North Adams Council Unhappy With Historic Houses Plan
The City Council is unhappy over the Historical Commission's decision to try to save one or two mill homes.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The Historical Commission sees legacy homes worth preserving in the rundown units along Houghton Street — but the City Council just sees blight.
The council expressed its displeasure Tuesday at the commission's decision last week to invoke a year's delay on the demolition of four long-vacant structures to explore ways to preserve at least one, if not two, of the homes.
"What's so historical about these buildings?" asked Councilor Wayne Wilkinson, during councilor' concerns. "I've been in North Adams for 37 some odd years now and I've never seen anything but a lot of dilapidated buildings there."
Dating to 1840, the two-family units are the last unaltered examples of housing used by mill workers in the early years of the Industrial Revolution.
Commissioner Alan Horbal had asked the commission last week to reconsider its decision at a well-attended meeting in April to demolish all four structures.
Councilors, however, want more information on funding, security, timelines and reasoning, asking Mayor Richard Alcombright to invite commission members to attend their next meeting.
"I understand the historical perspective and the desire to save all we can," said Councilor Nancy Bullett. "My concern is how this all came about."
Councilor Joshua Moran wanted to know what would happen if funding fell through: "Are these off the chopping block for good? Is this something we can reconsider?"
Alcombright defended the commissioners, saying they "work very hard, they make a lot of decisions, they don't do a lot for themselves and this is something they think they can own and create something out of."
However, he admitted that he'd been targeting the buildings for removal since taking office.
"Houghton Street has really cleaned up nicely in the last 10-15 years and I realize that," Alcombright said. "It's why I wanted them gone years ago."
But delaying another year could also save the city significant Community Development Block Grant money, he said.
"If this project moves forward and is successful, it could really save the city $80,000 to $100,000," the mayor said. "It could be used on other blight."
The houses had already been removed from the CDGB cycle because of negotiations with the estate, which will take down a fifth building at Liberty and Houghton.
Historical Commission Chairwoman Justyna Carlson said Thursday she had heard of the council's objections.
The commission had invoked the one-year delay, she said, based on new information obtained by Horbal: Finally making contact with a representative of the estate and the opinions of two experienced carpenters.
"With those two conditions, it was worth revising," said Carlson. "The demolition is still there and if there's no viable plan. ... Well, Alan said he'd go up there with a sledgehammer."
Historian and researcher Joseph Manning has offered to dig into the history of the buildings' occupants and the commission is seeking fund raising and cleanup support.
The council asked that someone from the Historical Commission to explain its decision to them.
The people who lived in the homes worked across the street in what had been the Otis Hodge Foundry & Box Factory, sometimes listed as Machine & Foundry, on what was then Brooklyn Street.
Somewhere inside the green GSS Construction building at the corner of North and Houghton streets is the old Hodge mill. Hodge, or possibly his son, held at least two machine patents.
The plan is to take down one building, salvage the historical pieces and store them in a third building until they can be used, then tear down that building.
The buildings would require general maintenance but little else: no water, electricity or central heat since those did not exist in 1840.
Alcombright said the Historical Commission had been very supportive of other city projects and felt he could reciprocate to "help what is in a sense their dream" come true.
Councilor Keith Bona, who lives on North Street, objected that some 20 people had attended the April meeting to advocate for the demolition.
"They should hold another meeting so the public can go," he said, later adding, "They're making a bid decision, the public should be aware, the neighbors should be able to go, they shouldn't be limited to two-minute speeches at the council.
"It's a big project they're putting forward. It should have a special meeting."
Council President Lisa Blackmer, twice warning councilors that they shouldn't be debating matters not on the agenda, reminded them that the commission sets its own meetings.
"I want them to come to us to answer our questions," she said. "They have their own procedures."
The commission may have a tough job persuading the City Council to let it move forward. According to city code, six of the councilors have to approve any acquisition and management of real property by the commission.
"We definitely felt it was worth doing it," said Carlson, noting how often her panel has to approve razing buildings. "We felt there was a good chance of doing something positive."
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