City Council meeting of January 22, 2013

For the second straight week the Lowell City Council zipped through its meeting tonight, sticking to the agenda and not wandering too far afield on any particular issue (although the buzz on Facebook speculates that as the city election draws closer, the meetings will get lengthier). Old favorites made their inevitable appearance: double telephone poles, dog licenses and snow plowing among them.

The big issue tonight from my perspective was the sale of the old Butler School parcel on Gorham Street. That building, abandoned as a school many years ago, was insufficiently buttoned up to prevent fatal deterioration, so the only possible future use would be to tear down the structure and redevelop the parcel.

The city issued a request for proposals and received three. In a January 18, 2013 letter to the city council, City Manager Lynch conveyed the recommendation of an RFP Review Committee which met on October 31, November 8 and November 19 to review the three proposals. Two proposals were close. One by Mr. Chou Huynh offered $325,000 for the property and proposed building a single building containing a supermarket, a restaurant and a function hall. The other proposal, by J&K Realty Trust, offered $265,500 for the parcel on which it would construct two structures containing food service, office and retail uses. While the Huynh proposal would pay the city more up front and more in taxes going forward, the RFP Review Committee recommended the J&K proposal, mostly because it included the construction of an access road across the property that would connect a 16 acre parcel to the rear of the Butler site to Gorham Street. According to the committee, this adjacent parcel, known as 2 Prince Avenue, “represents one of Lowell’s greatest opportunities for additional industrial and commercial redevelopment.” The Huynh proposal included no such road.

Accompanying this explanatory letter on the council agenda was a proposed vote for the council to act on this evening. Several councilors decried a “lack of information” provided to aid them in their decision until the mayor pointed out that the explanatory letter had been in the packets received by all councilors at the start of the weekend. That cut short the “lack of information” councilors – perhaps they missed the report or maybe they forgot reading it.

Councilor Nuon did speak in favor of the Huynh proposal, suggesting that the vote be put off and the entire matter be sent to a subcommittee for further inquiry. Vesna did say that if the vote were to be taken this evening, he would grudgingly support the J&K proposal since he thought it essential that the project get underway. No one supported a subcommittee diversion so the vote was held and it passed by an 8 to 0 margin with Councilor Bill Martin voting “present” due to a legal conflict.

The meeting adjourned at 8:20 p.m. The sale of the Butler lot was a big deal. Once construction begins it will take 9 months to complete the project. Even more exciting is the prospect of this project jump starting a far larger project on the adjacent Prince parcel.

4 Responses to City Council meeting of January 22, 2013

  1. Joe S says:

    Isn’t it unusual that a private developer would create a public road? Or is it just a right-of-way conveyed to the City to build that road?

  2. Dan Murphy says:

    Dick, thanks for your ongoing coverage of the City Council. As mundane as it can be–and frustrating at times–it is important that the community is aware of what’s going on at this level. I feel obligated to add on to a few things you’ve talked about the last two weeks.

    First, that Sustainability 2025 (the city’s updated master plan) got off the ground as a result of Mayor Murphy’s first motion as a councilor back in January of 2010, and really gained steam after his subsequent suggestion that a sustainability plan and master plan need not be two separate documents, but integrated in a modern way.

    This week, the sale of the Butler School property came about from his motion in August of 2011 to develop a plan for the use of the Butler School. Patrick and I both lived on Ellsworth for years before he moved to the Lower Highlands and literally witnessed the slow crumbling of the school’s brick. After his motion, he pushed to work around the historical issues until finally the city put it out for RFP.

    Third, the bus shelters popping up over the neighborhoods point out an important point. Patrick motioned for them in September of 2010 and continually lobbied for them and pushed for updates–not on the council floor to score points, but in private to take the act of making a motion (which is easy) and work to realize it (which is much harder.)

    Sometimes it seems that city government moves slowly. These motions suggest that. Bureaucracy and many concurrent projects are at fault, but it is instructive to note that we have here a model for positive collaboration between the council and administration that actually moves the city forward on important issues.

  3. Jack Mitchell says:

    @Joe S. Yes. A private developer can build a road, turning it over to the municipality upon completion. Of course, there are codes and specs that are mandated, based on the usage. Commonly, we are talking a residential development, e.g. the “cul-de-sac.” There is a process by which the municipaltiy takes “ownership.” Just as the individual homeowners take possession of each house.

  4. sd says:

    Does anybody remember the last plan for the Butler School? While it is great that this site will now be reused, this site could have been returned to its state as an elementary school for lowell schoolchildren. The manager had state money to pay for more than half the cost of rehab and an addition, along with funding for the new Morey School. When it came time to take the vote for the city funds to do this work, one councilor (Bud Caufield) decided (based upon his extensive experience with construction!) that it was too risky to take on a historic renovation (as if it had never been done before in Lowell), and on a split vote, the council voted to reject the state money and not upgrade this building. Five years later, it’s crumbling into the ground, and the only thing to do for the neighborhood is tear it down. It is sad. And it is based on a serious misunderstanding of the risk and rewards of repairing historic structures.