Out on the big stretch of open land off of Holyoke Street, the goldenrod is growing high on the Northampton Lumber land, sprouting through cracks in the asphalt. Time is passing. Northampton Lumber is dead, and its land lies fallow. Just what downtown Northampton needs, another vacant piece of land. Joanne Campbell of Valley CDC vowed to me that they would keep their option to the land and build her project. All she needs is a lot of money. The original price tag was $20 million. When the project first came before the planning board there was money in Boston, now there is a Republican in charge and projects are getting vetoed.
I hope she keeps the land, and builds a better project this time with a better architect. This was a city-type design with alleys. When the project was working its way through the regulatory process in December of 2014, all of us were lining up and taking sides. I became a proponent for the project. Yes, it’s out of scale with the surrounding buildings, but how important is that anyway? All of us are getting priced out of Northampton, and we could learn to love this big heavily subsidized apartment building. Many neighbors of the project hated it. Friends of mine stopped talking to me for a while. Quite rightly. I never looked at the project very carefully.
But now almost two years later, nothing seems to be happening and no one is saying anything. The Gazette only prints good news of progress. If some project that they thought was a good thing for Northampton perishes, it dies without public notice. I decided to look at the project and find out what happened to it.
It was a sad day for Northampton when Northampton Lumber closed in 2013. For many years I was in and out of there all the time, looking for tools and hardware and advice. They had a huge table saw out back and they would cut plywood to order, and their advice was always on the money. Unable to compete with the big guys, the place closed in 2013. The following fall and winter, the Valley Community Development Corporation was obtaining city approvals for a 4 story 55 unit $20 million affordable housing project using their L-shaped piece of land that had frontage on both Holyoke Street and Pleasant Street. On December 12, 2014, the day after the final planning board meeting on the project, Deerfield lawyer Amy Royal fired a scorcher of a letter to city planner Carolyn Misch. She accused Valley CDC of encroaching on their property, the old Brake King property, the white garage at the corner of Short Street and Pleasant Street. Putting curbs in front of their new building would prevent their employees from entering or leaving their parking spaces in front of the garage. A preposterous claim on the face of it, since the Brake King property has a curb cut on Short Street, and plenty of curbless access on its Pleasant Street frontage.
But oh, that Brake King property line and how it snuck around on its southern end. Old industrial land sometimes had owners who built first and surveyed later. Close to the curb, their land almost completely cut off pedestrian access to the new building. The Valley CDC architect ran the north wall of the proposed building literally inches from its abuttor. And this land was owned by lawyers, no less.Talk about sticking your head in a lion’s mouth.The day might have been saved if Joanne had hired a real estate consultant like the late Jim Stevens. Jim on your retainer was an insurance policy against trouble. He lived at the Registry of Deeds, and would have noticed that the corporation that bought the Brake King building was an abuttor with a plan. The people in the adjoining Eagless building became Crossover Properties LLC, using a name that strikes me as a lawyerly joke of some sort.
Crossover, hem them in, become an abutter to the Valley CDC development on the north and south. They had bought themselves a peach of an encroachment. They wanted a voice in how the CDC project was designed. And maybe they wanted more. A lawyer who wishes to remain anonymous said that the Crossover court action to appeal the issuance of a building permit was aimed at forcing Northampton Lumber to sell its property to another developer. The costs to the city taxpayers to defend its planning board and Valley CDC for a six months siege in land court were $15,000. Hiring Michael Pill to help defend the city did not come cheap, but he forced the matter to be dealt with speedily and restricted discovery, a great waste of expensive time. At the end Crossover agreed to sell their encroachment to Valley CDC for $30,000 and get out of the way of progress, but I cannot find anything in the Registry of Deeds that says that the sale went through. Maybe one of my readers can clear that minor mystery up. Royal LLP is not returning my calls.
Royal’s headquarters is the old Eagles building, a small three story brick building sandwiched between Northampton Lumber’s old showroom and the headquarters of an optical firm owned by an affiliate of Royal LLP. They have fixed over the old Eagles building, and converted it in to an elegant little restored building full of oriental rugs. Infusing the rhetoric of the speeches and letters from Royal LLC were pleas for preservation of the old factory building that Valley CDC wanted to demolish, and protests at the scale of the building. I read Jordi Herold’s objection to the project, and his thoughtful paper brought me around. He restored an old factory building whose land also abuts the Northampton Lumber project. 1 Short Street
And then there was looking at the design on how the north entrance to their apartment building was shoehorned into a much too narrow lot, and how the people and their bikes emerging and arriving in the building had to cross Crossover’s property to reach the sidewalk. It wasn’t a thoughtful project. See the following:
Back in 2014 the project was seen by many as a shot in the arm to lower Pleasant Street, but it’s not happening. It had its fans, though. Across the street at the Ye Olde Watering Hole there was
regret that it hadn’t been built. Beers still cost $3.00 here. I dropped in there after a hot aggravating afternoon reading depositions and meeting summaries on this project. The place was friendly. Its owner played us an Irish jig on his violin. I downed a Bud and felt about 200% better. How to kill affordable housing. The best way is to delay it and dry up the possibility of state grants, CDBG money and tax credits. Time had done that. When the project was originally proposed, Boston had money and was Democratic. Now it was Republican and Baker is vetoing everything. When the roadblocks were cleared away it was the cold winter of 2015. Northampton Lumber’s owner and former treasurer lives in Florida now. She still owns the property. Valley CDC is probably operating under the authority of a purchase and sale agreement, which means she doesn’t get all her money until there is a closing and the property changes hands. My hunch is that a certain Springfield developer will get the property.
“Jesus,” said Jim the owner, “I would have liked to see them build that building. Not just for the new customers it would give me, but it would have improved the neighborhood and gave us some more foot traffic. “