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Coolidge Park Condominiums association seeks $200,000 from Community Preservation Act to fix crumbling granite staircases in former jail



Last modified: Thursday, March 19, 2015
NORTHAMPTON — The sprawling, eye-catching red brick building at 50 Union St. was the county jail from the time it was built in 1851 until it was decommissioned after a new jail was constructed on Rocky Hill Road in 1984.

The historic building and its 1.7 acres in Ward 3 were sold to a private developer who turned it into Coolidge Park Condominiums, where 27 homeowners now live in a building that may be too much for them to care for on their own.

With the building’s signature granite staircases now crumbling — a set facing Cherry Street on one side and Union Street on the other — the condo association has asked the city’s Community Preservation Act Committee for $200,000 to fix them.

“Because this historic building is a distinctive and notable part of Northampton, any damage to its historic integrity would constitute a significant loss for the Northampton community,” the association wrote in its application for CPA funding.

The request has raised questions about the use of CPA money for private dwellings, and the Ward 3 Neighborhood Association recently voted not to support the application because of concerns about that.

The Community Preservation Act, a state law passed in 2000, allows communities to assess a surcharge of up to 3 percent on property taxes to establish a fund used for these specific purposes: open space preservation, affordable housing development, the creation of outdoor recreation facilities, and historic preservation.

The Coolidge Condominium residents maintain their building falls in that last category.

According to Sarah LaValley, community preservation planner for the city, it is legal to use CPA funding for private building projects of a historic preservation nature.

At its meeting Wednesday night, the CPA Committee heard from several supporters of the former Union Street jail’s granite staircase project — and one city resident who raised objections. In the end, the panel postponed its decision on the request until its next meeting, which is April 1.

Michael Bardsley, president of the condo association, appealed to the committee to support the project, noting that in 1996, the then-condo association made the decision to sell the former jail’s cupola and weather vane — a decision that sparked outcry from history buffs. But they did so, he said, after determining that restoration of the historic pieces would be too costly.

Bardsley said the current condo association does not want to make a decision like that.

“We cannot do this on our own,” he said. “This building is part of the history of Northampton, so please consider supporting this project.”

Coolidge Park resident Richard Groening said he researched the rich history of the jail and its place in the prison reform movement.

“It’s a significant building,” he said. “It’s not like the restoration of a private home. It has an important role in our history.”

The application also received support from Historic Northampton’s acting director and a University of Massachusetts history professor.

Ward 3 Neighborhood Association President James Nash said the association’s board spent a lot of time studying the proposal, but at a meeting March 10 unanimously voted to “respectfully decline” to support the application.

“While we clearly saw that the building is historical, we struggled with finding the match between the historical value for the public and the amount requested in the application — and that relates back to the fact that it is private property,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday night. “If the stairs were public stairs that people were using all the time, and part of a public building, that would be a different thing.”

Ridgewood Terrace resident Helen Wise addressed the CPA committee saying she harbors doubts about using public money for the project.

“I know I represent a number of people in Northampton who do have some qualms about using CPA money to fund private property,” she said. “I ask you to think long and hard before you support such a project, even though I am sympathetic to the social and historical implications of this historic building.”

LaValley noted that the First Churches renovation was supported with CPA funding and Historic Northampton has received CPA money — and both are private buildings.

While the Coolidge Park staircase project would be a first for Northampton, she said other communities have used CPA money for that purpose.

Also Wednesday, the committee heard a presentation on the proposed Pulaski Park renovation project, for which city officials are seeking $1.67 million in CPA funding — and also put off the decision on that request until its next meeting.

Laurie Loisel can be reached at lloisel@gazettenet.com.