HOLYOKE – In a joint-virtual session, the City Council’s Development and Government Relations Committee and Holyoke Redevelopment Authority examined amending the city’s urban renewal plan while a property owner feared his building would be taken if added to the amended list.
Monday’s session was a continuance of the Sept. 3 public hearing on the matter. John “Jay” Whelihan reopened the hearing on behalf of the Redevelopment Authority.
Ward 3 Councilor David Bartley, who chairs the Development and Government Relations Committee, said the Redevelopment Authority is granted permission to make “minor, non-substantial changes to the urban renewal plan amendments” if the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development deems necessary.
The changes sought by both boards expand the list of properties in the Urban Renewal Plan, many ripe for development, historic designation or other uses. Many of the neighborhoods in the plan have transformed its passage.
Lyman Terrace apartments’ renovations are ongoing and represent $70 million of investments in the neighborhood, including sprucing up Veterans Park, road improvement and infrastructure projects, and a pedestrian plaza.
Marcos Marrero, the Planning and Economic Development director, gathered additional input on identifying and classifying properties in the Urban Renewal Plan, the City of Holyoke’s economic blueprint for the coming decade.
Marrero said 47 or 80 parcels in the plan are privately owned, broken down among lots or buildings in use, or hold some historical value. The Urban Renewal Plan was approved in 2012 guided by the principles of “Connect, Construct and Create” to build a “vibrant and prosperous city.”
According to Marrero, the proposed amendments to the Urban Renewal Plan remained unchanged since the Sept. 3 meeting. His office fielded minimum feedback from affected property owners.
The owners were contacted in writing or by phone, according to Marrero. Edward Owen, the owner of 120 Front St., said his building is 80% full and did not understand how his property wound up on the amended list and categorized as “underused” or “blighted.”
“I don’t understand how you guys are doing this? I understand the building next door is being renovated after 20 years of blight. Never once was it recorded as blighted. I don’t get it,” Owen said.
Marrero said, “it might be a difference in criteria” and that “reasonable people can disagree” about the assessment of Owen’s property. He referred to the Lyman Terrace renovations and adjacent public right of way improvements.
“We’re looking for development that’s complementary to the neighborhood,” Marrero said, including more office space and in keeping with the residential feel of Lyman Terrace. “It’s incongruent with the long-term plans of the city even before the Urban Renewal Plan.”
Councilor Howard Greaney asked the committees how much taxes Owen paid over the years, and that a longtime Holyoke taxpayer should be accommodated.
Marrero added 120 Front St. resides in an “Opportunity Zone,” part of a 2007 federal tax overhaul. “It brings interest and investments in the corridor,” he said. “Whether it’s privately or publicly funded, it’s a clear sign of where we want our investments to go.”
He added that Owen’s property does not represent the City of Holyoke “trying to take something away,” but adding a building legally to an acquisition list. The Urban Renewal Plan helps investors identity properties primed for rehabilitation.
In response to Councilor Mike Sullivan, Marrero said Owen’s property functions and appears like an industrial building in a Residential and Downtown Business Corridor and was “out of lockstep” with the neighborhood.
Marrero said the Urban Renewal Plan stands as the “seminal document” that guides the city’s future economic and development needs. He added the City Council delegates power to the Redevelopment Authority to amend the plan.
“The power of acquiring real estate would be transferred onto the Holyoke Redevelopment Authority,” Marrero said.
Councilor Joseph M. McGiverin said the original Urban Renewal Plan listed vacant or disrepair properties, for example, the former Haberman’s Hardware on High Street.
“If we adopt this amended plan with these properties on it, we give the Redevelopment Authority the right to go forward and to use their eminent domain powers without coming back to the city,” McGiverin said.
While McGiverin was not concerned about city-owned properties, he was troubled by the Redevelopment Authority’s eminent domain powers to control private property like Owen’s, which could trigger a court battle.
Owen believed his building was a “staple” in Holyoke for over 100 years, and 12 years ago, his building was initially put a list and then removed after his objections. He wondered why assistance wasn’t offered by the city to pursue grants to rehab his building.
Owen said he was waiting for estimates on new windows and an access ramp for the building’s front. “I have put my heart and soul and my money into this property, and I take care of this property,” he said. “It insults me for someone to put it on a blighted list.”
Marrero said in 2012, not much in terms of development was happening in the neighborhood. “We’re revisiting it now because the neighborhood is different than it was eight years ago,” he said.
Owen feared the city would take his building in the end.
Marrero said the city was “trying to anticipate the needs of the community” in the coming years and was “not an exact science.” He noted a “high bar” for acquiring a property, particularly when a building is occupied.
Councilor Peter Tallman requested holding off on a final vote as he wants to meet with the affected property owners. Bartley continued the public hearing to Oct. 2 at 6:30 p.m. The Holyoke Redevelopment Authority meets the third Wednesday of every month.
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