City, developer agree on preservation for Clarke site
GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Renovations are expected to begin in May on the Rogers, left, and Hubbard halls on the former Clarke School for the Deaf campus in Northampton. The Opal Real Estate Group of Springfield, which is redeveloping the site, plans to convert them into 38 luxury apartments. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — The historic look of most of the buildings on the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech campus will remain intact now that the City Council has approved a historic preservation restriction agreement with the Springfield company redeveloping the site.
Opal Real Estate Group last month won site plan approval for a mixed-use development on the 11-acre campus off Round Hill Road. Plans call for commercial space on the west side of Round Hill Road and luxury apartments on the east side.
The company took advantage of new zoning the city adopted earlier this year that gives property owners greater flexibility to reuse educational and religious buildings. The city adopted the new zoning in an effort to preserve historic buildings.
In exchange for that flexibility, Opal was required to abide by the historic preservation restriction that prohibits altering the exterior of most of the campus buildings it intends to buy. The Planning Board last month made the restriction a condition of the company’s site plan.
Ward 2 City Councilor Paul D. Spector, who represents the neighborhood, said people who live there support the restriction, though some felt it didn’t go far enough to protect open space and many of the trees on campus. Those type of restrictions are not required under the new zoning.
“This is something the neighborhood wants very strongly, and so I’m going to back it,” Spector said.
Round Hill Road resident Richard Greene, a critic of the project, said he approves of the restriction, noting that Opal had to agree to it if the company wanted to include high-traffic commercial space in its development.
“There is no one who opposes it,” Greene said. “There is no reason to oppose it.”
Greene said he is concerned the restriction only deals with protecting existing buildings and does not address the potential for new building construction on the campus. He said he hopes a separate, yet-to-be-approved measure that calls for the expansion of the Elm Street Historic District will include regulations to guide new construction so it would be “architecturally compatible” with the neighborhood.
“The continuing concern of myself and other people in the neighborhood is when the historic district comes up, OPD (Office of Planning and Development) is going to say, ‘Oh, we already have a restriction on Opal’ and the historic district shouldn’t apply,” Greene said.
The agreement with Opal, supported by the Historical Commission, prohibits “major” alterations to the exterior of the buildings unless approved by the city. Some examples include painting or fully stripping decorative surfaces, replacing roofs, windows and doors, and moving or subdividing buildings or property.
Minor alterations that are part of ordinary maintenance and repair are permitted. This can include hand scraping and repainting of non‑decorative and non‑significant surfaces, shingle replacement or routine maintenance of outbuildings and landscaping.
The council approved the restriction unanimously last Thursday, though some councilors questioned what would happen should Opal’s plans fall through.
Planning Director Wayne Feiden said the agreement will be enacted only when Opal takes the title of the property. If the deal falls through, the restriction agreement would die, he said.
“The city won’t go forward until the land is sold,” he said.
Ward 3 City Councilor Owen Freeman-Daniels said the restriction could become an “albatross” if Opal takes over the property and then fails to deliver. Freeman-Daniels noted that anything could happen between now and when the property is developed, referring the failed Hilton hotel project downtown.
Opal’s development, to be called Historic Round Hill Summit, calls for four structures on the west side of the campus — the Gawith, Adams, Coolidge and Skinner buildings — to house a mix of professional and medical office tenants.
The company estimates that 80 percent of the space in the buildings will be leased to professional office tenants, with the remaining 20 percent going to medical or dental office users.
On the east campus, Opal will convert Hubbard and Rogers halls into 38 luxury apartment units. The number of apartments proposed was cut nearly in half from an earlier proposal.
Opal is applying for federal historic tax credits through the National Park Service, and the campus is eligible for listing on the state and national registers of historic places.
Meanwhile, Greene said he and other neighbors continue to harbor concerns about the traffic the project is expected to generate.