Holyoke group releases first 5-year report on efforts to rescue dilapidated buildings

  • This apartment building near the corner of Appleton and Pine streets in Holyoke, known as The Pine, is owned by Gregory Virgilio who is working with the city’s Property Preservation Group led by Building Commissioner Damian Cote. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • This apartment building near the corner of Appleton and Pine streets in Holyoke, know as The Pine, is owned by Gregory Virgilio who is working with the city's Property Preservation Group led by Building Commissioner Damian Cote. Photographed on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Detail of The Pine, a five-story apartment building near the corner of Appleton and Pine streets in Holyoke owned by Gregory Virgilio. Virgilio is working with the city's Property Preservation Group led by Building Commissioner Damian Cote. Photographed on Friday, Feb. 4, 2022. —STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 2/6/2022 8:21:22 PM
Modified: 2/6/2022 8:19:52 PM

HOLYOKE — When Greg Virgilio bought the five-story apartment building at 185 Pine St. in 2016, the place had been vacant for a while and was in total disrepair.

The city’s building department had declared the building unsafe in 2007, and in 2011 the Board of Health registered it as vacant. In 2015 the city did a survey after receiving numerous complaints, and the following year removed the rear porches from the building to keep the public safe. Then, the city worked to get the property in the hands of Virgilio, a new owner who has decided to invest in the property.

“It’s a beautiful building,” Virgilio said.

The turnaround at 185 Pine St., which now has a renovated facade and four apartments nearly ready for occupancy, was due in part to the work of the city’s “Property Preservation Group” — a collaboration among city departments that has since 2015 worked to eliminate and prevent blight in Holyoke.

At the end of last month, the PPG — previously referred to as the “Problem Property Group” — released its first five-year report, detailing the progress it made between 2015 and 2020.

During that time period, of the 74 properties the group identified as “significantly unsafe,” vacant or blighted, 60 have been fully resolved, according to the report. Officials across city government have come together to pool resources, share ideas and create a more efficient process for dealing with a long-standing problem in Holyoke.

“It’s about breaking down the silos, getting people to work together toward a common goal,” city Building Commissioner Damian Cote said Thursday.

The group first met in 2015, and since then has focused largely on the biggest problems facing the city’s building infrastructure.

That work largely involves making sure that each department knows who is working on a particular project. Sometimes that has meant taking a property over because of unpaid taxes and selling it to somebody committed to renovating it. In other cases, it has meant maintaining properties so they don’t become unsalvageable. The team has also worked to demolish those buildings that are beyond repair.

Fire Chief Jeffery Przekopowski said Thursday that over the past two decades or so, he has been a part of many different iterations of the Property Preservation Group.

“I can tell you that the group that’s assembled now has gotten the most done, the most progress, of any committee or any iteration of this committee we’ve had in the past,” Przekopowski said. “They’re very, very dedicated to getting these buildings put back on the tax rolls.”

Beforehand, several different city departments might be working on a building without realizing they were repeating work, Cote said. Each department had its own lists of problem properties, and its own tools for addressing them.

Nowadays, the group keeps a collective list. Buildings on the list are prioritized based on assessments from the Fire Department, economic development office and building commissioner.

“Getting those together and working on them collectively meant we could actually get more done faster,” Cote said. And that meant using fewer resources and less time to fix problems. “It’s sending one person out and knowing who is taking care of it.”

For Virgilio, the owner of 185 Pine St., the group’s involvement with the property meant that the previous seller was motivated to sell it to him. He said it makes sense for the city to have a group that makes sure buildings don’t get to the point of no return.

“It recognizes potential problems before they become serious to the point where a property has to be torn down,” he said. “So they potentially rehabilitate the property, put it into receivership and find ways of solving problems before it’s too late.”

And because so many properties have been fixed over the five-year period covered in the report, Cote said the city has now been able to begin devoting more attention to the important work of preventing blight in the first place. Better to fix a roof, for example, than for leaks from that roof to damage a building’s structure beyond repair.

Cote did say, though, that the group has faced challenges because of the significant turnover of city employees. Of the original group that began the work in 2015, he said half have moved on from employment in Holyoke.

“That continuity gets lost,” he said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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