Mayor, housing advocates push City Council to move on reuse of schools

  • The vacant Maple Street School in Easthampton. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/26/2022 2:54:37 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Frustrated that a City Council subcommittee is sitting on a request for proposals for the reuse of the three elementary schools, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle went on the offensive this week, calling it “unconscionable” that no talks have happened after nearly three months.

The mayor, along with the Easthampton Housing Coalition and the city’s Affordable and Fair Housing Partnership, is urging the council’s Property Committee to release a request for proposals (RFP) for the reuse of the schools as there is a demonstrated need for affordable housing in the city.

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 City Council that reiterates the city’s historical commitment to affordable housing.

“Housing is so important. When we talk about equality, equity, inclusivity, housing security is one or two with food security,” LaChapelle said. “We have known since 2015 we’ve needed affordable housing and have committed to doing that and now, here we go. We have that opportunity. An opportune RFP that is uniquely and specifically created by the residents and businesses of Easthampton. This is not an outside developer. This is something the city controls. And to sit on that, is unconscionable.”

The three former elementary schools — Maple, Center and Pepin — were declared surplus with construction of a 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.

Although the committee held site visits of the properties in July, LaChapelle said she found it “odd and unexpected” that the committee has not had a discussion about the tour in a public meeting or listed the RFP on an agenda for further discussion.

LaChapelle said it was the city’s hope to have the RFP released in July to coincide with the schools becoming vacant.

Precinct 1 Councilor James “J.P.” Kwiecinski, who is chairman of the Property Committee, could not be reached for comment.

The dispensation and ultimate reuse of the city’s elementary schools are among one of the biggest infrastructure and planning decisions to be made in the near future, according to At-Large City Councilor Owen Zaret, who serves on the Property Committee.

“The work done to date is very thorough, but has not been a City Council process. Now the process has been brought to the City Council and we need to review the process to date, the recommendations brought forward, and affirm or make edits,” said Zaret in an emailed response. “There are explicit needs for the city, as well as the potential residents who may be brought to the city in this process. The Pepin gymnasium and auditorium are glaring resources that if disposed of are gone forever, and so we need to not take that consideration lightly.”

Zaret said affordable housing is an obvious need, but the committee also needs to make sure the RFP reflects space for resources and services to new and existing residents.

“We need to be respectful to all involved and be thorough but swift in our process,” he wrote.

The draft RFP has been prepared over the last year through a public process with the Elementary School Reuse Committee, which consists of residents along with representatives from the Historical Commission, Affordable Fair Housing Partnership, Council on Aging, and Economic Development and Industrial Committee.

“The city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on getting ready for this bid,” LaChapelle said.

The Elementary School Reuse Committee considered a dozen interactive public plans and input from state housing agencies to create the draft RFP, according to the mayor. The reuse committee also received a $200,000 grant from the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency for pre-development work.

The only requirement of the RFP as it is currently structured is affordable housing.

Jamrog-McQuaid, who has lived in Easthampton for 24 years, said he was concerned by the lack of urgency shown by the committee as it pertains to housing. He noted that the draft RFP includes every concern that has been brought up — parking, community theater/recreation space and playgrounds, and felt that the committee has not been prepared to meet this process with the urgency he feels that it calls for.

“This school reuse project is a very unique opportunity for the city to address an exploding housing crisis with (preferably) nonprofit development — giving us the most affordable housing possible,” he wrote in an email. “The market alone rarely (if ever) creates a meaningful number of affordable units on its own, so these city-owned buildings provide a once-in-a-generation opportunity to invest in Easthampton’s future.”

Jamrog-McQuaid said that added contingencies or delays can make this project unfeasible for nonprofit development, meaning fewer affordable units if any at all.

“This is why it was incredibly frustrating to see our elected officials using this as an opportunity to play political football,” he wrote.

Once the RFP has been released, the council will have another chance to approve how the document is interpreted by developers, Jamrog-McQuaid said. He felt that the discussion councilors had at an Aug. 17 meeting would have been more appropriate once the city has bids it can sort through.

City Council President Homar Gomez, who also serves on the Property Committee, said that the committee was doing its due diligence to work with the RFP and anticipates that the committee will move forward on the matter soon.

“I know the needs of affordable housing in E asthampton and I know it’s really important for the community,” he said. “We’re going to listen to everyone’s input, that’s the due diligence.”

The next Property Committee meeting is on Wednesday at 6 p.m.

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