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Morse supports retail at Lynch School site

Date: 6/13/2014

By G. Michael Dobbs

HOLYOKE – Mayor Alex Morse has proposed a compromise plan that he believes will address the needs of the School Department and allow the sale of the Lynch School for retail development.
The City Council, though, must make a decision on the school at its June 17 meeting in order to make sure the sale of the building is finalized before the deadline set by the city’s Request for Proposals (RFP).
Morse’s ideas came after a meeting of the City Council’s Committee on Development and Government Affairs on June 5 that was supposed to develop a recommendation for the entire council on whether to accept the offer to sell the school, or to transfer it to the School Committee. The committee tabled both the motions before them.
City Councilors who attended the meeting on heard Holyoke School Superintendent Dr. Sergio Páez explain how he would like to have the Lynch School back in use. The school was closed five years ago. He said the school structure is in “relatively good shape” and he would use 11 classrooms on the first floor, initially, to transfer pre-kindergarten students from Metcalf School. The space in Metcalf School would then be used to house the School Department, which now has rented offices on Suffolk Street that cost the city $333,000 annually.
Páez said the money the city would save would be used to pay for upgrades at the Lynch School. The superintendent said that $100,000 was needed to install smaller toilets appropriate for the younger students.
He would then begin a Science, Technology, Engineering, Math (STEM) program using classrooms on the second floor a year after establishing the use of the first floor.
The use of the Lynch School is part of Páez’s plan to retain students the city is losing to charter schools and to School Choice.
The city is facing the possibly of building two new schools, Páez said and the new use of Lynch School would save the city money.
City Councilor Joseph McGiverin said in response, “We need to build a new school. Our students deserve a new school.”
Councilors questioned the state of the school’s physical plant, but Páez said it has passed all building inspections and the structure has been heated in the winter because of the use of its gym for basketball programs.
The plan to sell the Lynch School was presented by the city’s Director of Planning & Economic Development Marcos Marrero and by Mike Hotarek of Eastern Retail Properties that is working with Frontier Development LLC.
Marrero said the property would require a zone change for the retail development and confirmed the school would be demolished. The park and athletics fields behind the school would be maintained.
Councilor Linda Vacon questioned how much tax revenue would be generated by the development and Marrero replied it would difficult to determine at this time as the retail development has not yet been finalized and the property has been off the tax rolls for many years. 
Marrero said there would be no closing on the property without a site plan review that includes a public hearing. He added there is a reversion clause to the agreement that would return the property to the city if the developers don’t begin construction in six months and if they don’t finish the development within two years.
Hotarek said he did not know what kind of retail Frontier is interested in bringing to the site.
Since the meeting Morse has met with Páez to develop a new plan that would serve the School department’s needs while allowing the sale of the Lynch School to move forward.
In a written statement, Morse said, “I have full respect for Dr. Paez’s vision and am confident that we can better utilize other properties in the city for its implementation. I think it’s important to remember that our plans are not mutually exclusive. I know we can simultaneously accomplish the goals of expanding our tax base while still promoting academic achievement and I look forward to further discussion with the City Council at the next public hearing. Due to 90-day timeline, the council would need to act on this at their June 17 meeting, the last one before they go on summer recess, or we risk loosing this project based on the terms of the RFP. ”  
The following is Morse’s plan: 
“Some prekindergarten students traditionally housed at Metcalf will have the opportunity to enter the prekindergarten programs at Lawrence, Kelly and E.N. White this fall, with the goal of opening prekindergarten at all schools by fall of 2015. This will provide more classroom space at Metcalf over the next two school years.
“The two-way language immersion program, currently in a pilot phase involving Spanish classes in prekindergarten, will move forward at Metcalf in fall 2014 by adding one to two kindergarten classrooms.  Because the plan involves expansion of one grade level each year going forward, the additional space needed will be available for the program beginning in fall 2015 at Metcalf.
“School Department headquarters will remain at 57 Suffolk St. in 2014-2015, and the city will begin negotiations with O’Connell Development to acquire the property in order to continue housing headquarters there in the following years.
“The district’s new alternative program is currently operating with 40 to 50 students, using the high school at night.  The District envisions expansion to 80+ students during a daytime program, with the need for between 10 to 12 classrooms.  The city is committed to working with the superintendent to identify this space as quickly as possible in order to support the expansion of alternative programming fall of 2014.
“The final piece of Dr. Paez’s plan involves development of a STEM Magnet program in the middle grades.  The location of this program will be part of the facilities planning discussion going forward.”
Morse explained, “The costs of relocating the School Department to Metcalf and renovating Lynch are higher than originally projected and beyond the capacity of the city at this time.”
He estimated the costs of upgrades at the Lynch School and moving the School Department offices at between $3 million to $5 million. He would like to discuss buying the building in which the School Department offices are housed on Suffolk Street.
Additional space for school expansion could be created by  “a return to an elementary and middle model (away from Holyoke Public School’s current kindergarten through eighth configuration); utilizing the School Department’s central supply building on Main Street for additional space, as well as identifying other city-owned properties that are currently vacant; and utilizing existing unused space available at Dean Tech, Peck and other schools in Holyoke,” the mayor said.
Morse stressed the need for the expansion of the city’s tax base and wrote,” The opportunity to attract development to a prime retail site cannot be lost: The redevelopment of Lynch School has been a top priority for the Morse administration that has aligned closely with the goal of attracting economic development to expand our tax base and bring in the revenue and job opportunities that the city so desperately needs. Holyoke has only a handful of attractive sites ready for development, Lynch being one of these key sites. After years of sitting vacant, other than the occasional use of the gym for events, another RFP was released at the end of March this year.”
Morse continued, “Frontier’s proposal, ‘Holyoke Commons,’ would be a 25,000 square foot retail development with three or more tenants. As of now the developers estimate that this will be a $7 million project, meaning that at our current commercial rate the city will receive an estimated additional $278,250 in property taxes. The ‘Holyoke Commons’ proposal is exactly the kind of interest that city officials have aimed to generate for years, and because of the language in the RFP crafted by our team in the Office of Planning and Economic Development, any potential developer would be required to inform the city of any guaranteed tenants. The developer will also have to cooperate with the community to ensure that residents will have a voice in the development process.”