Historical Commission Approves Demolition for Former Synagogue

By Joe DurwinPittsfield Correspondent
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The Historical Commission voted in favor of demolishing a century-old synagogue on Robbins Avenue. The building, owned by the Christian Center, has long been vacant.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Historical Commission voted unanimously Monday in favor of demolition requests for two derelict buildings deemed unworthy of preservation.

The commission determined that while the structures, located at 177 Robbins Ave. and at 3 McLaughlin Place, are not devoid of historical significance, their current condition and lack of potential for reuse do not merit efforts at preservation.

The Robbins Avenue building was once the home of a westside synagogue, housing the Ahavath Sholem Congregation founded in 1911. Vacant for some decades, the property currently belongs to the Christian Center. A request for a predetermination of historical significance had come before the commission in January 2008, at which time research had been conducted on its background, as well as outreach to the local Jewish community. 

The commission had found that while the property dates back to the historic Childs Farm that once occupied a large portion of the city's now residential westside neighborhood, there was no indication the Childs family ever used it. The former chairman of the Historical Commission met with members of the local Jewish community at that time to obtain their input.

"Nothing came of that in terms of anyone coming forward wanting to do anything with the property," said commission member Kathleen Reilly. At that time the building was already in a state of serious disrepair and had been condemned.

Todd Burdick, who abstained from the vote as a member of the board of the Christian Center, added the perspective of that organization, which currently owns the building. The faith-based westside philanthropical organization had originally acquired the property in 1998, as part of its long-term mission of being able to offer more services to that neighborhood.

Burdick told the committee that the Christian Center had been recently told by its insurance carrier that the organization itself might be uninsurable if the structure was not demolished. At the time of the 2008 determination, the city had been slated to tear it down, he said, but now the center plans to use its own endowment funds to undertake the project.

"We've needed that building gone for years," Burdick explained, adding that the building stands in the way - physically, financially, and because of the insurance risk - to its long-term goals of seeing a more dynamic "campus" area as part of its operation of serving that neighborhood.

The former synagogue is next door to what was once St. John's Masonic Lodge, which has also been vacant for many years.

The structure at 3 McLaughlin St., in the Morningside neighborhood, was also determined to be too badly ruined to merit further discussion of preservation. 

This house is adjacent to the former Pittsfield High School building, on a tiny side street off Second Street. Built in 1906, it was at one time the home of Bernard J. Murphy, who served as a city councilor in the 1950s and '60s.

Also at its Monday meeting, the commission further discussed the situation surrounding the former Plunkett School on Fenn Street, for which demolition was delayed after Cafua Management proposed to build a drive-through doughnut shop there earlier this year. (Photos here.)

City Planner Cornelius J. Hoss said a publicized competing offer from a prospective buyer looking to restore and repurpose the building was essentially identical to one that had already failed to capture the interest of the current owners. 

"The offer that was made was exactly the one that was made when they had the choice between that and the one from Cafua Management," Hoss told the commission.

While the prospective buyer is willing to pay full price and wants to redevelop the building for housing, funding and approval could draw that out for one to two years. If plans fell through, they would be able to back out of the purchase.

The commission asked what actions the city, either through the commission or the Department of Community Development, could take to market the building to other potential developers. Hoss said it was not under the purview of the city to actively solicit buyers for this privately held property. The city would have to look into a formal legal opinion on what actions and efforts would be considered appropriate for members of the commission to help market the property.

Tags: demolition,   historical building,   historical commission,   

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Ethics Commission Alleges Conflict Violations by West Stockbridge Chief

WEST STOCKBRIDGE, Mass. — The Enforcement Division of the State Ethics Commission on Wednesday filed an order to show cause alleging that West Stockbridge Fire Chief Peter Skorput, a former Select Board member, committed multiple conflict-of-interest law violations, including setting stipends for himself, his daughter and his nephew; voting as a Select Board member to reappoint himself fire chief; and terminating a firefighter who had filed a complaint against him.
According to the order, shortly after Skorput was elected to the Select Board in 2013, a West Stockbridge official contacted the town's counsel about conflict-of-interest law exemptions available to Skorput regarding his serving both as a Select Board member and fire chief. 
Allegedly, town counsel advised the official that Skorput follow the requirements for a particular conflict-of-interest law exemption that would allow him to accept pay for both positions, and this was communicated to Skorput. From the time he was elected until January 2017, however, Skorput did not meet the exemption requirements and violated the conflict of law by continuing to hold his compensated fire chief position after his election to the Select Board, according to the order.
The order further alleges Skorput violated the conflict-of-interest law by participating officially in matters involving his own and his daughter's financial interests. In 2013, Skorput allegedly voted as a Select Board member to reappoint himself as fire chief. Also, as fire chief, he allegedly decided the amount of firefighter stipends for himself each December in 2013-2015 and for his daughter in 2013 and 2014, and as a Select Board member signed the pay warrants for his daughter's stipends. Additionally, at several Select Board meetings in 2015 and 2016, Skorput allegedly participated as a Select Board member in the board's review of complaints about his performance as fire chief.
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