|Objection Halts Pittsfield Council Debate About Walmart|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
03:02AM / Wednesday, April 12, 2017
|Former City Councilor Michael Ward explained his petition to the City Council on Tuesday night.|
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Charter objection!
For just the third time since the new charter went into place, a debate was halted on the City Council floor because of the rarely invoked charter objection. The objection halts debate and pushes a vote off until another meeting. It was included in the new charter the city adopted in 2013.
On Tuesday it was used to halt a discussion on whether or not the City Council should ask Waterstone Retail Development to design the proposed Walmart Supercenter in the William Stanley Business Park closer to the road.
The petition had come from former City Councilor Michael Ward. He wants the council to go on record asking the developers to bring the storefront to the intersection of Tyler Street and Woodlawn to improve pedestrian and bicycle access and safety.
"It is not about dressing up the appearance of the Walmart building. It is about safety and accessibility for bikes and pedestrians," Ward said.
There had been some misconceptions about the proposal after images were spread around of different Walmart designs. Ward said he isn't asking the company to replicate those models but to simply bring the store to the corner to complement the Department of Transportation's complete streets program.
"This is current DOT policy. This is also what is considered good transportation planning in the year 2017 and considered good urban planning in the year 2017," Ward said.
The petition calls for the design to adhere to a "Main Street" development that includes being at the corner of Woodlawn and Tyler, having primary entrances there, have storefront windows, and be compatible with the neighborhood.
Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo doesn't want any retail operations at the William Stanley Business Park but if the city is going to allow the project to move forward, then she at least wants to mitigate negative impacts. She voiced her support for Ward's petition, saying now is the time to let the company know what the city envisions for that area.
"We should not be afraid to say this is what we want when you come into our community," Mazzeo said.
Mazzeo said Morningside is an urban environment with a lot bicycle and pedestrian traffic. To have a big box store set back behind a large parking lot, asking pedestrians to go that much farther, doesn't support the future walkability of the area, she said.
Others on the council, however, said they don't believe now is the time. They are waiting for an actual application for a special permit to come before them. That has been continually put off by the proponents with last Friday being the last date mentioned — but it wasn't filed by then either.
"We don't have plans from Waterstone at this point so we don't know what they are proposing," Councilor at Large Peter White said. "I think we first need to see something from Waterstone."
Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Simonelli said he likes the idea of bringing the store close to the intersection, but he didn't want to feel pressured into going on record with demands yet.
"I like an awful lot about it. I am not convinced it is the plan," he said. "I don't want to be pressured to do this tonight."
There has been a significant amount of debate over the proposal but little as far as firm plans from the company. And it has been a long time coming. Waterstone was first at the table with the Pittsfield Economic Development Agency in 2011 and then again in 2013.
In 2013, Waterstone didn't reveal the name of the store but just that it would be a retailer. That became one of the hottest issues during that election as questions centered on whether or not the park should be used for retail at all. The park is former General Electric land now in control of PEDA for redevelopment. Many believe the intent is to bring back manufacturing or other similar industries to the site while others are welcoming any development to the location.
Ultimately, Daniel Bianchi, who believed the park should be used for advanced manufacturing, won the 2013 election and halted the project. Months after Bianchi was ousted and Mayor Linda Tyer took office, Waterstone returned with the Walmart plan.
It has been just short of a full year since the June 2016 proposal went public and Waterstone has yet to file any permit applications. Two weeks ago, Don Harr from Atlantic Retail Properties, one of the partners in the development, updated the PEDA board saying a significant amount of engineering and a change to a design to include a grocery pickup section had delayed the finalization of a final proposal. He expected to file it the following week.
But during those 10 months, there has been plenty of talk about it in Pittsfield. Waterstone has rolled out a "support for Woodlawn Crossings" campaign to get the public behind it. The City Council has taken on the debate multiple times. Community meetings have been held. And it took a large role in the most recent state election debates.
Mazzeo said there has been plenty of information presented about the project and questions much of it — such as the selling point that the Morningside neighborhood is a "food desert" and there are residents without cars needing to be closer to a grocery store.
"I've never heard someone from Morningside come up and talk and say we need a grocery story," Mazzeo said. "They've been out there dictating to everybody what they think we need."
Whether it be the food desert or the extent of the proposed cleanup work at the park to the intersections, Mazzeo said the company has had a year to constantly repeat their selling point while the City Council has sat idle waiting for the special permit application.
"We hear something and if you say something over and over enough, people will believe it," Mazzeo said.
The City Council previously opted against asking the company to pay for an independent economic impact study mostly because there had not been a formal proposal on the table.
Much of that goes far beyond Ward's petition but may have been a driver for what was becoming yet another City Council debate about the project Tuesday night.
Ward repeated that his petition isn't about retail or Walmart or the business park, but simply that if a building is put there that it be as pedestrian safe as possible.
"Let's require that building to be on the corner and why, because of safety and accessibility," Ward said. "I don't think it is ever asking too much from an applicant to ask for safety."
Mayor Linda Tyer said the city is focusing on Complete Streets, a state design program that places a priority on all modes of travel on roads — typical vehicle travel, bicycle lanes, and sidewalks for pedestrians.
"I'm intrigued by this and I think it is important that we aren't shy about asking what we want to have in our city if Walmart wants to build here," Tyer said.
Ward 6 Councilor John Krol supports having the developer craft a design that supports the city's vision for the city.
"This is saying we are not going to settle for a cookie-cutter Walmart," Krol said.
Diane Marcella of the Tyler Street Business Group, however, feels that forcing Waterstone to bring the building to the corner and put the parking in the rear is "unrealistic,"
"The people of Morningside are very excited about having the Walmart nearby ... Please don't make contingencies that will make Walmart walk away," Marcella said.
Marcella said a development project that is best for a neighborhood is unique to the individual neighborhood and not dictated by common practices or a "textbook." Having the development is what is best for the Tyler Street area, she said, and that of 47 neighboring business 41 support it.
Ron Marcella said they know the neighborhood because they've been involved with it for 35 years.
"We have a developer that has come into town and wants to spend $30 plus million dollars. They are not looking for a TIF. They are not looking for incentive money. They are willing to clean the site, they are willing to fix the dangerous intersection," he said. "We know what this means to the people. We don't want to drive these developers away by making unrealistic demands."
Councilor at Large Kathleen Amuso invoked the charter objection Tuesday night stopping all debate and putting off a vote on Ward's petition until at least another meeting.
It is just the third time the objection was used — the first was former Councilor Barry Clairmont in 2014 and then again in 2015, when Mazzeo invoked it over a question of how to pick a council vice president.