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Zone-change presents unique opportunity for Holyoke

Holyoke has a unique opportunity to leverage a development agreement with SK Properties Development Corporation to ensure that the proposed Lowe’s project has real benefits for the residents of Holyoke. Unfortunately, the conversation regarding the City Council’s vote to re-zone the 18-acre parcel of land on Whiting Farms Rd. has slipped into a divisive for-Lowe’s or against-Lowe’s argument. This has distracted our community from having a meaningful discussion about what is involved in the zone change process, and what is at stake.

This is not a simple, black-or-white issue. It is a serious decision that merits careful consideration by the city’s leadership to be sure that we are doing what is in the best interest of all our constituents. SK Properties is currently petitioning the city for a zone-change from “Industrial use” to “General Business use” for the Whiting Farms Parcel. The new use should develop the land efficiently and avoid public costs associated with haphazard development.

If a zone change is approved by the City Council, the developer can contract to bring in a specific project, in this case the development of a Lowe’s. The zone change grants the developer the “right to build,” so any modifications must be deemed “reasonable” by the developer. At that point, the city must rely on the developer to implement the conditions set by the Planning Board. Any modification deemed “unreasonable” by the developer can actually be grounds for legal action against the city.

With this in mind and while we are now deliberating the zone-change the city has an opportunity to request concessions from SK Properties to ensure: (1) funding for the city to conduct an independent traffic study of the area; (2) bonding to ensure that traffic mitigation is completed along Whiting Farms Rd. from Northampton St. to Lower Westfield Rd.; (3) financial support for a downtown economic development fund; and (4) restrictions on the building’s size and environmental footprint. In fact, many municipalities across the Commonwealth, including Danvers, North Attleboro, Woburn, Weymouth and Hadley have used “contract-zoning” to secure added benefits for their communities in negotiating contracts up-front with petitioning developers for Lowe’s projects.

The Town of Hadley, for example was able to secure a package of $410,000 for farmland preservation, parks and recreation, and long-range planning. Other cities have negotiated packages that include extensive traffic mitigation, bonding to ensure that it is completed to the municipality’s satisfaction, financial support for master plan assistance, wetlands protection, landscaping and more. These development agreements were secured up-front in exchange for the desired zone-change.

The city of Holyoke holds a lot of power in this process and should not sell itself short. We need to learn from the precedents set by our neighbors in order to understand how we can use these tools to our advantage. Lowe’s has expressed interest in Holyoke. This interest is based on scouting a location which has convinced them that they will make a solid return on their investment. If they want to site a store in Holyoke, then we need to exercise our right to ask that they invest in our community in return.

As City Councilors, we are looking to work with the city’s leadership to take an active role in negotiating the terms of those concessions now, while we still can. The citizens of Holyoke should expect nothing less than the citizens of Danvers, North Attleboro, Woburn, Weymouth and Hadley.

City Councilors-At-Large
Rebecca Lisi and Elaine Pluta

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Rebecca.

    I think that those are very reasonable points that are proposed. I am glad your including an economic development fund.

    I am for Lowes because it does provide an opportunity for Holyoke as long as we see results.

    I’m still asking that when and if this fund is created, it cannot be diverted for any reason, and that future developments be required to supplement this fund, if they are not developing in the downtown area.

    I also agree on your points of poor planning. Holyoke should not accept whatever a developer plans. We should have a clear idea of building size, environmental impact, aesthetics (my big issue) , as well as encouraging alternative energy incorporation.

    If now is the time to get these issues solved, then lets get it done!

  2. For big-box foes, battle joined, but war not over
    Published on January 16, 2009

    One night last month, as an ice storm was descending on the Valley, one hundred people gathered at Food for Thought Books in downtown Amherst. We were motivated by the “Grand Opening” of Home Depot.

    It was too late to do anything about the latest strip mall big box to gobble up more of our farmland and open space, attracting more cars to the already traffic-choked eyesore that the region’s main artery has become. And we were equally powerless to prevent the bison farm, not a mile down the road from Home Depot, from being bulldozed to prepare for a Lowe’s Home Improvement Store.

    But we felt a need to convene as a community.

    The Pioneer Valley is known around the world for its exceptional quality of life. Nothing diminishes our greatest regional asset more effectively than a new big box store (or two).

    We are also blessed to have several wonderful locally owned and multi- generation family-owned home improvement stores in the Valley. And in this economy, it is hard to imagine how even one big box store could compete with these existing outlets.

    But two of these behemoths? This is the McDonald’s-Burger King phenomenon on crack – local consumer demand taking a back seat to corporate boardroom strategy.

    And no one will be surprised when next quarter’s global sales numbers prompt a sudden change of heart, our new Home Depot is shuttered and we’re left with a gaping hole on the landscape, and the beginning of a new era of dead malls.

    Environmentalists, planners, business owners, unions, emergency workers, cyclists, drivers, mass transit users, students, seniors and many, many others came together to resist Wal-Mart’s efforts to pave over the cornfields and wetlands across from Home Depot for a “Supercenter.” Our amazing victory proved that, even when giant corporations are involved, regular people can sometimes have a say in what happens in their own community.

    Some claim that a regional movement to contain strip malls in any one town is contrary to the idea of self-determination, or “home rule.”

    But it’s only common sense that supersized projects like these will have diverse and regional impacts, and that therefore decisions about them should have correspondingly diverse and regional input. It is also important to point out that Hadley has passed a “big box cap,” limiting future stores from exceeding 75,000 square feet. The end of an era in Hadley is encouraging, but one result is that mall developers will look for the next most vulnerable location.

    Again, regional planning is the answer.

    Another thing about us “regular people” trying to contain big box and strip mall proliferation: We have limited budgets, and we’re busy.

    When we can’t find what we need or want downtown, we often end up down on the strip.

    Al Norman, of, calls this the “socks and underwear problem.” But when we do get some spare time to reflect on why we love this area so much, we realize that we cannot take it for granted.

    Strip malls have become a central feature of the American landscape, and if we want to hold on to even a quaint little patch of what we’ve got, it’s time to create a vision and plan for an economically, socially and environmentally sustainable future.

    And one practical question is, “How do we make the things we need available downtown?”

    What about the new jobs Home Depot and Lowe’s create? Big box stores contribute to a vast and expanding low wage underclass in this country. Common attributes include no health insurance (taxpayer burden), no union, no job security, no career path and no sense of meaning or community.

    Any new jobs will be more than offset by downward pressure on the local economy, the extraction of wealth out of our community and the resulting elimination of higher-quality jobs and future prospects for regional economic development.

    Aron Goldman is executive director of the nonprofit Policy Development. He teaches public policy at UMass and he is a member of the Shutesbury Planning Board.

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