unnamed retail giant
at the former General Electric site known as William Stanley Business Park.
About two-thirds of speakers opposed the use of this site for an unknown big-box store, planned to be the largest in Pittsfield history, while others expressed enthusiasm or cautious optimism for the project, following presentations from city planning staff and Waterstone Retail Development at a hearing held by the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority.
In their presentation, developers summarized their assessment of the troubled former industrial parcel, which comprises about half of all available land at the fledgling business park, and cited examples of "multi-use" business parks they've worked to develop in other areas. Since the project was first proposed in 2011, Waterstone has maintained that the desired property is impractical for industrial or warehouse uses because it would have to invest millions in the site just to make it buildable.
The total costs, they said, could make rent for such commercial tenants nearly double that of existing unfilled industrial buildings currently vacant in the city, but added that the proposed retail could be the catalyst for attracting some light industrial tenants to the remaining small parcels of the park.
"There's not a lot of manufacturing going on in Massachusetts," Waterstone principal Neil Shalom added, who also said that major warehousing operations preferred to be near major arteries.
"It will take away the stigma of everything that's happened on that site," Shalom concluded, "It'll be a new building, new pavement, new site work, new signage; and hopefully that'll also ease everything that's happened there over the past decade and a half, and give it a new face and inspire other projects to join what we're proposing there."
Douglas Clark, director of community development for the city, offered his office's perspective on the history of the remediated former GE land and the PEDA's challenges with it over its 15-year transition, and offered extensive commentary on the current administration's leanings and priorities for economic development at the site. These include a long-planned life sciences center
, for which the city already has a $6.5 million earmark
if it can attract tenants for it.
"The point has been made about the need for a seed, or something to really spark development at that site. To me, the Berkshire Life Science center is that opportunity," said Clark, who added that development of the property thus far has been hindered by years of land transfers, environmental remediations and other hurdles such as the replacement of the Woodlawn Avenue bridge.
Clark said the strategy for developing William Stanley had emerged out of multiple studies and planning processes, including PEDA's 2003 Master Plan as well as a 2007 economic development study that emphasized plastics, and growth industry such as life sciences and medical technology among its priorities.
"A big box retail development really does not do a lot for overall economy ... all we're doing is shuffling jobs," said Clark, who thought more advanced manufacturing would create opportunities to support more retail. "That's the kind of firm we hope to attract to this site."
Opinion was fiercely divided among the two dozen residents who addressed the PEDA board on Monday night, expanding upon divisions in thinking that have emerged since a box retailer was first proposed
two years ago.
Advocates for the project variously cited benefits of the project, including an estimated 200 jobs, additional tax revenue, development of a blighted commercial property, and the hopes that such a retail project might make this commercial zone more inviting to other industry.
"The question tonight is do you want to see William Stanley Business Park developed, or left vacant," said Diane Marcella, head of the Tyler Street Business Group, who along with three other family members spoke firmly in favor of the Waterstone plan.
"Manufacturing is coming back, but we have nothing here today, and I truly believe we will see our city turn into mixed use development as other cities around the country have," said Suzanne Engels, who a marketing consultant to the PEDA agency.
"Do we have something, a bird in the hand? Yes. Waterstone wants to come in and do something for us," said Jim Haggerty, a Springside Avenue resident. "Please, give us more tax revenue. Go for the Waterstone deal."
Opponents expressed skepticism about the economic benefits of more large retail, many urging PEDA to stick with plans to attract life sciences and innovative industry, for which serious marketing attempts
by the agency have only begun within the year and a half.
"I'm all for jobs ... but retail's not the answer," said Ward 3 City Council candidate Richard Latura, who along with others also expressed doubts that the project would create new jobs rather than just replace existing retail jobs.
City Planner C.J. Hoss outlined the process for permitting, including two public hearings.
"I urge all involved here to stay true to the vision of the William Stanley Business Park and to the long-term benefits of creating high-skill, high-wage jobs for the good of all the citizens of Pittsfield," said Pittsfield Superintendent of Schools Jason "Jake" McCandless.
"It's my observation that when you make a proposal, and you intentionally withhold details," said Ward, "usually those details are not flattering to your proposal."
Downtown Pittsfield Inc. also staunchly opposed the plan, represented Monday by board President Rob Proskin, while Berkshire Community College President Ellen Kennedy urged PEDA to be careful to leave room for growth in life sciences, for which the site already has the earmark from the state to develop a new commercial research center.
Periodic outbursts of applause for some of those speaking against the proposal came from among a standing-room-only crowd that at times overfilled chambers and spilled out into the hallway.
City Planner C.J. Hoss outlined the procedures the proposal from Waterstone will need to go in order to move forward. These will include vetting by additional bodies, and at least two more public hearings through the Community Development Board and the City Council, whose approval would ultimately be required for the development.