Northampton board delays decision on expanding Elm Street Historic District
NORTHAMPTON — The Historic District Commission put off a request to enlarge the Elm Street Historic District to include Round Hill Road to give Opal Real Estate Group more time to secure historic tax credits to redevelop the campus of the Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech.
The 11-building campus is located off Round Hill Road and would be included in the expanded Elm Street district.
Given the lengthy process to win tax credits, Historic District Commission member Bruce Kriviskey said it made sense to delay a vote at the panel’s meeting last week. “It seemed premature to go ahead and approve the district,” he said.
If it moved ahead now to expand the district and the Opal deal fell through, the restrictions would likely make the property difficult for Clarke to sell to another buyer.
Meanwhile, the issue of expanding the district could be one of the last major decisions the Historic District Commission makes. At its meeting Friday, members voted to merge with the city’s Historical Commission, a move the latter body has already approved. The five members of each body would join to form a single group.
The change stems in part from staffing issues in the Office of Planning and Development, said Director Wayne Feiden.
By extending the Elm Street Historic District to Round Hill, that neighborhood and its buildings would gain the protections that buildings along Elm Street now have. The district governs demolition, renovation and all changes to exterior architectural features visible from the public way, but does not address landscaping and traffic issues.
Including the Round Hill area in the district would give added protection to buildings on the Clarke campus, something neighbors have pushed for. If successful, Opal intends to turn most of the buildings into luxury apartments and commercial space. It has promised not to alter the exteriors of the buildings.
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 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 outsides of most buildings it intends to buy. The Planning Board last month made the restriction a condition of the company’s site plan, and the City Council approved the restriction in November.
The agreement the council approved will be enacted only when Opal takes the title to the property. If the deal falls through, the restriction agreement would die.