Plans for old schools in Easthampton advance

  • Easthampton Municipal Building, 50 Payson Ave. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/24/2023 3:43:49 PM
Modified: 5/24/2023 3:43:33 PM

EASTHAMPTON — The City Council has accepted a $30.4 proposal from a Needham firm to redevelop the city’s three former elementary schools into more than 60 units of mixed-income housing, though the New York City nonprofit that lost out on the project by one point in the evaluation process has raised objections.

In a 7-0-1 vote, the council on May 17 approved Arch Communities LLC’s proposal, which included buying the three buildings for $1.2 million. Councilor Dave Meunier was absent and President Homar Gomez abstained as his home is located next to one of the school buildings.

“In my tenure, the last 20 years, we’ve disclosed of a lot of city property, and I’ve been involved with all of it. And this is the one I am the most proud of and the most excited about,” Vice President Salem Derby said at the meeting. “I think the way that it was done was really well executed and I’m very thankful that I was able to be involved on multiple levels and I’m very excited for this to come.”

Arch’s plan includes transforming the three buildings into 61 apartments: one studio apartment, 31 one-bedroom apartments, 15 two-bedroom apartments and 14 three-bedroom apartments. The majority of the rents will be designated as affordable and will range between 30% to 60% of the area median income, with the balance of the units renting at market rates.

Plans also call for preserving the gym at Pepin Gym and auditorium.

The NHP Foundation $38.2 million proposal called for buying the three schools for $500,000 and converting them into 69 units of housing. The New York City firm proposed retaining the auditorium for community use and converting the gym into affordable housing.

Arch Communities’ proposal outscored The NHP’s proposal by one point, 32 to 31, based on criteria spelled out in the request for proposals documentation and judged by the Evaluation Committee, a volunteer group established by the City Council to review proposals and make a favored recommendation.

“The critical difference between Arch Communities LLC and the second-ranked respondent, the NHP Foundation, was the preservation of Pepin Gym and auditorium for community use,” according to a March 30 memorandum written by Emily Keys Innes, principal at Innes Associates Ltd. and consultant to Easthampton.

Although there was much praise for Arch’s plan, The NHP Foundation objected. The organization argued at the council’s April 27 Property Committee meeting and in an April 18 letter to the council that the projects were evaluated using a flawed process, especially around the preservation of Pepin Gym.

Mecky Adnani, senior vice president at NHP, argued that the city’s request for proposals provided an option to retain either the Pepin gym or the auditorium and that their proposal included a plan to convert the gym into affordable housing and retain the auditorium for community use.

During the group’s interview on March 21, Adnani stated that the foundation indicated that the retention of the gym would result in the loss of six units of affordable housing, but would be “flexible in doing this if preferred by the city.”

She indicated in the letter that Arch Communities proposed to retain both the gym and auditorium and “did not offer any operational plan” for the space.

She also itemized nine other objections to the Evaluation Committee’s scoring, including the fact that the foundation’s proposal included more affordable housing than the winning proposal, Arch Communities did not include letters from financial institutions in their packet and that initially, Arch Communities’ proposal did not meet the minimum requirements of the request for proposals.

City waives ‘informalities’

Michael Owens, the city’s procurement officer, stated at the March 16 Evaluation Committee meeting that Arch Communities did not meet the minimum requirements. However, because of language contained in the request for proposals, the city is allowed to waive informalities and missing pieces of documentation and review the proposals regardless of that.

“If we had received seven or eight proposals, I think my recommendation would be that Arch gets tossed out, because we only have three, I say we waive them and include them in our reviews,” said Owens at the March 16 meeting.

City Planner Jeff Bagg said at the April 27 Property Committee meeting that both applicants were so close that the committee looked at all the criteria and discussed their reasoning for scoring at the Evaluation Committee’s March 18 meeting.

“I think that’s the important part to know. We did get down to pretty minute details to help distinguish between the two,” said Bagg at that meeting.

Echoing Bagg’s sentiments, Owens at that meeting stated that the Evaluation Committee’s process included substantial discussion. He called the applicants “highly ranked” and referred people to the March 30 memorandum detailing their reasoning for selecting Arch Communities.

The agreement

In addition to the Evaluation Committee’s recommendation, the council’s Property Committee, which includes Council members Derby, Owen Zaret and James “J.P.” Kwiecinski, who chairs the Property Committee, also recommended Arch Communities as the preferred developer.

As part of that recommendation, the committee included a May 4 memorandum detailing provisions they’d like Mayor Nicole LaChapelle to negotiate as part of the agreement between Arch Communities and the city, including the retention of the Pepin gym and auditorium, provide public parking and a children’s playground at the Maple School similar to the May 25, 2022 Maple concept plan on the city’s website, and provide environmentally sensitive landscaping.

As part of the council’s acceptance of the proposal, the body recommended that Arch Communities provide a timeline of payments to the proposed $1.2 million purchase of the proposal, provide access to the Pepin gym whenever possible through the process and increase the number of affordable units provided.

During the Needham developer’s interview on March 22, the team from Arch Communities indicated that they would be amenable to trying to make the market-rate apartments into affordable apartments, though they are not required to do so.

At the May 17 meeting, Affordable and Fair Housing Partnership Chairperson Janna Tetreault commended all of the respondents’ proposals and the work of each of the city departments and committees.

“I think the fact that we got great proposals really speaks to the desire to invest in Easthampton, which I think is really important,” she said. “This is a big deal. It’s a really big deal that the city identified three city-owned buildings for affordable housing and I think we really should be proud of that. Not all communities would do that. Some communities would sell them. We could have market-rate condos going into any of these buildings, and the fact that this city collectively saw the importance and need for affordable housing really makes me proud to live here.”

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

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