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Northampton moving to sell Florence Grammar School

A Florence ReUse Committee, working in partnership with the Finance Committee, is poised to make official a recommendation to sell the former Florence Grammar School when it gathers later this month, according to Ward 5 City Councilor David A. Murphy.

The nearly 84-year-old building sits on a 2.2-acre site at the corner of Pine and Corticelli streets, not far from the center of Florence. It closed as a school in 1992.

“Yes, we’re moving forward but we have nothing on the table yet,” Murphy said.

The committee must hammer out the terms of a request-for-proposals that will guide the sale of the three-floor, 30,000-square-foot building. It now houses 15 nonprofits and other tenants whose leases expire at the end of June.

The committee has already decided it’s not in taxpayers’ interest for the city to continue to act as a landlord, nor does it want to spend the money needed to convert it for municipal use or to address maintenance problems.

The building is structurally sound, but there are several maintenance issues: aging boilers, energy-efficiency problems with windows, stormwater that runs into the basement during heavy rains and asbestos and lead paint. The building also is not handicapped-accessible.

Meanwhile, the City Council is expected to discuss a measure Thursday that would place a preservation restriction on the property.

The restriction is a condition of a site plan approved by the Planning Board last summer that gives the city permission to rent space in the school to existing tenants without the need for a special permit, said Carolyn Misch, senior land use planner.

The board found that the old school site qualified under new zoning the council approved last year aimed at encouraging adaptive reuse of historic educational and religious buildings. Those changes give building owners greater flexibility in terms of uses in exchange for historic preservation restrictions.

In the case of the Florence Grammar School, the restriction would ensure that the building does not get torn down and that the features that define it as a 1930s school building would remain. It would restrict changes to the exterior of the building, but would allow interior changes.

“It’s really meant to preserve what the building looks like now,” Misch said.

Planners believe such a measure would provide the greatest reuse potential for the school. A buyer, for example, could take over the building and have all of the tenants with proper permits in place, Misch said.

If the council opts not to move ahead with the restriction, then some of the uses in the building would not be legal in the office industrial zone and would require a special permit.

“Our recommendation is that ultimately it’s more saleable with the preservation restriction because it provides more options without an onerous side effect,” Misch said.

The city took ownership of the school last year after the School Committee determined it no longer needed the structure for school purposes and voted to surplus it. The School Department had operated a high school learning program in the building for a number of years before moving it to the high school.

A tenants association representing artists and small businesses that lease Florence Community Center space has indicated it wants to stay there. It is urging the ad-hoc committee to create an RFP that features a multi-use scenario that allows that to happen.

The building houses artists, performers, movement therapists, a radio station, Habitat for Humanity, Casa Latina and other small businesses.

“The arts are a proven economic stimulus for any community, and we stand ready to apply our significant talents and resources in helping the building thrive as a much-needed arts and community center in Florence,” the tenants wrote in a February letter to the committee.

The association said it is ready to help prospective buyers who support these goals, and is reaching out to individuals and organizations that might donate financial or organizational resources to the project.

They are also contacting other artists and community groups in an effort to fill empty spaces in the building.

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