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Uniroyal redevelopment will be 'complicated'

Date: 3/17/2010

March 17, 2010.

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

CHICOPEE -- The formation of plans to redevelop the Uniroyal/Facemate properties continued on March 10 with the first of three meetings designed to solicit opinions and information from the public.

Economic Development Director Thomas Haberlin described the redevelopment process as "a complicated, expensive project."

Mayor Michael Bissonnette outlined a series of questions and concerns that must be answered during the planning process. These include:

Given the steep grade on the property, what are the topographical restraints to redevelopment?

• Are there environmental clean-up issues that will be uncovered?

• What does the market look like for private investment?

• What kind of development -- housing, commercial, retail -- will be needed in the years it will take to prepare the property?

James Fasser from Vanasse Hangen Brustlin (VHB), the company that has been hired to direct the planning process, led a presentation that examined the conditions of the property that included information on the surrounding neighborhoods, the floodplains of the property, how the property is zoned currently, the traffic flow around the area, the 40 to 50-foot grade on part of the property and the utility infrastructure.

They also noted the property has concrete tunnels underneath it and the remnants of a canal that has been filled in.

Fasser also said part of the analysis of the property will determine when and if a new senior center should be built there.

Lawrence Cranor Jr., the senior project manager of RKG Association Inc., was brought in by VHB to analyze the market conditions that would affect the kind of development most suitable for the property. Cranor looked at present retail, housing and office space inventories and then forecasted for the next 20 years.

He said there is currently a demand for small office space and for owner-occupied homes. Chicopee's lower residential tax rate is an incentive for developers to build in the city and the views of the river and the potential for open space at the property are also attractive.

There are negative factors that could affect the property including competing developments such as the Ludlow Mills, other open spaces ready for development and an "ample supply" of rental units, Cranor also noted.

Cranor said part of the process in developing the plan for the property will be evaluating if any of the existing buildings -- about 20 percent of the Uniroyal buildings have been demolished -- can be re-used. One of the buildings on the Facemate site which as yet is not owned by the city -- was the site for the state's cotton gin. He added there has been a suggestion made to renovate this building to be used as a Chicopee history museum.

During a question and answer segment, Allan Blair, president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts (EDC) thought the property could be developed to appeal to young professionals. Anne Burke, vice president of the EDC, wondered if the property could be designed to accommodate the "hidden tech" segment in this part of the state -- people who have high tech jobs and work from their homes.

Planning Director Kate Brown brought up the issue of possible competition from the condominium development proposed for the Cabotville Mills.

Haberlin said current market conditions are not favorable and that Bissonnette has shown "courage" in tackling the project at this time.

Bissonnette quipped in reply, "Time will tell whether it's courage or stupidity."