Village at Hospital Hill
Regrettably, about all that seems to work with the state and the State Hospital situation is direct action. Find a building you want to use, round up your political support and go after it. Don't wait for the system to work, because the system is broke. All over Massachusetts these old state hospital complexes are decaying, and the talk still goes on. The only State Hospital site to be developed was Worcester, and the backlash against that land-grab gave us Chapter Seven of Massachusetts General Laws, complex legislation that put many safeguards and roadblocks in place against public land being sold to politically connected developers.
But the sharp guys keep trying. Hospital Hill Development LLC, which is slated to get the land from the state when an appraisal figure is agreed on, is a mysterious group. Organized in Delaware on Aug. 25, l999, and licensed to operate in Massachusetts on Oct. 8, l999, it is a joint venture of Mass Development and Community Builders, Inc. , two nonprofits.
HHLC, however, is profit-making and an Limited Liability Corporation (LLC), and exactly who runs it is a state secret. Most corporations have to divulge to the Secretary of State who owns them, but LLCs only have to file for the public record a list of who signs the checks. Staff people, in other words.
A guy who handles press relations for Mass Development told me they haven't selected the membership yet. The way the regulations work, however, is that the company is formed at the time of filing with the Secretary of State, and the filing was back in l999, almost two years ago. I filed a Freedom of Information Request with Mass Development and we'll see if that sheds any light on the situation.
The vision of how Hospital Hill might look when they fully develop it is truly horrifying. The great ghostly buildings on the crest of the hill are swept away, and the open park land that used to slope up to the old castle are filled with homes on little tree-shaded lots. At the crest is a road lined with town houses. So-called premium lots with premium houses on them line the slopes above the Mill River, and there's an industrial area with big parking lots on the south face of the hill. And a little area for a convenience store and maybe a gas station. America, in other words, another development that is called a village but has nothing in it like an ordinary village with village life. And it is definitely not a place like Northampton, a place very comfortable with its architectural past.
At a planning board not long ago, they were talking about what it was going to turn into and someone said too bad about just having a convenience store up there and someone else said that this is what people want. Ah, but do they? Hospital Hill was pretty self-contained in the old days, and there's a couple of brick buildings that would make fine markets and garages. What's going to be created up there, however, is exactly what the Chamber of Chamber wants. Something that will be no threat to downtown merchants. Anything that is architecturally distinguished is going to be bulldozed and replaced with suburbia.
Seeing this map of the future kind of made me see red for awhile, but I've calmed down. Seeing our planning board wrestle with the developer and each other over zoning issues the other night made me realize that the bold forecasts of progress that Michael Hogan of Mass. Development made in February are probably not going to pan out. There are too many conflicting agendas at work, and Community Builders may decide to take a walk if it feels they can't make the development plan work. And what is probably not going to work is the commercial piece of it, which is what the Citizens Advisory Committee and city government really want out of the development - the huge employment (900 people) and tax revenues projected from a half-million square foot of modern office/industrial space. The developer's plan was written in the spring of l999 and now is dated. Their economic development strategy was heavily attuned to firms that looked hot then, software people, web design, video game makers, and telecommun-ications firms. Today all over the Northeast buildings rigged for telecommunications use are empty. Northampton's industrial park has empty lots and half-empty parking lots. Our old blue-collar world is shrinking, and the new-age Web world bubble has popped.
We don't want to knock down structurally sound buildings in the Memorial Complex just to create empty buildings.
At a recent planning board meeting, some of the members were making Jerry Joseph's, director of Community Builders, an unhappy man. Andrew Crystal was busy telling him that he wouldn't be able to build those 207 houses and apartments if he didn't have completed and occupied industrial/commercial buildings first. "I don't want to be sitting here in this seat," said Crystal, "if all we get out of this project is housing that's going to be a drain on the city's financing."
Joseph's takes it for awhile, and then he fires back. He wonders how with rules like this what good his permits are. "You're going to hamstring us by limiting us to only 25 to 50 buildings and then if we get empty lots, we'll end up handing it (the project) back to you." The room heats up. Paul Diemand wondered if the project will ever get beyond phase one. Daniel Yacuzzo, board chairman, who had been supporting Crystal, starts to get nervous, facing the possibility that Community Builders will walk. And so it goes.
Traditionally, the development of Hospital Hill has been seen as a "good thing." It means jobs and tax relief. But the city is changing, and I think if people had a chance to vote on it up or down it would go down by a heavy margin. People don't like seeing our open space and green space vanish, and the great expanse of farmland and park land within the full parcel is a priceless resource. And the development projected is a big one, aimed at more than doubling our stock of modern commercial/industrial space. If the project does reach design size, the 900 people who are slated to work in these offices and the 500-odd people that will live on the hill all have cars, and will use them. The planning board had mandated new connector roads for much smaller developments, but here almost everyone leaving the development will end up using West Street and South Street, two badly stressed arteries.
As written today the developer's master plan will mean the taxpayers, will lay out millions to demolish sound buildings so that a profit-making corporation can market open land to other developers. I feel the great park around Old Main should remain a public park; the bulldozers should stay off and the state should concentrate on ways of marketing and rehabbing the 800,000 square feet of floor space they have up there now. Many of those buildings could become low-cost "start-up" space for artists and small businesses, and much of Old Main could become housing, a museum or a conference center.
Developers are going to be interested in the possibilities in a historic building with views like it has right across from Smith College and Paradise Pond and surrounded by square miles of park and conservation land.
But we really need the state to act more like a gatekeeper than a developer. We need someone with a key to let people in, like they did for the homeless people in l990, and 1858. Someone who will entertain proposals and collect rent and deposits, and who will turn on the heat and the lights. People have wanted those buildings for all kinds of purposes for a long time now, but all they ever got was the stiff-arm.
The city and the state should just handle the access problems, and list these buildings with the Multiple Listing Service and see what happens. Put 15 percent the funds it gets for the sale into programs for the Department of Mental Health, instead of mandating, like they are now, that 15 percent of the people working on the site be clients of DMH. Mandating that is OK, but how will it happen? As far as I know, there's no training or support funds for either the housing or the employment pieces of the project.