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School Department moves to 1550 Main

Date: 10/13/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- At a press event noting the beginning of the renovations of the former Federal Building at 1550 Main St., Congressman Richard Neal noted the controversy that has surrounded the project by suggesting that people have "focused on the conflict instead of the substance of the story."

For Neal and Mayor Domenic Sarno, the substance of the story is that MassDevelopmnent has bought the nearly vacant building and has completely leased it with the city relocating the School Department on two floors, the General Services Administration's federal tenants taking up another floor and Baystate Health moving up to 150 administrative employees from its main campus to occupy another floor.

Neal said the planning for a re-use of the building began eight years ago.

The second part of the project is the city's redevelopment of the former Asylum nightclub building next door into a parking lot with the front part of the building preserved and renovated for a new use, possibly for a community police substation and retail. The parking lot could be used on Saturdays and Sundays for a covered farmers market, according to John Judge, the city's chief development officer.

Housing and Economic Development Secretary Gregory Bialecki and State Sen. Stephen Buoniconti both praised the project and the partnership that has made it a reality.

Robert Culver, the CEO of MassDevelopment, said the agency believes in the future of city.

"Springfield is a place on the move," he said.

The conflict to which Neal referred are the questions raised by City Councilor Timothy Rooke and others on why the moving of the School Department was not determined by a bidding process through a Request For Proposals (RFP). Rooke has maintained the city will be paying too much to rent the facility and has opposed the 20-year lease the city has signed. The only other 20-year lease into which the city has entered is for the Thomas O'Connor Animal Control and Adoption Center and Rooke said the city is currently seeking a way to renegotiate that arrangement.

When told that MassDevelopment bought the 150,000 square foot building for only $2.5 million, Rooke then wondered why the city hadn't attempted to buy it.

Only two members of the City Council attended the event to show support -- Kateri Walsh and William Foley -- and there were not members of the School Committee, although School Superintendent Dr. Alan Ingram did send a representative.

When asked directly why there was no RFP for the project, Sarno said, "This is an outstanding day for Springfield." He called the development process "very transparent" and the re-use of the building as a "key piece of the puzzle" in downtown stabilization.

When asked again about the lack of a RFP, Sarno said, "This is a very, very good deal." He said the rent is at market rate and described critics of the project as "naysayers."

Then he was asked about why the city is entering into a 20-year lease at 1550 Main when it is trying to get out of the only other 20-year lease it has, Sarno replied the leasing deal have been worked out by his administration's financial team, MassDevelopment and state officials.

He again said the arrangement is a "good deal" and echoed Neal's sentiments that the "substance of the good deal" should be highlighted instead of the conflict.

After a short press conference, the officials watching the unveiling of a new sign in front of the building -- it now known as "1550 Main" and the removal of the jersey barriers that were places around the build after the 9/11 attacks.

According to Judge, the School Department will be moving into its new space in January. Baystate personnel should be in place in May or June, he added.

Although workers removed the old Asylum nightclub sign from the front of the building on Friday, Judge said work will begin in November in evaluating how much of the structure can be demolished for a parking lot. He explained the front fa ade, which goes about 40 feet into the building, needs to be supported by the newer back half of the building. Engineers will decide how much of that part of the building needs to remain to support the older portion.

That older portion facing Main Street will be renovated to highlight its original architectural details, he added.