PITTSFIELD, Mass. — There's been $6 million in state funds dangling in the wind for years to rebuild the Columbus Avenue garage. It doesn't appear the city is ever going to get the money.
So with or without state support, the city is just going to tear it down.
The City Council on Tuesday preliminarily approved $2 million toward demolition and constructing a surface lot.
However, city officials are still hoping the state will eventually allocate funds to rebuild a three-story parking garage on the site. Twice now the city's state legislators have been able to tuck that money into bond bills -- but only the governor's office can approve its release.
In 2014, the parking deck's top level was closed off because the structure is in such disrepair. State officials had earmarked $6 million in a transportation bond bill for a new structure. Meanwhile, the city designed a $9.4 million three-story structure. Then the bill crept up to around $11 million and that is expected to have climbed even further since.
But a few months ago, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito apparently told city officials that the administration was not going to release the money. And now, the city has a new plan to just tear the parking garage down and turn it into a 140-parking space lot.
On Monday, state Sen. Adam Hinds said he was still pushing to get the money released and Director of Community Development Deanna Ruffer said on Wednesday that the city still intends to apply for grant funding to build the garage before moving forward with the reduced plan.
The implementation of the parking meters was attributed to the repeated attempts to get money for the Columbus Avenue garage. The state had supported a renovation of the McKay Street garage but required that a revenue source be instituted to pay for its maintenance. The city used the parking meter plan but its implementation was slow.
In January 2017, the meters were installed. That hit the state's requirement for McKay and it was hoped to have put the city in line to receive funding for Columbus.
"Having a parking management plan positions the City of Pittsfield for available state funding earmarked for infrastructure repairs like the Columbus Avenue Parking garage. This is the objective that matters the most," Mayor Linda Tyer said just six months ago during her state of the city speech earlier this year.
That was the second year in a row Tyer had pushed for the project.
"We've got to have a new parking garage on Columbus Avenue. It is not a small thing. The garage is needed to support our new boutique hotel, Barrington Stage audience, downtown businesses and residents, and the Intermodal Transportation Center," Tyer said in her state of the city speech in 2017.
Despite the importance local officials had placed on it, the state has been resistant to release the money.
Meanwhile, businesses nearby are getting impatient. Laurie Tierney was the developer of Hotel on North, which is across from the garage on the Summer Street side, and she asked the council to support the capital request.
"I don't think it is any secret that that thing is an embarrassment," Tierney said. "I'm fine with tearing it down, lighting it up."
She said that section of North Street has "world-class theater," shops, restaurants, and the hotel and the garage is hurting those companies. She feels tearing down the blight is the best use of the city's money.
Barrington Stage Board of Trustee Michael Zaccaro said some 55,000 people come to the theater each year and the most common complaint he receives is "we have a safety issue related to parking." Fellow Trustee Marita Glodt said the company's subscriptions have declined for the first time.
"I can't tell you how many times I have met a couple just exasperated and won't come back to the theater because of the parking issue," she said.
Downtown Pittsfield Inc. President Jesse Cook-Dubin backs those business owners. He said the city has worked toward getting a new garage for so many years but patience has run thin.
"We're at a point where I really believe and our organization strongly supports tearing down the garage, paving it," Cook-Dubin said.
The current garage should hold 278 vehicles if the top level wasn't closed off. The plan prior was to build a 378-spot garage. The council is on board with just tearing it and down and paving a new surface just to get something done with that structure. But, local officials are still holding out hope that a garage can be constructed instead.
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