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An artist's rendering of the proposed Walmart Super Center.

North Adams Planners Want New England Look for Walmart

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Planners Paul Senecal, left, Joseph Gniadek and Chairman Michael Leary listen to a presentation by Walmart representatives.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Residents may be divided on the benefits of a Walmart Super Center but they can agree one thing: It better look Colonial.

"This community has a pretty proud tradition when it comes to its larger shopping centers of demanding a New England style look ... I think the Super Stop & Shop is a classic example of that," said Planning Board Chairman Michael Leary at Monday's meeting. "We've had developers come in here with a cookie-cutter approach, for lack of a better term."

There was general agreement in the audience of nearly 60 who filled the seats and spilled out into the hallway for the first public hearing on the 160,000 square-foot slated for the city's former gravel pit on Curran Highway. More than a few were hoping to have their questions answered on environmental effects, traffic, lighting and construction.

Leary, however, limited comments to those processes under the board's purview, such as signage, materials and traffic. It didn't include philosophical debates on Walmart's policies and its effects on local business.

"The reality is this Planning Board cannot protect against competition," he said. "That would unethical and illegal as far as I'm concerned."

There was a bit of shock when the audience discovered that the Super Center was planning to be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Several questioned nighttime noise and light pollution. Councilor Keith Bona, however, noted "We've had 24-hour stores before who've slowly learned that the people in North Adams tend to go to bed early." That led Planner David Babcock to quip, "not tonight," nodding at the packed room.

Developer Ceruzzi Properties of Connecticut, operating as BVS 5401 Investors LLC, has a purchase-and-sales agreement with city to buy bought the gravel bank for the shopping center. It's already purchased the surrounding property, including the former North Adams Plaza to the south that may end up as a Lowe's Home Improvement Center. The new Walmart replaces the 15-year-old, 97,000-square-foot building at the former Coury's Drive-in.

Anthony Israel, standing, asks a question during the public hearing.
The Planning Board hearing on five special permits for the site is the first step on a long process that includes hearing and reviews by the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act office and the Massachusetts Highway Department, among others.

Ceruzzi was represented on Monday by local attorney Jonathan "Jay" Sabin. Mayor Richard Alcombright, who attended the hearing, had hoped a representative from Walmart would be there.

Audience members were able to express their concerns about increased traffic along secondary roads, availability of public transportation, safety issues, the size of the parking area, and the impact on wetlands and other areas.

North Adams resident Anthony Israel asked the board to request separate, independent reports on Walmart's findings and that future filings be made available in digital format to allow greater access to the citizenry. "Just to participate because it's a really big project whether you like it or not," he said.

Israel belongs to a group questioning the suitability of the megastore, which will include a grocery, but which was rebuffed in its calls for an economic impact report.

Administrative Officer Jay Green said the group was misinterpreting an ordinance that related to the effect of a development on the city's services — fire, police, public works — not its impact on the city's economy.

The developer's representatives had met with those departments on Monday afternoon; the only issue raised was the safety factor of allowing lefthand turns in and out of a South State Street entranceway, forcing traffic across four lanes.

The main entrance would be at Hodges Cross Road, taking the place where the so-called jug handle allows lefthand turns at the intersection. It would be removed in favor of a widened highway and a dedicated righthand turn from the southbound lane into the parking lot at the lights.

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A traffic study that included both Walmarts (on the assumption another retail outlet will move into the older store) and inflated data from an earlier Lowe's plan found that about 540 trips (in and out) could be expected during peak times of late afternoon and evenings weekdays and about 700 during Saturday midday.

The chain's agreed to do further study on traffic impact along the Route 8 corridor up Route 116 in Adams. Its representatives have been in talks with the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority, local and state agencies including Massachusetts Highway and the town of Adams relating to sewer hookup. Walmart will be responsible for all highway reconstructions, lighting and curb cuts.

A fire-supression system with a 4,000-gallon tank that's 25 feet tall and 55 feet in diameter will be installed in the rear of the building. The new store will include greater use of natural light, recycled materials and LEDs to reduce energy; native plants and trees will be used for landscaping to break up the parking lot and provide highway shielding. A rain garden is planned along with tanks to filter and disperse storm water.

Councilor Michael Bloom makes a point to Planners Paul Hopkins and David Babcock. Fellow Councilors Keith Bona, Alan Marden, Lisa Blackmer and President Ronald Boucher listen with attorney Jay Sabin
Architect Robert Eberts of Cross River Architects in New York thought the brand-new Walmart look was a good one. "The one thing we see is the gray box is gone, never to return, I hope," he said, displaying an artist's rendering.

But the crowd was having none of it. Planner Joseph Gniadek said he was sure he'd seen the same design in Worcester. An audience member dismissed it as "something you'd see in Arizona" and Councilor Michael Bloom wondered why there was no mountain behind it.

The board's hallmark has been an insistence on a New England look, said Bloom, who professed his support for the project — with the exception of the facade. "That picture right there looks like a stucco box that you could see anywhere in the country ... it should have a much nicer look, fitting North Adams."

Sabin said changing the roof on a building that large would be expensive and difficult, causing Leary to retort, "that's what they said in 1994." The current Walmart changed its look back then at the insistence of the board, and became a prototype for later stores.

"It's a gateway into the city. It should be something that Walmart's proud of, that North Adams is proud of having and something that would make people want to come," said Gniadek to applause from the audience.

Sabin was asked to return next month with more information on a righthand-only turn, pictures giving a better visualization on the size of the signs and the placement of parking lot islands, to work with Gniadek over more naturalizing and possible parking lot reduction and making the facade more Colonial.

Gniadek said it was important to make the structure something to be proud of at the city's gateway.
The hearing and public comments took up some two hours but despite worries that the meeting would get unruly (it was easily the most-attended Planning Board meeting in years) the audience was respectful of the board and followed the rules. Though one woman, who said she was neither a supporter nor an opposer, hinted that there may have been less polite comments being bandied about in the back. "I hope that we can be respectful to other people's opinions and act appropriately."

The hearing convinced Debra Benoit of North Adams that the development's a good one.

"Aside from the facade issue, I'm impressed with the detail, particularly with the traffic study, paying attention to our environment in the Berkshires, the sustainability of the building, the inclusion of a rain garden ... and I just think that it's a very good idea."
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