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Time, options running out for Farr mansion

Date: 11/26/2013

By G. Michael Dobbs

HOLYOKE – With the end of a stay of demolition coming Dec. 18, the options to save the Farr mansion are limited, according to the city councilors who are members of the Redevelopment Committee.

Meeting on Nov. 21, Committee Chair Aaron Vega, and members David Bartley, Joseph McGiverin and Gladys Lebron-Martinez listened to former mayor Martin Dunn speaking for the Greater Holyoke YMCA and Olivia Mausel, chair of the Historical Commission, present their respective sides of the issue.

Vega said the meeting was an effort to promote conversation about the issue. “We’re not going to leave here with a resolution,” he said.

The YMCA purchased the historic home of industrialist Herbert Farr, one of the city’s first factory owners, in 2011 with the purpose of tearing it down to expand parking facilities. Members of the neighborhoods and others have opposed the plan.

Noting the emotions the issue has caused, Vega opened the discussion by saying, “There’s nobody who questions in any way, shape or form the value the YMCA brings to downtown.”

Vega noted there has never been a “comprehensive conversation” about which historic buildings in Holyoke should be saved and which require demolition. He noted the city is facing a $1 million fee to tear down the former Essex House on High Street.

He also admitted that with privately owned property, there is “not much” the City Council can do. Although, he noted, the YMCA must come before the council to apply for a zone change for the parking lot. Vega questioned whether or not the organization should do this before or after it tears down the building.

Dunn, who is a member of the YMCA’s Board of Directors, said it would cost $1 million to $2 million to restore the building, which does not fit into the organization’s plans. He explained the YMCA currently has 4,000 members and wishes to expand. More parking would be necessary, especially near the front entrance of the YMCA.

Although a parking lot has been mentioned most often as the use of the property, Dunn said outdoor basketball courts could also be installed there.

“There are many, many things [possible] as the YMCA expands its footprint,” Dunn said.

Vega mentioned the possibility of satellite locations as a means to expand the YMCA’s services, but Dunn said the board has rejected that idea.

Mausel said she and the Historical Commission have “no issue with the Y’s mission.” She added that initially when the YMCA bought the property there would be “more cooperation” between the YMCA and the Historical Commission.

She envisioned a restored Farr mansion being used for various classes by the YMCA and the site of relocating some of the activities for children out of the basement of the YMCA complex. Historical Tax Credits may have been available for such a renovation, she noted.

Mausel also told the councilors that developer Stephen Bosco of Arrow Properties had proposed buying the mansion and restoring it for commercial use. His offer was “summarily dismissed.”

Mausel said that only 15 to 20 parking spaces would be gained by the demolition.

Bosco said the cost of moving house, estimated at between $200,000 and $300,000, would be cost prohibitive.

Lebron-Martinez asked if the possibility of a multi-level parking deck had been explored and YMCA Executive Director Kathy Viens replied it had not.

McGiverin said the YMCA was an “economic catalyst” and asked the audience to “think of the neighborhood without the Y.”

He later voiced his displeasure in the advocates of the Farr mansion picketing the YMCA.

Although Mausel brought up the possibility of the City Council taking the action of delaying the demolition, McGiverin was explicit in saying that he did not know if this was actually something the City Council could do.

Patricia Duffy, vice chair of the Holyoke Redevelopment Authority, said that because the YMCA and the Farr mansion falls within an urban renewal zone, the authority would like to meet with them about their plans.