NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — "Big Bling," an elephant-like statue, finally has a location in the city.
The installation by award-winning artist Martin Puryear has been stored in crates in the corner of the parking lot behind Big Y for the last couple years after being on display in Philadelphia and New York City.
The Planning Board on Monday approved plans by Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art to revamp the parking lot in the so-called "Leu lot" on Marshall Street into a greenspace and site the massive statue in a prominent position on the corner of Main and Marshall streets.
The artwork is expected to be in place by late October; final work on the park will be completed by next spring. The goal is to create a highly visual attraction that can be seen from areas of the museum.
"Here's a conundrum that I think about all the time," museum Director Joseph Thompson told the planners. "We know more and more people are coming to Mass MoCA, our attendance has grown really handsomely over the last 20 years. But we know that not enough people find their way downtown."
The Mass MoCA Foundation purchased the building and parking lot about five years ago. There was an attempt several years ago to encourage vendors to take up space in the lot as a way to entice MoCA visitors toward the downtown but was largely unsuccessful.
MoCA officials are hoping the parklet designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates of Cambridge and "Big Bling" will be an "enticing visual 'stepping stone'" for visitors and a destination that can connect the museum pedestrian traffic to Main Street.
"We need Instagrammable moments, if you will," Thompson said.
The park will also help ameliorate the downtown's "overabundance" of asphalt and hardscape; create linkage with a "must-see" experience; and position the Leu building for more mixed space use.
A survey commissioned by the Partnership for North Adams several years ago found the lack of green space an issue.
"They identified something that we all know: that North Adams has a nice compact, easily walkable downtown. Although we're replete with lots of hardscape and asphalt," said Thompson. "The stunning statistic is that 38.6 percent of our downtown area is actually asphalt, which just nudges out Los Angeles, Calif."
The museum is planning an exhibition of Puryear's works beginning in 2022-23 and sees "Big Bling" as an instrumental part of the experience. It is expected to be in place for three to five years.
The 1970s one-story brick structure (originally a glass and brick connector for the former stores in the building) on the front will be demolished this fall and asphalt removed. Existing drainage and catch basins will remain and be repaired as needed and five parking spaces on the West Main Street side will continue to service the Subway shop, which will not be affected.
The park will have grass maintained by Mass MoCA, several more shade trees and one "major" specimen, plantings, benches, up lighting for sculpture and a concrete base, and bicycle racks.
Thompson said the 1915 building is in very poor condition and that the museum has been doing "Band-Aid" work on the failing roof until its future can be decided.
"We bought it for a very strategic reason: we recognize that ... it sort of sticks its nose into the downtown business district. It's the one piece of property we have on the south end of the Route 2 overpass," he said. "We know that overpass is a big physical and psychological barrier between the Mass MoCA campus and the rest of the downtown. So we bought it not quite knowing what we were going to do. But knowing that it would be it would play a vital role at some point in the future if we figured it out."
In response to questions, Thompson said the options ranged from a full museum-style renovation to demolition. In the middle, the possibility of a partially enclosed area for a farmer's market or other activity.
The parklet is being designed to accommodate whichever way the building eventually is used. For the time being, the front of the older mill building will be covered with something that will also allow ivy or other plants to grow and cover it.
Planner Lisa Blackmer questioned the lack of access from the park to crosswalk at Main and whether cameras would be placed under the overpass. Thompson said they would consider both suggestions. Planner Paul Senecal asked that screening of the trash roll-off on the West Main Street side be a condition.
According to the Association for Public Art, the 40-foot high "Big Bling" was to be disassembled and its parts donated until the Madison Square Park Conservancy, which commissioned the piece, and Mass MoCA were able to come to an agreement on delivering it to North Adams.
It's made of a laminated timber and plywood infrastructure covered in chain link with a shackle at the top covered in gold leaf. What exactly it is is left up to the viewer, Puryear told the Association for Public Art.
"I tend not to tell people what they're looking at when they're in the presence of my work," he said. "I trust people's eyes. I trust their imagination."
Mass MoCA's narrative says "it's friendly, watchful demeanor, and gently curving abstract shape recalls a dog, or perhaps an elephant (but at the same time, the shape also directly references slave ship shackles).
Puryear is described as working with natural materials in complex geometric constructions to create organic works that are often colossal. His "Ark" is 36 feet tall and has 70 feet of copper tubing; "Pavilion in the Trees" is a structure seated among trees in a horticulture center in New York and reached by a 60-foot walkway. The National Medal of Arts recipient was selected to represent the United States at the 58th Venice Biennale this spring.
"Big Bling" is 4-feet wide, 40-foot long and 40-feet high. It was conceived as a temporary five-year installation but MoCA officials say it was constructed for a 30-year lifespan and that the concrete base will secure the structure against extreme wind loads.
Planner Robert Burdick, who sits on the Mass MoCA Commission, recused himself and Planner Brian Miksic informed the gathering that his wife, Suzy Helme, sits on the museum's board of trustees but legal counsel did not find it to be a conflict for him to participate in the proceedings.
In other business, the board approved with little discussion:
• An application for change of ownership to Dawn Bator for Pooches Pet Grooming located at 145 Eagle St. Bator is continuing the business started by her sister, Michele LaBlue, who died in July.
• An application of Rogers High Fidelity for property located at 10 Holden St. Owner Roger Gibboni said he specializes in custom made amplifiers. He had been located in Warwick, N.Y., but has moved his design and customer testing facility to North Adams. Some assembly and other work will continue in Warwick.
• An application of Matthew M. Davis to operate a tire store at 559 Ashland St. Davis said he had more than 20 years experience working under his father, Larry Davis of the former Mr. Tire. He would be one of several businesses operating on the property including Jim's Auto Sales. James Krutiak said he has a purchase and sales agreement with Davis but would like to continue selling cars from the location. If it doesn't work out, he said he would close or relocate.. Duteau's Collision is also in one of the buildings and Davis is moving into where a third business, 8-Ball Auto, is moving out.
Prior to the Planning Board, the Redevelopment Authority approved:
• A request from attorney F. Sydney Smithers on behalf of North Adams Movieplex 8 to sell beer and wine at the movie theater. The approval was made on the condition of License Board approval.
• A request from Jacqueline Tessier to open Chasing Dreams Dance Center LLC at 145 State St.
The Redevelopment Authority also endorsed changes in the new zoning map that would remove the south side of Main Street from the authority's purview. The authority's enabling legislation as expired but it still holds control over some aspects the city's permitting. Once the new zoning map is approved, the authority would only have Western Gateway Heritage State Park, which it owns, under its jurisdiction.
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