Reuse plans for old schools in Easthampton to be aired

  • Maple Street school in Easthampton. The City Council will hold a public hearing on Wednesday, Sept. 21, to discuss a request for proposals for reuse of the three vacant elementary schools in the city. Gazette file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 9/9/2022 8:08:27 PM
Modified: 9/9/2022 8:06:41 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Two weeks after the mayor and housing advocates pressed the City Council to release a request for proposals for reuse of the city’s three elementary schools, several councilors this week shot down a request from a colleague that would have extended the discussion for another three months.

In a tension-filled meeting Wednesday, the council rejected Precinct 1 Councilor James “J.P.” Kwiecinski’s request for a 90-day extension that would have pushed plans back until winter.

Instead, the council agreed to schedule a public hearing for Sept. 21 to discuss what the vacant schools should be used for and what information should be included in the RFP.

Responding to criticism late last month that the Property Committee, which he chairs, was not moving faster on advancing the RFP, Kwiecinski noted that the schools were discussed multiple times throughout the subcommittee’s meeting in August. He said that at a site visit to the buildings in July, several members of the public expressed interest in renting some of the space, which he felt was an important option to consider.

“We also heard from several advocates for affordable housing, of which I am. And I think we definitely need to have more affordable houses here in Easthampton,” Kwiecinski said.

“But we also heard from a few others, saying that we should at least reserve one of the buildings as a municipal hub — some common intergenerational space for multipurpose uses, primarily, public range of possibilities, definitely included the additional gym space to be shared by all ages, perhaps seniors, youth and adults.”

The three former elementary schools — Maple, Center and Pepin — were declared surplus with construction of the new Mountain View School and transferred from the School Committee to the council in April. At the end of May, the Planning Department submitted a draft RFP package associated with the reuse of the three school properties. That package was referred to the Property Committee in June.

Kwiecinski said the committee would be meeting with a consultant to go over some input received from the public to adjust the draft RFP, and made a motion for a three-month extension to continue discussing the matter further.

Precinct 5 Councilor Dan Rist promptly shot back that he was opposed to the motion.

“We have had two years of a reuse committee that has looked at this. This RFP was given to us in June. And it should be put forward,” Rist said. “I thought we might be putting it out there for a public hearing next meeting. … If we did that, it does not discount any of the other capabilities that Councilor Kwiecinski mentioned for the buildings. But it gets things in motion. We cannot wait 90 more days for this to happen.

“I would be in favor of a two-week extension,” Rist said. “And I would like to see us put up a public hearing for it. I will not vote in favor of this.”

In August, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, Affordable and Fair Housing Partnership Chairperson Janna Tetreault, Economic Development & Industrial Commission Chairperson Gwynne Morrissey and Easthampton Housing Coalition Coordinator Kiam Jamrog-McQuaid co-signed and submitted a proclamation to the council that reiterates the city’s commitment to affordable housing.

Along with that proclamation, advocates have implored the council to release the draft RFP, citing the city’s critical need for affordable housing.

Initially, the city’s hope was to have the RFP released in late summer to coincide with the schools becoming vacant as of July, according to City Planner Jeff Bagg.

At-Large City Councilor Owen Zaret, who also serves on the Property Committee, agreed with Rist, saying that at a previous subcommittee meeting, council members suggested setting a public hearing for Wednesday, Sept. 21.

Councilor At-Large Brad Riley also opposed the 90-day extension.

“Affordable housing has always been one of the primary goals of these developments, and every month that we delay this process from going forward is another month that families in Easthampton are further in debt because of the cost of rent, and it’s unaffordable, or they end up in homeless shelters,” Riley said. “The RFP makes room for the suggestions that other people have put forward. Let’s start the process now. So we can see who’s placing bids and then we can have those conversations.”

Kwiecinski interjected that his motion was a “perfunctory, typical 90-day extension,” and that his reasoning was to extend the line item in the event that the Sept. 21 public hearing date was not available.

Rist amended the motion to extend the Property Committee’s discussion of the item for an additional two weeks, to which councilors unanimously agreed.

A public hearing on the RFP has been scheduled for Sept. 21 at 6:15 p.m. The Property Committee will also continue to discuss the RFP at its next meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 14, at 6 p.m.

Emily Thurlow can be reached at ethurlow@gazettenet.com.
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