NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The City Council split on a proposal to extend and expand the Urban Renewal plan that includes Western Gateway Heritage State Park.
The vote was 5-3 to recommend the expansion of the area and to extend the life of the plan until 2031.
The current urban renewal document would need to be amended to address a number of factors including developer goals and criteria, and approved by the Redevelopment Authority, City Council and Planning Board. The goal is to have a plan drafted by February 2021 and approved by March 2021.
Amending the plan is a significant amount of work, Feury said, and would not be worth moving forward if the City Council was opposed and the plan would expire in September 2021.
"If the council indicates a positive recommendation of community development will begin drafting the [request for proposals], which would be a collaborative process as can be achieved at this time," he said. "With the goal of finalizing the RFP amendment by February of 2021, so as to begin the public process by March 2021."
Massachusetts General Laws enable municipalities to revitalize substandard or blighted areas by developing urban renewal plans that can enhance private investments in a way that the public benefits through a set of objectives and incentives.
"Urban renewal is not a philosophy, but rather a tool municipalities can use to enhance and or expedite development and targeted areas," Feury explained. "It is however tool that has historically been misused in numerous cities including North Adams. So what we're talking about tonight is not eminent domain, it is not demolition and relocation, but something much simpler."
In the past, urban renewal in North Adams had been largely used for demolition — for the Central Artery project in the 1960s and for the south side of Main Street in the 1970s. The plans for those two areas have expired and only the property around Heritage State Park is now under an urban renewal plan that was created in 1981 in conjunction with the park.
An amended plan would have to take into account objectives and goals for the properties within the plan, a time frame, financing plans, citizen participation and municipal approvals.
The amended plan would also take into account the addition of a parcel owned by the city to the south of the Sons of Italy and city-owned property including a building on the north side of the railroad pedestrian bridge. This would resolve a parcel split between zones and extend the benefits of the Urban Renewal plan to the entire area.
Councilor Marie T. Harpin questioned the advisability of starting a plan with such a short time frame because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The council was meeting virtually over the Zoom platform because of the pandemic restrictions.
"It's one thing to have a public meeting, it's one thing to get the whole entire city involved in this and it's something that affects the entire city," she said. "So it's something that's very important I find this to be a very, very important piece of property in the city of North Adams."
She said it was "heartbreaking" to see the demise of Heritage Park and referred to its checkered history of vacant properties, lawsuits and so far failed development plans. She also thought any amended plan should be accompanied by new members of the Redevelopment Authority, which has seen minimal turnover over the years.
"I just want to let you know that I am not totally against this but I am going vote against this tonight," Harpin said.
Councilor Keith Bona also signaled his opposition largely because he felt it was a question of equity, particularly if one entity — right now the model railroad museum — goes through with its plans to purchase the park.
"I feel we're a small city, I feel we have a small downtown and I have issues where one section of economic base may get privileges, while the rest of the downtown does not," he said. "We're creating these incentives and this extra benefit for anybody who particularly goes in that area."
It also had been under the Redevelopment Authority for 40 years and nothing had really changed for the better, said Bona.
Councilor Benjamin Lamb, however, director of economic development for 1Berkshire, said an urban renewal plan was significant redevelopment tool for municipalities particularly at a time when the future is unknown.
"I just wanted to note that this is a tool that we can very easily lose. ... I think it's important to recognize that this isn't something where we can just create new overlay districts that are urban renewal zones in the city," he said. "It takes a lot of effort to create these. And it's very easy to lose them by just stopping the work on something pretty significant."
Before the discussion, Council President Paul Hopkins noted that he filed a disclosure from the Ethics Commission because of his long service on the Redevelopment Authority before being elected to the council.
"I discussed this with an attorney of the day at the Ethics Commission and the attorney agreed with me that there was no obvious conflict of interest and just recommended that I file that form which I have done with the city clerk," he said.
The final vote was 5-3 with Bona, Harpin and Robert Moulton Jr. voting in opposition and Hopkins, Lamb, Lisa Blackmer, Jessica Sweeney and Wayne Wilkinson in favor. Councilor Jason LaForest was absent.
The council voted unanimously on a plan to sell off excess properties owned by the city, which Feury had also presented to the Community Development Committee.
In other business:
• Mayor Thomas Bernard gave an update on how the city was functioning under the pandemic limitations and that all public employees have been kept working, albeit many from home. The school department continues to feed the city's schoolchildren and has so far distributed upwards of 15,000 meals. The last count of COVID-19 cases in North Adams is 29 and there has been one death.
• The council waived a 120-day notice period for the state Department of Conservation and Recreation to acquire two parcels totaling 45 acres abutting conserved land owned by Berkshire Natural Resources Council.
Officials had initially asked for more information when the request was presented in March because there seemed some confusion on the ownership of the parcels.
Mackenzie Greer, BNRC's director of public programs, wrote that the both parcels are owned by JW Kelly Hardwood Corp. and located on the west side of the Hoosac Range off West Shaft Road.
"BNRC will own the fee interest and DCR will hold the conservation restriction; similar to other land on the Hoosac Range," she wrote.
• A matter regarding sidewalk ordinances referred to the Public Safety Committee by Councilor Benjamin Lamb and a communication from Councilor Keith Bona regarding the Youth Commission were postponed again to July.
• The council approved second hand licenses for James Montepare for Empire Antiques two locations at 63 Main St. and 432 State Road; and for Mary Ann George for Maryanntiques & Gifts at 615 Ashland St.
Editor's note: Councilor Bona operates a business on Main Street, which should have been noted in the original posting.
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MCLA Police Investigating A Series Of Larcenies From Vehicles
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The MCLA Campus Police and the North Adams Police Departments are investigating a series of larcenies from vehicles.
The MCLA Campus Police Department released a Crime and Safety Alert on their Facebook page Thursday indicating that earlier this week a number of unlocked vehicles parked on campus had items stolen from them.
The release stated that the incidents were reported to have taken place early morning Wednesday and Thursday.
Vehicles were parked on Davenport, Bond and Corinth Streets. Items were also taken from an additional four vehicles parked in the Townhouse Lots.
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The Licensing Board, in the end, asked the parties to try to resolve the issue by being considerate to their neighbors, work with the landlord and come back in December to see how things went.
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Instead of the traditional breakfast at the Williams Inn, the nonprofit agency switched to remote but with still the same confidence that it will raise $490,000 to support its many member agencies.
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