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Attorney Jonathan Sabin, representing Walmart, addresses the Planning Board on Monday night.

North Adams Planners Approve Walmart Project

By Tammy DanielsiBerkshires Staff
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Walmart blinked: The Planning Board was offered a facade that reflected elements of North Adams architecture.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — It took the personal approval of Walmart's chairman of the board, but North Adams will get a Super Center that better reflects its New England heritage.

The Planning Board on Monday night unanimously gave the OK to five special permits related to the development of the project to Ceruzzi Properties of Connecticut, acting as BVS 5401 Investors LLC, on Curran Highway. The project is expected to take two years in state permitting and construction.

The massive retailer came through with a new facade with architectural details that linked it to the New England city and new front signage, along with answers traffic and site design raised by the board two months ago.

Planners and City Council members had complained at the January meeting that the Walmart design was too much of a "cookie cutter" look and that it had been the requirement for years that large retailers, such as Stop & Shop, adopt a more Colonial look.

Architect Robert Eberts, of Cross River Architects in New York, said the comments had been taken back to Walmart without much expectation. The chain has been standardizing its branding, he said, because "customers were commenting that the buildings looked so different that they didn't know what a Walmart was compared to what other stores were." 

"I know that Walmart had walked away from store locations where peaked roofs have been asked for," he said. "I think they've done that three or four times in the past year ... so something about North Adams is important — either Walmart is softening their brand a little to get approval or North Adams is a very important location to them."

Eberts said the design had to go through several levels of approval before finally landing on the desk of Chairman Rob Walton for a final sign-off. The lengthy review had prevented the renderings being ready in time for February's board meeting.

The so-called branding wall of recycled paper and resin rising above the roof line is still there, but the signature curved roofs above the two vestibules have given way to peaked roofs.

City councilors look over the new plans.
Eberts said the redesign incorporates architectural elements familiar to North Adams, even taking a few cues from the newer facades of Peebles and Staples in the downtown and the half-height brick wall on the car wash in Adams. The new 300-foot-long facade uses cornices, pitched roofs, dark red brick, awnings (to be made of durable, 50-year materials) and lightly curved arches.

"We tried to pick up some of those features we saw in town so it would be specific to North Adams," said Eberts. "I think it works pretty well when you put it together."

Board members were equally pleased with a rendering of the landscaping that shows significant screening with plantings along the highway within several years.

"The renderings are really nice, it's a great job," said Planner Joseph Gniadek, who had expressed concern at the last meeting over landscaping.

Chairman Michael Leary said he was "particularly impressed with the elevation view. It goes a lot to address my concerns with the landscaping."

They weren't, however, as happy with the findings on the secondary access point at South State Street that several board members thought should be restricted to a righthand exit because the rate of traffic.

"Even if we try to change it, I don't think MassHighway will allow us to," said attorney Jonathan "Jay" Sabin. "The preliminary read is they don't want to see a restrictive lefthand turn."

The meeting was well attended, although not as packed as last time. A number of people expressed frustration that the board wouldn't discuss the issues they thought important. Mayor Richard Alcombright, at right, urged them to be patient but said he couldn't ignore the project's positive side.
The state Highway Department oversees this section of the road and the amount of traffic expected to use the secondary access is not high enough to trigger restrictions such as a light; closing the lefthand turn would also limit the ability Mohawk Auto and its customers. The city will have the chance to weigh in on the issue through the Department of Transportation and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, and as the project enters the Massachusetts Environmental Policy Act permitting phase.

A number of area residents commented on the plans, most bringing up similar issues to those raised two months ago, including the lack of long-term planning and the failure of the board to call for independent studies on the Super Center's economic impact and its impact on public services. The board has consistently stated that those areas largely lie outside its jurisdiction, which is limited to site review, aesthetics, traffic and parking.

The group, however, has been frustrated that there is no formal place to discuss their concerns and no long-term planning process to evaluate this project and similar ones.

"These aren't discussions that we can have here but those are discussions we can have in the community and I'll make sure those happen," said Mayor Richard Alcombright, who campaigned on giving residents more say in city government. The mayor said the city had just received a technical grant that will help it bring together various plans written since 1973 to see what is workable, but that it will take time.

In the meantime, he said, "I can't be looking down the nose at $25 million in development while we're waiting to have these discussions, and these things do take time."

Walmart is estimated to generate some $594,000 in revenue for the city, and bring nearly a $1 million in wages annually, even if the jobs are $9 an hour at 25 hours a week.

"They'll infuse $936,000 into this community, that we need in this community," he said. "I just want to interject that positive side."

Audience members weren't exactly appeased. "Since there's no avenue for a full discussion, I put my faith in you," Anthony Israel told the board.

In other business:
The board voted to accept a 30-day time frame for Joseph Lora Jr., doing business as River Street Package Store, to fulfill conditions set two years ago on his property and further repairs related to damage from a police cruiser.

The planners put off discussion on whether the change to an all-alcoholic package license is a change of use as the solicitor has not yet rendered an opinion. Green said the research had been done but the solicitor had not had a chance to review it.

Signage changes and hours of operation Petrino's Cafe, in the former Cup & Saucer on Main Street, were approved as was a new sign for Berkshire Anodizing on Hodges Cross Road.

Approved the permit for Tire Warehouse on Curran Highway, based on the original 2002 permit. Monroe Muffler has purchased the tire chain and will reopen with different hours and signage. It will not, however, sell auto parts at the Curran Highway location.
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North Adams Police Chief Relieved of Duties

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Police Chief Jason Wood has been relieved of his duties and will leave the department as of June 30. 
The 20-year veteran of the force was put on paid administrative leave earlier this month for what was described as a "non-criminal" matter that was being investigated by the city's legal team. Officials have declined to detail was was being investigated, saying it was a personnel matter. 
Mayor Jennifer Macksey, in a brief email Saturday morning, said he will remain on paid administrative leave and had been notified his contract will not be renewed. 
"I have lost trust and confidence in his abilities to lead the North Adams Police Department," she wrote. "This is my only comment relevant to this matter."
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