Many Problems Dog Site for the New Senior Center
By Mike Kirby
The elders of Northampton hopes for a senior center may shortly be sinking into a swamp.
The trustees of Look Park offered the Northampton Council on Aging a site near the park entrance, but following a meeting with the park’s unhappy abutters, that site is off the table. The only location that the Council’s site selection committee can consider now is a multi-acre tract at the northwest corner of the park, behind the Dow Pavilion.
A long time ago, I remember talking to the real estate guy. We were discussing one undeveloped site that was being considered for low-income housing. “All the good stuff has long since been gobbled up, ” he said. “What’s left now is the junk.” As it turned out, there was an old dump on this particular Florence site near the downtown where heavy metals were disposed of during World War II.
Well, the proposed site at Look Park probably wasn’t a dump, but there were likely good reasons behind the previous owners selling the land to the city. It’s awfully swampy and hard on the banks of the Mill River. The park’s trustees have evidently been trying to dry up the site for many years by digging drainage ditches and doing some judicious filling on the sly. When I was out there the other day there was a big pile of fill and fresh bulldozer tracks, with filling pushing right out into wetland areas.
I am no wetland scientist, but I do understand when you are sinking into mud, and awash in thorny vines, you are probably standing in a wetland area. And there weren’t any hay bales or black plastic or signs anywhere, all the things that usually go with projects that are done with DEQE and Conservation Commission approval. Conservation Commission staff didn’t know anything about this project, but as we were reporting this story , they were on their way out to survey the site and talk to Look Park officials.
So ok, we put the project on piles or bring in tons of fill and leave it there for a year to
compact the subsoil enough that you can build it. Then you got your beautiful $4 million
building sitting there. How do people get to it? The park isn’t going to let you use the
existing network of roads. You have to put in your own access road. Well, you got the
river, a little creek and the picnic pavilion to the south, and then between the site and
Route 9 you’ve got an old railroad embankment. It’s a substantial barrier, between 40 and 50 foot high. If you bulldoze the embankment, there goes a possible future bike trail. The only existing way through the embankment is a very narrow entrance road through the F.L Roberts gas station property on Route 9. The managers of the station were aghast when I informed them that in some hypothetical future seniors might be running the gauntlet of their entering and leaving traffic. “Insane” was the word that I think one of them used.
The only other possible access I can see is from Arch Street, which has its own narrow viaduct and a blind turn that is truly scary for motorists. You always lean on your horn approaching that old Roman-style arch, and pause to see who is coming through. But you could do it, you could put an access road through to Arch Street, and all you’d have to do is cross some wetlands, ascend a steep grade, maybe cross a bridge, I don’t know and then make it through the viaduct in one piece.
So now you got your $6 million senior center open for business, way out in the country.
“Why not build the damn thing out in Westhampton?” barked Buddy Duseau to me the other day.
So could this be the end point of many stormy meetings that occurred in the meeting room of the Council of Aging during the summer and fall of 2001? Paul Duclos remembered the meetings for all the arguing that went on and the heat and oxygen deprivation and Building Commissioner Tony Patillo getting so fed up that he walked out and never came back. One after another, all the downtown and Florence-area sites were taken off the table.
The Conz Street site was deemed too close to the World War II club and the Salvo House and its problems, the Mayor evidently eliminated a few more sites from consideration and the Civic Center in Florence turned out not to be for sale.