Walmart is looking to build on the largest parcel in the William Stanley Business Park.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Waterstone Retail has filed its request for a special permit to build a 196,000 square-foot Walmart Supercenter at the William Stanley Business Park.
The developers signed a letter of intent to purchase the 16.5-acre parcel known as the "teens" at the intersection of Tyler Street Extension and Woodlawn Avenue in June 2016 with an agreement with Walmart to build the store.
However, after Waterstone submitted the petition, Walmart released a statement saying it no longer plans to relocate its store.
The company had been reducing the number of supercenters it plans to build this year. Waterstone builds developments for multiple retailers and Walmart was eyed to be the anchor at what it had been calling the Woodlawn Crossings project.
"Waterstone's decision to proceed with entitlement was their own. We no longer plan to relocate our store in Pittsfield. However, we are committed to continuing our investment and community involvement in Western Massachusetts," reads a statement from Phillip Keene, director of corporate communications for Walmart, released Tuesday evening.
"We operate more than 50 Walmart stores and Sam’s Clubs in Massachusetts and we continue to execute our plan to invest across the state this year by remodeling locations, introducing and expanding Online Grocery Pick-Up to new stores in Western Massachusetts, and opening new associate training academies. We remain very grateful for the support and professionalism of Pittsfield’s leadership while we worked through the development process and we look forward to continuing to serve our customers at our existing location in the city and online at Walmart.com."
It isn't clear how Walmart's decision to back out of the relocation plan will impact the future of the development. Waterstone had already placed down payments on the lease and purchase of the property.
The $34 million project included a significant amount of foundation work and the building of the Walmart store. The current Walmart in Berkshire Crossings was expected to be vacated and Walmart's retail arm would seek out a new tenant.
Overall, the project has been estimated to add 80 to 100 new jobs -- in addition to the current 200 people working now -- and generate an estimated $550,000 in new tax revenue. It would also take up the largest parcel formally owned by General Electric in the park and the developers say the foundation will alleviate pollution and stormwater runoff concerns.
"The project cost to remove the foundations, underground utilities, excavate and install new stormwater infrastructure is $16 million," reads the special permit application.
That foundation work has become a major focus of the plan, specifically for the stormwater management piece. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a draft permit regarding the water running into Silver Lake. The site had been cleaned by GE to pollutant levels established close to 30 years ago but the new permit is calling for significantly cleaner water. The system right now is cracking brick and mortar tunnels through which contaminated soil seeps into the water.
To comply, city officials have previously said the city or the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority would need a capital project to disconnect the system. The city petitioned the EPA saying PEDA shouldn't have to make those changed because it inherited the conditions from GE and the legal agreement.
However, that permit was also somewhat loosely defined in both timeline and what needed to be done. Waterstone's plan calls for excavating what is currently multiple uneven foundations, shipping the contaminated soil in those off-site for disposal, installing a new stormwater system, and then raising the entire site up 14 feet. The new building will sit on top of that new foundation.
"The applicant intends to comply and is required to comply with the standards contained in the draft discharge permit," the application reads.
That so-called "clean up" of the site had become the major talking point among city councilors. The William Stanley Business Park had been transferred to PEDA's control under the idea of redeveloping it with manufacturing. However, PEDA has not been able to attract manufacturing to the site despite many attempts. The so-called "teens" site particularly has been cited as the most difficult for PEDA officials to find interested developers.
The diversion from manufacturing to retail has been one of the hottest debates in the city for years. Back in 2011, Waterstone first announced it wanted to bring a retailer to the site while James Ruberto was mayor. The debate took center stage in the 2013 election, an election that brought in former Mayor Daniel Bianchi. Bianchi had opposed using the site for retail and put himself on the PEDA board and pushed Waterstone away. In 2015, he was ousted by Mayor Linda Tyer and Waterstone returned a few months after she took office with the Walmart plan.
The foundation work and the permit had changed the thoughts of many city officials who had been on the fence about the issue.
Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo had her fingers crossed that the delay in filing for a permit meant Walmart was axing the project. She'd rather see the parcel be developed with higher-paying, advanced manufacturing jobs -- like the ones the Berkshire Innovation Center is eyed to spur.
"I'm not warming to the fact of having retail there. I don't want any retail there," she said.
Mazzeo has been one of the strongest voices in opposition to not only Walmart but any proposed retail use at the park. But she said she is going into this latest proposal with an open mind.
"You can't change the past. It is frustrating but if it is going to cost this much to clean the site up, then we have no choice," she said prior to Walmart's statements on Tuesday.
But Mazzeo won't vote for the project just because of the cleanup work. She said her vote will only be won if the plan works for the city not just now, but 10 to 15 years into the future.
"They're going to make money on this so why not, for once, ask for something back," Mazzeo said, saying the city had been on the losing end of the consent decree. "Unless we get some concessions, I won't vote for it."
For example, she wants to make sure the building's design matches the neighborhood. She said the trends in retail have been that more and more stores are closing, and Walmart itself has even reduced the number of Supercenters it intends to build. She said it much more difficult to re-use the big-box design on a Walmart than a more attractive building. She doesn't want the city to have an empty Walmart in its downtown in a decade.
"They've altered the design in other communities," Mazzeo said. "I don't think we should hesitate to ask them to alter their plans."
Mike Ward, a former city councilor, had filed a petition asking the council to request a more urban design. But the City Council has kept that on the table, and it has appeared on the council agenda month after month with no action or discussion being taken. Ward wants the building to be closer to the road and more accommodating for pedestrian and bicycle access -- whereas the large parking lot in the plan now is more for drivers.
City Council Vice President John Krol, of Ward 6, has been one of the more vocal supporters of the Walmart plan. But, he is also supportive of Ward's request as well.
"I think there is work to be done to make it complement the neighborhood," Krol said on Tuesday. "I've publicly supported Mike Ward's concept for a more progressive design."
The plan submitted to the city is not only set back off the road with 805 parking spot between Woodlawn Avenue and the building, but it also has a pickup grocery component. That component had been part of the reason for delays. Waterstone had designed the site and Walmart executives then asked to add in the pickup section -- adding about 6,000 square feet to the design and forcing engineering to re-design the parking lot.
The enhanced grocery section at the new store had been a talking point for the developers, saying the Morningside neighborhood is a "food desert." The company said the nearest grocery store, Harry's Supermarket, is 1.2 miles away and Price Rite is the next closest a 1.5 miles. Waterstone said a bus route is also expected to be added -- giving greater access for the community to food.
Waterstone said Walmart's existing store hasn't negatively impacted other grocery stores and believes that since the company has been in the city for 22 years, "whatever impact Walmart has had on the local merchants, if any, has stabilized."
"Walmart is and will continue to be a destination store. Walmart shoppers drive to Walmart at Berkshire Crossing, as it is not within convenient walking distance from any significant residential neighborhood. It is therefore not likely that those current Walmart patrons will alter their shopping habits if Walmart moves 2.3 miles 'up the road,'" the application reads.
"Further, since it is a designation store, consumers have long ago established their shopping habits. Walmart shoppers will most likely continue to be Walmart shoppers, and conversely, consumers who are not Walmart shoppers will likely continue not to be Walmart shoppers."
The move from the shopping center on the outskirts of town to the downtown area had raised concern for downtown merchants, fearing the giant of a retailer will dominate the business landscape and put many of the small shops out of business. Downtown Pittsfield Inc. had previously put forth a petition requesting an independent economic impact study be done ahead of time to either alleviate those concerns or clearly show if there would be a negative impact on the existing stores.
"I'll definitely push my colleagues for an independent economic impact study," Mazzeo said.
Krol said he, too, would support an independent economic study because "you want to make sure you get enough objective, third-party information as possible." But, he also wants to avoid "paralysis by analysis."
The plan also has an economic impact on the city's finances. The city is up against its levy ceiling and the only way to turn that around would be to increase property values dramatically. The levy ceiling has led to some 68 positions in the School Department being cut last year.
Waterstone expects the new building to generate an additional $550,000 in new revenue, provided that the building at Berkshire Crossings is filled. North Adams had a Walmart expand there and reported after a few years that commercial revenues to the city's coffers had increased.
"The Pittsfield School budget for fiscal 2017 increased $1,813,585 from the fiscal 2016 budget. The new taxes generated by the site would have paid for approximately 30.3 percent of the school budget increase," Waterstone wrote in its proposal.
The company is also planning on improving both the intersection of Tyler, Woodlawn, and Dalton but also the intersection of East Street and Woodlawn -- the later being added on later in the project and an area the city had been denied federal grants to improve in the past.
Meanwhile, during construction Waterstone is estimating 350 temporary construction jobs. That, the company estimates, will contribute to between $9,258,000 to $13,226,000 in wages.
When the store opens, it is expected to have 300 total employees, ranging in salaries and skills. Waterstone says Walmart's current staff is composed of 55 to 60 percent full-time employees and that store managers can make up to $170,000. The application states that with the city's aging population, there will be a need for more jobs for retired persons.
"Retired baby boomers will need full or part-time jobs to supplement their retirement. Parents of schoolchildren and local college students can benefit from full and part-time jobs," the application reads.
The company needs a special permit from the City Council because of the size of the project. That permit needs to be approved by a supermajority.
Walmart had previously announced that it was significantly scaling back the number of stores it planned to build and many in Pittsfield had thought this project was going to be cut -- despite the $65,000 Waterstone made for a down payment on the property.
There seems to be some issue between Waterstone and Walmart regarding the project. Waterstone had previously said delays in submitting the permit were because Walmart engineers hadn't finalized the plans.
The City Council is expected to take on the permitting process in January when there is a new council in place. The construction will take about a year after permitting, setting the new store to open now earlier than 2019. City residents have already voiced divided viewpoints so the permitting process will likely be highly debated as it moves forward.
"We need to address this as a while city issue and not just a Morningside issue," Mazzeo said, saying the impacts of such a large development at the part concerns all corners of the city.
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