The recent announcement that City Hall has found a buyer for the old School Department building on State Street can’t help but bring to mind one of the more contentious political issues in recent years: the disposal of the former federal courthouse on Main Street.
Yesterday, Mayor Domenic Sarno announced that the city has selected a developer for the school building at 195 State St.: College Street Management, or CSM North, a New Haven-based company that plans to turn the handsome but worse-for-wear building into market-rate apartments. If the deal is approved by the City Council, CSM North will pay $1 for the building—a bargain offered to offset the heavy financial investment the developers will make to rehab the building, according to City Hall. According to a Republican article by Pete Goonan, the company is expected to spend $3.5 million to $4 million on the project, which will use no taxpayer money.
A rival development proposal, which depended on public grants and tax breaks, was rejected by the city.
City boosters say increasing the number of market-rate housing in the downtown area would go a long way to help increase activity and safety in that section of town. The CSM North plan has the backing of a number of nearby neighborhood groups, as well as the Springfield Preservation Trust.
But not everyone considers the deal a win for the city. Mayoral candidate (and School Committee member) Antonette Pepe responded to the news with a press release questioning the decision to let go a piece of city-owned property, in a prime location, for just a buck.
“The Mayor is excited?” Pepe asked, referring to a quote from Sarno in the Republican.
“Mayor Sarno seems to think the tax payers have short memories,” the release continued. “When the Mayor first hatched this scheme of moving the School Department to the Federal Building, it was stated that the sale would bring in at least $5 million. That seems to bring the sale amount short $4,999,999. This is not sound fiscal management.”
(I couldn’t find a reference to the promised $5 million price tag in old articles about the building. I do recall general speculation, at the time the School Department left the building, that it would prove to be prime real estate, given its proximity to the new federal courthouse down the road, and the related adjacent development in the area.)
The “scheme” Pepe refers to was the rather messy business of where the School Department moved to after vacating the State Street building. The department moved to the former federal building on Main Street, which itself was left vacant after the fancy new federal courthouse was built on State Street. At the time, Pepe was among the critics—City Councilor Tim Rooke the most vocal of them—who questioned the decision to move the School Department to the Main Street building, without seeking competitive bids for leases on other spaces.
In her press release, Pepe refers to a “veil of secrecy” that “clouded the move.” Taxpayers, she contends, are taking a hit on the new School Department headquarters—paying to renovate the space; to lease the offices; to pay for the demolition of the old Asylum building nearby to create parking—that will not be offset by the tax revenue that would be generated by the new apartments.
“Antonette Pepe believes Springfield needs a leader who will negotiate the best possible deals and not allow special interests or backroom politics to overshadow what is best for the people of Springfield,” she finishes, with a bang.