Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Take My Council Please: Grocery Ills...

The Springfield City Council held the equivalent of a double feature Monday night.  A regularly scheduled Hearings meeting, during which the council approves or denies permits, followed a special meeting where numerous items were debated.  City Council President Jose Tosado had scheduled the meeting to complete the final steps to pass ordinances related to foreclosures.  However, like any meeting, councilors could and did tack on whatever they wanted.  As momentous as the foreclosure ordinances were, it did not provoke the same level of back and forth, among the councilors at least, as other items.

First the easy stuff.  The Council formally accepted the withdrawal of a petition for an electronic sign on Dorset Street for the Martin Luther King, Jr Charter School.  Reports came from the General Government and Audit Committee over progress at the Putnam High Construction site, specifically possible violations of the city's Responsible Employer Ordinance.  Also discussed, but ultimately referred back to committee was the agreement to a Tax Incremental Financing for a new warehouse for F.W. Webb, a plumbing supply company.  The TIF is a condition for the city to sell some of the remaining land on the city's Smith & Wesson industrial park.  There is a great deal of controversy over the shockingly low number of jobs the project will create and concerns that the developers will make little or no effort to employ city residents.

The council also undertook the second and third steps necessary to approve two ordinances related to foreclosures.  The first ordinance requires the banks that own foreclosed homes to post a $10,000 bond that can be used by the city to maintain the property.  Presently, the city must cover the cost of maintenance necessary to keep the foreclosed properties from blighting the neighborhood.  This ordinance would transfer that cost, if any, to the banks.  They would recover the bond fully upon sale of the property.  The other ordinance mandates mediation between the bank and homeowner when foreclosure become likely.  Banks would be fined for refusing to attempt mediation consistent with the ordinance.  After the second step passed, many of the people in the council chamber in support of the bill erupted in cheers.  Little did they realize that the ordinance had not yet become law.  As they marched out of the chamber and onto the steps of City Hall the council debated several resolves before finally passing both ordinances with a pair of 13-0 votes.

The foreclosure legislation is believed to be a model in the commonwealth if not the nation as a whole.  There are some rumors that congressional Democrats have contacted City Hall for more information about the ordinance.

Some of the biggest fireworks, however, occurred over a resolve, sponsored by at-large Councilors Jimmy Ferrera and Tim Rooke.  The resolve, whose campy language could appeal to anybody favoring style over substance, called on the mayor, police commissioner and Chief Administrative and Financial Officer to meet with the council to find money to add to the police overtime budget to combat the rise in crime.  In short, the resolve wanted more police overtime money because that would reduce the city's crime rate.  Ferrera suggested that the city should raid its cash reserves and other backups immediately to fight crime, even though the city's overtime budget was left completely intact in the 2012 budget.

Councilor Edwards (Facebook)
Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards, however, was not amused or impressed.  In an impassioned, biting and articulate speech, Edwards slapped Ferrera down for advocating pouring money down a very specific hole to solve a problem as complex as the city's crime problem.  He asserted that he fully supported the police department and whatever it needed to keep the city safe.  However, Edwards rejected the notion that throwing money at the problem (or put another way, playing stat games) was the solution.  "If I choose to strangle my wife in the privacy of my own home," Edwards said, "it would not matter if there were a thousand cops on the street."  Even though Ward 5 Councilor Clodo Concepcion stood up in support of the resolve saying "We're scared,"  it was clear that Edwards speech had a deep and instantaneous impact.

Councilor Rooke, a sponsor of the resolve, quickly pivoted saying the call for a meeting with councilors should and must "look more broadly."  Other councilors also stood in support of the resolve, but with the intention of looking more broadly as Rooke suggested, mindful of their sense that the mayor does not include the council often enough in policy discussions.  When Ferrera spoke again on the resolve, it was clear he was on the defensive.  He hastily pointed out that his resolve called for a meeting and that increasing overtime for the police department was merely an idea.  He even pointed out that the city clerk and not he had put titled the resolve as one advocating more overtime.  Tosado acknowledged Ferrera's concerns and City Clerk Wayman Lee promised that the record would reflect it.  The resolve passed in a brilliant display of political theater.

Fmr. Councilor Williams w/ Other  Honorees (WMassP&I)
Other resolves and proclamations passed with little fanfare urged Governor Deval Patrick to not consider raising the gas tax; recognized Carribean heritage week with an appearance by former councilor and current council candidate Bud Williams; recognized a participant in the Special Olympics from Springfield going to Athens for a future competition; and recognized emergency response personnel in advance of September 11 (the council's next meeting will not happen until the next day).  A resolve was also passed to encourage the school committee consider a local candidate for Superintendent of Schools.  The resolve came after revelation that Superintendent Alan Ingram used his $30,000 in relocation expenses to NOT buy a home in the city.  Councilors batted around various ideas including avoiding a national search, refusing side deals and having a councilor on whatever search committee is formed.  The final idea was adopted into the resolve by friendly amendment.

With its special meeting business done, the council began its permits hearing.  First up was a special permit for an amusement license for an Internet Cafe on Boston Road near the intersection with Pasco Road.  The Internet Cafe appears to be similar to the ones allegedly to be effectively slot parlors like the one in Five Town Plaza on Cooley Street.  Although the Pine Point Civic Association recommended a referral to committee until they could meet with Beverly Baker, the petitioner, the council rejected the permit altogether.  The facility had a lengthy record of operating more than five machines without a permit.  Baker justified the multiple violations by saying some employees do not know the rules.  The permit was crushed on a 13-0 vote.  As with all special permits nine were necessary for passage.

The council reacted much more favorably to a car dealership in the Pine Point neighborhood.  The civic association there supported the permit and it was approved on a 12-0 vote.  Ward 2 Councilor Michael Fenton had stepped out during the debate and missed the vote.

A Save-A-Lot to be in Waterbury, Conn (Wikipedia)
Finally the last permits seemed to epitomize the classic struggle Springfield has faced since it has faced the realities of urban decline.  Supervalu, Inc., namely its subsidiary Moran Foods is proposing to transform the Goodwill Store in the "X" of Forest Park into one of its Save-A-Lot grocers.  The city already has two locations on Armory Street and on Main Street in Indian Orchard.  The developers need the permits for extending a pre-existing, non conforming structure and for site development and design overlay.  That description of the permits does not do them justice, but absent a lengthy monologue on zoning (Oooo, Fun!), let's just say that absent these permits there is no project.

For the record, Supervalu also owns Shaw's Supermarkets, their only property with any significant presence in the area.  Shaws are prevelent in the Eastern end of the commonwealth and elsewhere in New England including one store in Enfield.

However, the proposal is not without its own downside.  First of all Save-A-Lot's plan would not have an entrance that faces Sumner Avenue.  The company's lawyer, Brian McGrail claimed that it would be impossible to have an entrance facing both the street and the parking lot located behind the building.  One wall or the other needed to be the location of the refrigeration unit.  It seems that the real reason was probably due to the high cost of building two entrances.  An entrance spine built along one edge of the building with exits on each end and on common entrance to the supermarket certainly seems doable if not financially possible for Supervalu.

Additionally, there are concerns that Save-A-Lots "discount" image is somewhat incongruous to the "X" or at least the perception of what the "X" should be.  This opinion was more or less expressed by Forest Park Civic Assocition President Jane Hetzel who, while supportive of the project said the association was "not trilled" that Save-A-Lot would be the supermarket moving in.  Many had hoped a Trader Joe's or, even more optimistically, a Whole Foods would be possible.  However, according to some familiar with the project, both companies told some city officials that they would never locate in Springfield.

Nevertheless, Supervalu's representation expressed enthusiasm for their project.  Atty McGrail noted that this would be undertaken at no cost to the city, that is without a TIF and could draw in more business to the "X" generally.  Several dozen construction jobs will be created and a dozen or so permanent jobs will also be located.  Supervalu identified the area as a food desert and hoped to fill the need of the poor population centered " along Belmont Avenue and Dickinson Street near the "X".  Hetzel noted Save-A-Lot's promise to offer healthier foods as part of her reason for supporting the project.

While there were legitimate concerns about traffic and pedestrian safety (the "X," despite its overlay requirements encouraging street level retail is not a particularly safe pedestrian zone), the front of the store remained a sticking point for many.  Local residents and the city's planning department were very aprehensive about making an exception to the requirement that an entrance face the street.  Neighbors along Lenox Avenue were worried about how the increase in traffic would clog that street and Cliftwood.  Save-A-Lot's traffic engineers assured that car traffic would only increase slightly, although there was a discrepancy as to how many trucks would service the store.

Councilor Rivera (Facebook)
Amaad Rivera, who as Ward 6 Councilor represents the "X," took great pains to emphasize the job creation and that Save-A-Lot, while never relenting on the Sumner Avenue entrance, did modify its facade plans for the street side to fit the neighborhood and include displays of local art.  With Goodwill planning to vacate the building no matter what, it seemed unlikely that any outcome other than passage of the permit was likely.  Many councilors made comments similar to Rivera's with Fenton and at-large councilor Kateri Walsh still gravely concerned about the impact of the anti-pedestrian design would have on the heavily trafficked intersection.  In the end, they would be the only two votes against the permit with eleven votes in support.

In some ways the comments made by a reprentatives of a neighborhood business group, reflected the concerns many of the opponents and supporters of the project had.  He said, "Would we oppose this project if it were a Trader Joes" that is would the group's oppose Save-A-Lot simply because it caters to the poor.  In the end, his group could not and would not oppose the project on those grounds alone (although their support was contingent Save-A-Lot fulfilling other apparently agreed ti terms).  None of the opponents appeared to oppose the project for that reason, but the decline of the city and its limited options for new developments seem more evident because of projects like this.  On the other hand, the "X" is already the home to several dollar stores and other businesses that cater to the economically disadvantaged almost exclusively.  Is a Save-A-Lot truly a step down then? 

In the end the planning concerns about the project may have been the only politically valid argument, albeit one a city like Springfield seems unprepared to fight in its current economic state.  Similar issues arose with developments by Colvest in Sixteen Acres which lacked street-fronted buildings.  Indeed that original project was rejected only to be replaced by a CVS, which likewise does not front the street.  Work is still underway to rehab the city's zoning ordinances to encourage street-fronted developments that will encourage walking citywide (only the "X" has this rule now).  As for the "X" if pedestrian activity is the hope then some additional traffic engineering, something Rivera and others support.

On balance, the council had a somewhat successful meeting in that it accomplished real changes like the foreclosure ordinances while held back the impulse for vapid showmanship.  When it did drift toward cynical political benefit, we can thank Edwards for drawing us back toward reality and purpose.  The difficulty of the "X" development was not between approving the permit or not (rejection was never really an option). Rather it was accepting what the city can and cannot do and what business it can attract in its current economic state.  The encouraging irony may be that the key to stemming and reversing examples of the city's decline may be more thoughtful, serious and effective meetings, such as this one.


Anonymous said...

Hi Matt,
Two quick comments...I did not support this save-a-lot deal but the reality is this is still a country where the majority rules and I myself will keep a close eye on them not to run the area down more than it is already.
There is talk about Traders Joes.
I heard there is an interest in the southend because of the easy off on ramps.Time line 2 years or so...I will follow through with more info.
Also the reps from F.P. business are a new organization not the X corp.
On a happy note: there is a "New" bakery planned on Belmont which will be welcomed with open arms.

Matt S. said...

Thanks, Nicky. Please feel free to keep us posted if you have more on Trader Joes, that Baker or of course Save-A-Lot. We'll be keeping an eye on them, too.