In her will, Fannie B. Look deeding her husbandís land to the city of Northampton for a dollar, saying
"Said. property with any additions which may eventually be acquired, shall be used forever as a park and for no other purpose; and that such park is not to be used for the playing of baseball on the Sabbath;
By Mike Kirby
The underlining is mine. I guess a strict constructionist would keep Look Park looking like Childs Park, where there is always an air of unearthly peace and quiet, and one keeps oneís voice down.
But most of us human beings are rowdy by nature, and so we have Look Park, where we can relax and throw a Frisbee around and barbecue up some kielbasa, drink our favorite mystery beverages out of a cooler, and watch the ducks. For a long time the city has more or less let the trustees and its long-time director run the park the way they saw fit. And Look Park is a great place for kids and families to hang out. There have also been rock concerts and folk concerts and some quiet tensions over noise with neighbors, but the recent law suit filed by Edwin C. (Ted) Warner and the ensuing controversy about the Garden House at Look Park has changed everything.
The Trustees are having some sleepless nights in the wake of Superior Court Judge Daniel A. Fordís recent ruling that the parkís renovated Garden House can not be used as a commercial banquet facility because city zoning does not allow such a use. "I do not believe that a plush banquet facility which sells alcoholic beverages to guests at functions such as weddings, bar mitzvahs and retirement parties" is permitted by existing zoning laws, the Judge wrote.
Thus, the issue now moves to the City Council where the outlook is uncertain, at best.
Warnerís basic argument, as I understand it, is that the lavishly renovated and vastly expanded Garden House and its profit-making role as a banquet facility are not in keeping with his residential neighborhood. As an abutter at 20 Bridge Road, Warner was notified of the planning board hearing late in 2000. He went, said his piece, and when the planning board unanimously approved the facility as a community center, he let roughly half of the appeal period go by, and then found himself a lawyer.
When I talked to Look Park Trustee Edward Etheredge about the park a couple weeks ago, he was clearly unhappy about the way things were going with the suit and its fallout. He wondered if the city councilors had their hearing aids turned off when he appeared before them two years ago for an ordinance change permitting off-season consumption of alcoholic beverages at the park at the Garden House, after it finally obtained a license. He said they knew what the parkís plans were back then, and supported them on a unanimous vote. He also assailed Ted Warner.
"Itís the pot calling the kettle black" he said, citing the many problems that had neighbors at the other end of the city in an uproar during Warnerís tenure as chairman of the Three County Fair Association. "At least Iím not getting a salary for my efforts,"
Ted Warner responds that the rock concert that triggered so many problems with the neighbors of the Three County Fair did not take place on his watch as chairman. Other than that, he had no further comment.
The current problems for the park really started on April 3, 2000 when the trustees organized a for-profit corporation to run a year-round facility for catering and special events modeled on the Barney Estate in Forest Park. They hired Chuck Bowles, formerly of the Depot Restaurant, to do a feasibility study to look into the costs of converting the unused pool pavilion into a banquet facility. "For years, the Pool Pavilion offered a setting for family entertainment and gatherings. It now has the potential to revive this tradition as a gathering place for grand functions," said the Garden House proposal.
"Grand Functions" to me has a sinister ring. I see over-consumption, over-pricing, Martha Stewart, and the old Enron chairman whoever he was. I see the decline and fall.
So Bowles went to then city planner John Bennett and he said sure, this is okay, no problem. This is where the trouble starts for them, because City Hall gave them a quick "Yes". Consider how major and imposing the players are to these civic servants. The Mayor herself. Trustee Ed Etheredge, former city solicitor, former assistant district attorney, and counsel to just about every local mover and shaker of note, including Smith College. and various real estate interests; Park Trustee Richard Covell, former president of the failed Heritage Bank; consultant Chuck Bowles, formerly the biggest restaurateur in town. Thereís a long rich history of City Hall saying yes to Ed Etheredge. When he was counsel for Cooley Dickinson Hospital and Smith School and the hospital wanted a chunk of Smith School land for their parking lot, Planning Director Wayne Feiden said fine, go ahead, help yourself. Everything was done on an understanding. The project was built, and the master-planning map was altered, and there was no deed filed.
So with Bennettís approval, the park went ahead and spent a lot of planning money, and on June 30, 2000 they applied for site plan approval with Anthony Patillo, city building inspector. He approved it. He told me the other day that the operation didnít need a special permit and was just a continuation of existing municipal uses. But then Wayne Feiden overrules him and tells him and the park that they will have to call the facility a community center and get a special permit. So fine, says Etheredge, itís a community center. On July 10, 2000 they applied for a special permit, and the planning board approved the whole deal with little debate. In going around talking to the players in this, I talked with Ted Warnerís lawyer, Etheredge, Feiden, and Patillo. The winds blew from all the quadrants. Everyone was persuasive and impassioned.
For a while I couldnít see the story. Everybodyís right. Wayne Feiden tells me this was a gray area. The serving of alcohol carried the proposal beyond the zoning ordinanceís definition of ordinary "municipal uses" into the area of uses permitted by the zoning granted to the Florence community center so this former grammar school could be converted to multiple function, including low-cost community space, classrooms and small business "incubator" space. So I ended up with Wayne Feiden arguing with me about a level playing field for weddings. "Why should people who want their wedding catered at the Garden House be treated any different from people who want their wedding catered at the Florence Community Center?"
Well, according to the woman who answered the phone there, there never has been a wedding at the old schoolhouse. Itís not a wedding kind of place. Itís a real community center, dark and a little dismal, but a lively useful place. No matter how you cut it, the Garden House is not a community center. Click here to browse through the Garden House price schedules. It drove Ed Etheredge crazy being forced to go to court and argue before the judge that the Garden House was something it wasnít. "The judge was right," he said wearily.
So when and if the birds ever come home to roost, they should come down and sit on Wayne Feidenís desk and look him in the eye. They would ask him in bird talk, why he presented this whole matter to the planning board as a black and white matter when it was all colored in many shades of gray. Why was the city solicitor not called in and her opinion solicited?
And the answer is haste. The answer is City Hall trying to do favors for their friends. On Sept. 23, the planning board and the City Council Ordnance Committee will be asked to change section 2.1 of its zoning requirements as follows: "A community center may also include a banquet facility when located on [a] municipal facility." Passing this language modification will do little but stir up the fires of discontent, and may lead to further legal appeals. The facility as designed and renovated by Look Park is not a community center. There is also talk by councilors of putting the matter to a public referendum.
As much as I enjoy most varieties of public affairs trouble, it strikes me that this is not a problem to put on the ballot. This is an area where the planning board and the city council should make a decision, aided by private negotiations and legal rulings. This whole business should not be prolonged, because the park and its users will pay the cost. What concerns neighbors is that a highly capitalized commercial operation will lead to more intense year-around uses of the facility that were never envisioned by Fannie Look or sanctioned by the city of Northampton. Some kind of compromise settlement that will put limits on the parkís operation, while enabling them to use the facility with its liquor license, might be the way to go.
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