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News & Issues December 2016-January 2017


Vote creates fund for preservation

Pittsfield backs property-tax surcharge that could help save landmarks


The Masonic Temple building on South Street in Pittsfield John Townes photoBy JOHN TOWNES
Contributing writer



The Masonic Temple building on South Street in Pittsfield is for sale, and preservationists say it is among several landmark structures in the city that face an uncertain future. Concern about the demolition or threatened loss of familiar structures fueled voter support for the creation of a local community preservation fund in the Nov. 8 election. John Townes photo

After a series of controversies in recent years in which developers demolished or threatened to raze historic structures in Pittsfield, voters have approved the creation of a local property tax surcharge that could help to preserve local landmarks.

On Nov. 8, city voters approved Question 5, which will impose a 1 percent surcharge on local real-estate taxes to support the goals of historic preservation, housing, parks and open space conservation.

The success of the ballot initiative, which was backed by nearly 63 percent of city voters, was especially striking given that the city government recently has been raising overall taxes to maintain basic public services.

Proponents say the approval of Question 5 was stimulated in part by the recent or potential loss of some of the buildings that define the Pittsfield’s character. But they also say the vote reflects public support for other ongoing efforts to protect and enhance the city’s quality of life and make it more attractive to new businesses and residents.

“The alignment was right for this,” said Joe Durwin, one of the organizers of the campaign that sponsored the ballot initiative. “A combination of circumstances came together to generate a peak level of interest and a desire to actively do what we can to save what we have.”

The vote authorized Pittsfield to participate in the state’s Community Preservation Act, a law passed in 2000 that allows communities to levy a local property tax surcharge and create a dedicated local fund for historic preservation, protection of open space and other specific goals.
Municipalities that opt in become eligible to receive an additional allocation of money from a statewide community preservation fund that’s paid for through a small surcharge on all real estate transactions throughout the state – and from surplus state monies.

The ballot question in Pittsfield was sponsored by a broad-based coalition of community groups and was supported by Mayor Linda Tyer. It passed by a vote of 11,850 to 7,016.

Pittsfield is one of 234 Massachusetts communities so far to vote on adopting the Community Preservation Act. Of those, 172 have opted in, representing 49 percent of the state’s municipalities. Other Berkshire County communities that currently participate include Lenox, Stockbridge, Great Barrington, Becket and Williamstown.

Advocates tried once before, in 2006, to get Pittsfield to adopt the law, but voters rejected the idea. This time, a large coalition of supporters assembled an umbrella group, Preserve Pittsfield (preervepittsfield.org), to campaign for it.


Smart growth vs. sprawl
The recent controversies over development and historic preservation in Pittsfield have come at a time when the city is eager to attract new growth and investment to offset the decline of its traditional, manufacturing-based economy.

But growth sometimes has meant sprawl at the edges of the city – or the demolition of vacant or underused buildings in the city center, which wind up being replaced by cookie-cutter franchises or other sterile structures that lack the qualities of the city’s traditional buildings and streetscapes.
Preservationists and “smart growth” advocates have instead pushed for the adaptive reuse of existing structures in the city’s urban core. But the cost of restoring and maintaining older buildings can be far more expensive than tearing them down, so they often wind up being demolished or left vacant in deteriorating condition.

This problem has hit home repeatedly in Pittsfield over the past several years.

First, in 2012, a developer announced plans to demolish the old William Plunkett School, a long-vacant building at the corner of First and Fenn streets in the city center, to make way for a Dunkin’ Donuts shop.

After a public outcry, the city’s Historic Commission invoked its power to halt the development plan for six months to allow time for other potential uses of the old school building to be explored. But when no other buyers emerged, the developer, Cafua Management, razed the Plunkett school in 2014; a new Dunkin’ Donuts is currently under construction at the site.

Later that year, Cafua obtained a purchase option on the vacant St. Mary the Morning Star Catholic church on Tyler Street, which it also proposed to tear down to clear space for a Dunkin’ Donuts. This raised an even larger public outcry, and a citizens group, the Committee to Save St. Mary’s, organized to oppose the plan, which eventually was dropped.

Since then, the citizens group and city officials have been working to find a buyer who would rehabilitate the former church and its related structures for another purpose. The St. Mary’s complex has been empty since 2008.

In another case earlier this year, despite calls to save it, a former convent building on the historic downtown campus of St. Joseph’s Church was demolished by the Catholic parish, which cited the building’s deteriorating condition and the expense of maintaining it.

Although these sites had long been vacant and problematic, the series of controversies raised awareness of how quickly familiar properties can be lost. One common frustration expressed by preservationists and city officials was the limited options and resources available to save buildings when their ownership changes – or when their current owners decide they must be torn down.

Pittsfield has zoning regulations and planning and historic preservation guidelines, but these rules merely set parameters for the developers and property owners who ultimately decide the fate of old buildings.


Pro-active preservation
In response to the development controversies of recent years, preservation advocates have tried to become more pro-active and have expanded the scope of their efforts.

Darcie Sosa, a leader of the Committee to Save St. Mary’s and a supporter of the Question 5 campaign, said the controversies helped lead to a different outcome this time than in the 2006 vote on the Community Preservation Act.

“I think the mindset has changed since the previous effort,” Sosa said. “After the events around St. Mary’s and the other sites, there was a determination among people not to wait until the last minute to react to these situations.”

In a related project, the city Historic Commission recently conducted an analysis of endangered buildings to help guide strategies for pro-active preservation efforts in Pittsfield. That study, which is expected to be released in the coming weeks, was funded by the Massachusetts Historical Commission. Pittsfield contracted with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission to conduct the analysis.

Elizabeth Rairigh, a historic preservation planner with the Pioneer Valley group, said the Pittsfield study used public meetings and other outreach to compile a list of about 30 potentially endangered properties and study them in detail.

“We looked at their status and the specific opportunities and challenges of each site,” she said.
Rairigh noted that the sites include buildings that are at risk of being lost soon as well as others that are potentially vulnerable in the future. They include churches with declining memberships, vacant schools, and historic homes and commercial buildings.

One prominent example is the Masonic Temple, a brick edifice on South Street that is an integral part of a corridor of landmark buildings that line the southern gateway to downtown Pittsfield. The Masonic Temple building is currently on the market and potentially could be lost, dramatically changing the character of that area.

Although the number of vulnerable sites is sobering, Rairigh said there are solutions available.
“The good news is that there is strong interest in preservation in Pittsfield, and there are possibilities for saving these buildings,” she said.

Durwin, who is a member of the city Parks Commission, said the passage of Question 5 was fueled in part by improvements that have been made recently, or are planned, at local parks and recreation facilities and other public amenities in Pittsfield.

These have included a multifaceted effort to upgrade Springside Park, a large public property just north of downtown that includes woods and meadows, trails and recreation fields, as well as an arboretum, a garden and a historic mansion.

The city has undertaken improvements to other parks as well, including The Common, a large park in the city center.

“People have expressed satisfaction with these projects, and they’d like to see more of that,” Durwin said.


A question of priorities
The statewide Community Preservation Act has two facets.
First, communities can choose to adopt it locally by approving a surcharge of up to 3 percent on property taxes. Localities set the specific terms. Communities also establish a board to evaluate proposals and recommend allocations.

Second, as a further incentive, money in the statewide fund is distributed annually to communities that have adopted the act at the local level. Those that do not adopt the act are not eligible to receive these funds, even though the surcharge that pays for the state fund applies to them too.

The law effectively provides an additional source of funding that can be earmarked for preservation and civic improvements. This avoids having preservation projects compete with basic municipal services for a share of local tax dollars.

Although no one sees the community preservation program as a silver bullet for Pittsfield’s problems, it can be combined with other strategies including grants, tax credits, public-private development incentives, and the establishment of historic districts.

Some critics, however, have cast the state’s Community Preservation Act as elitist. Opponents say it increases the gap between affluent communities and those whose populations do not have enough disposable income to pay an additional tax burden – especially when the money is going to support what might be considered optional amenities.

Organizers of the Question 5 campaign in Pittsfield tried to anticipate and respond to these concerns. Rather than push for the maximum 3 percent surcharge allowable, for example, they opted for 1 percent.

The Pittsfield plan also includes an exemption from the surcharge for the first $100,000 of property value. And people who qualify for low-income housing or other benefits, such as moderate-income senior housing, are completely exempt from the surcharge.

Sosa said supporters of Question 5 emphasized the pragmatic aspects of the Community Preservation Act, or CPA, in their messaging.

“The Community Preservation Act is complicated,” Sosa said. “We focused on clearly explaining the cost to individual taxpayers -- and the benefits for the city. We also pointed out that without a CPA, Pittsfield is losing out on money from the statewide fund.”

According to the campaign Web site, owners of properties below or slightly above $100,000 would either not pay anything additional, or a very small amount, in the range of $10 to $15 per year. The owner of a home assessed at $200,000 would pay an additional $18.76 per year, and one valued at $300,000 would face a surcharge of $37.52 per year.

The exact amount of income the CPA will generate for the city will depend on the actual collections and the variable formulas for the statewide fund. Estimates have been in the range of about $500,000 initially, with the total accumulating to millions of dollars over time.
The city of Northampton, for example, has raised almost $12 million since it adopted the act in 2005.

Pittsfield City Planner Cornelius Hoss said that with the passage of Question 5, the community preservation program will go into effect at the start of the city’s 2018 fiscal year, which begins in July 2017.

The goals of the initiative all fall under the umbrella of sustainable community development. But the city may have to make choices in reconciling such goals as the creation of affordable housing and, for example, the prospect of preserving historic structures by redeveloping them for upscale housing.

A committee preservation board will be formed to solicit and evaluate proposals for specific projects on an ongoing basis. It will be comprised of members of related city departments and boards as well as at-large members. The City Council will be responsible for final approval of projects funded by the Community Preservation Act.

“There are many needs and potential uses for these funds, and the committee and City Council will develop a list of specific priorities and make the individual decisions over time,” Hoss said.
For now, proponents of Question 5 see its passage as a signal that voters want to ensure that Pittsfield protects its best qualities while also addressing economic and social problems and stimulating growth and development.

“Pittsfield faces many challenges, and everyone is hyper-aware of the need to be careful in how we use our resources,” Durwin said. “I think Question 5 was a referendum in a larger sense. Its passage showed that there is a widespread willingness to commit ourselves to a strategic progressive vision of what we all want Pittsfield to become.”