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.
Rebecca Lisi and Elaine Pluta