|Pittsfield Council Rejects Pickleball From $10.7M Capital Budget|
|By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff|
04:01AM / Wednesday, June 05, 2019
|The City Council approved the capital budget on Tuesday night.|
Mayor Linda Tyer discusses her plan to get rid of the former Hess gas station.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The City Council spiked funding for new pickleball courts at Springside Park but did endorse the plan to get rid of the former Hess Gas Station on Tyler Street in the capital budget approved on Tuesday.
The pickleball courts had become somewhat controversial this year as the city's Office of Community Development, Parks Commission, and the Berkshire Mountain Pickleball Club settled on a plan to construct the new courts next to the water tower at Springside Park
on the Benedict Road side — next to the Doyle Softball Complex.
However, a group of nine different organizations that extensively use the park, clean it, and developed a master plan for it objected, saying it flew in the face of all they were doing.
"Like everyone involved with the Springside master plan, I do not feel it is consistent with the master plan that was approved by the city," said Springside Park Conservancy President Joe Durwin.
Durwin had collected more than 500 signatures from residents opposing the project. The issue of the Conservancy wasn't so much about the sport of pickleball but rather the location. The Conservancy has been advocating for a number of improvements at the park including the ongoing restoration of the Springside House — which also received funding on Tuesday — and the restoration of the pond. They feel money dedicated to the park should be prioritized to move those along instead.
The city previously hired Berkshire Design Group to perform a study of where to best locate such a facility. A number of parks were looked at and ultimately the Parks Commission voted 4-1 in favor of the Springside Park location — with Durwin, also a parks commissioner, being the sole vote against it. The administration sought $52,500 from the capital budget and an equal amount from the Community Preservation Act.
"This location was approved by the Parks Commission and I am hoping you would approve the budget," Mike Gilardi of the Berkshire Mountain Pickleball Club told the City Council on Tuesday.
The sport is particularly popular among the retiree population nationally and in other parts of the country dedicated courts are among the recreational facilities made available. Right now in Pittsfield, the club is using the three existing tennis facilities, two of which are on schools and can't be used when classes are in session.
The sport's popularity has grown and the Berkshire Mountain Pickleball Club has continued to grow locally. The group now numbers 129 and is two years into the process of pushing for its own facility. Those in favor call it "fastest growing sport in America" and praised the recreational and exercise opportunities it provides.
"It is a means for a growing older population for getting outdoors and being physically active," said Roger Goldin.
The request for funding came to the City Council as part of Mayor Linda Tyer's $10.7 million capital budget — a request for authorization to borrow for a number of projects throughout the city. The City Council voted to cut the request for the facility.
Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon was the one to move to remove the project from the budget. Beyond the club, she said, most of the people whom she's heard from were against it. She continued to say that the county has 126,000 people and the pickleball players only account for 129 and many of those come from outside of the city of Pittsfield. She said those numbers don't justify the use of city funds to build such a facility at this point.
"We haven't reached a critical mass of pickleball players," Moon said.
With harsher comments criticizing the way the location was chosen despite opposition from the groups currently active in Springside Park, Councilor at Large Earl Persip said the city botched the selection process.
"I think the city got this one wrong. They didn't listen to the people who are invested in Springside Park, the people who put the time in to craft the master plan," Persip, a regular at the Springside Park cleanups, said. "I would have supported this park anywhere else."
Persip would later tell the Berkshire Mountain Pickleball Club to continue to work on the project, just somewhere else in the city.
But Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo said the groups opposing it aren't the only ones using the park. She coaches softball at the Doyle Complex and says the teams take care of that section as well. She sees it as a good addition to that area which has more of an "active use" for sports than the rest of the large park.
"The ownership is not yours," she said.
Parks and Open Spaces Manager Jim McGrath said the master plan distinguishes that particular area as a place for more active recreation. Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Simonelli said the particular location is overgrown grass and dirt next to a water tower — an "insignificant section" of the park. He said about a decade ago lacrosse was an up and coming sport and that ultimately took off and he sees pickleball doing the same.
In general, McGrath feels the use is consistent with how it has been for years. The city has allowed development on the fringes of the park but not in the middle. He feels this one-third of an acre of land that had previously been disrupted fits into that general concept.
Councilor at Large Peter White disagreed with it being an insignificant location saying, "It's one-third of an acre, and then a one-third of an acre, and then a one-third of an acre and you've paved paradise. This even has a parking lot."
White said he feels like Springside is the park where city officials want to locate projects when they've got nowhere else to go. It wasn't that long ago when a dog park was eyed for it and was ultimately shot down because of opposition. He'd rather see the users of the park have a bigger say in what happens there.
"A lot of planning goes into that park, there are people in that park every day," White said.
Maintenance of such a facility also was debatable. Friends of Springside Park President Bernie Mack, who rallies volunteers twice a year to clean up the park, said the city struggles enough to maintain its park system and adding another facility will make that even more difficult. Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi agreed, saying the city already struggles to keep up with its facility now.
"We have so many things in our parks now that we are not taking care of," Morandi said.
McGrath said the maintenance would be minor. He said it is an asphalt pad and nets that will be taken down seasonally. The surface will last a decade, an asphalt parking lot would be re-striped and swept, and garbage would be taken out. Mazzeo suspects even things like garbage being removed might be taken care of by the pickleball players themselves, thus further lessening the need for maintenance.
Mazzeo said the demand to use the park is there and such groups like the pickleball club take pride in taking care of the parks they use. She didn't have much concern with the ultimate usage there.
The funding for the construction was eyed to come from the Community Preservation Act, and that committee is recommending only partial funding of that request which also has to be approved by the City Council, the capital budget, which was shot down on Tuesday by a 7-4 vote with Council President Peter Marchetti, Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell, Simonelli and Mazzeo being the only votes against the cut, and a competitive state grant that the city hadn't yet applied. The state funds would represent the majority of the construction funds but the council's rejection puts a massive dent in the efforts to raise enough for the 30 percent match.
In other business, a capital request to borrow $200,000 to take down the former Hess Gas Station and turn it into green space was approved by a 9-2 vote after a lengthy debate.
Tyer said MassDevelopment is in negotiations to buy the blighted gas station on Tyler Street and will give it to the city. She is requesting $200,000 to tear the building down and turn it into green space. She said ultimately the hope is that it will be sold and redeveloped in the future. But for now, the focus is on just getting ownership from a national corporation that hasn't been responsive to the city.
"We've been trying to find a way to solve this blighted condition," Tyer said.
And so has many other administrations. But, the station is now in MassDevelopment's Transformative Development Program which opens the city up to having the resources of MassDevelopment's real estate arm.
Connell was particularly worried about the potential of environmental contamination that could bring additional liability to the city. Despite asking and being told in multiple ways that the tanks were removed and MassDevelopment has documentation saying there aren't environmental issues, Connell still has reservations.
Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Simonelli believes the location was a good fit for pickleball courts but he was outvoted.
Director of Community Development Deanna Ruffer added that MassDevelopment also runs the state's brownsfield program so they have a lot of experience in projects like this one. She also said that before a sale is completed that the city will have all documentation regarding the environment and a chance to back out.
Speedway currently owns the property and is up on the taxes, giving the city few options to take it, but to clean it up has been a different story. Tyer said, "they've been completely non-responsive to us."
"MassDevelopment is doing its due diligence has had confirmation from Speedway that all of the environmental issues have been addressed," Tyer said.
Connell, however, said any missteps could be a "nightmare" when it comes to environmental cleanups and he doesn't feel the city should be acquiring property at this point. He cited the Tyler Street Fire House across the street that has been blighted for years and the city can't give it away.
"We should be divesting ourselves from some of these properties instead of acquiring," Connell said.
Tyer said her administration has tried but at this point, it is looking like the firehouse will be demolished.
Those two projects garnered just about all of the debate of the $10.7 million request — though there were some questions about street sweepers, Tyler Street reconstruction, and a replacement vehicle for the Fire Department. The council preliminarily approved a capital budget of $10,736,800 — that's including the removal of the pickleball courts — and $6,115,000 for capital repairs to the water, sewer, and wastewater systems.
The other requests include a $2 million request to renovate Tyler Street. The Department of Community Development has been behind a redesign of the main road through Morningside for some time and the $2 million request would bring that to fruition.
Another $1.5 million is proposed to renovate the intersection of Woodlawn, Tyler Street, and Dalton Avenue — a project that had once eyed to be done through federal grants, and then by a private development but to no avail.
The majority of the capital budget consists of equipment for various departments. The largest capital request is for $2.5 million for roads. That is the same amount as last year and is used for road construction. The Department of Public Services is also proposed to see an appropriation of $500,000 to make stormwater improvements — the same amount allocated last year.
The department is also seeking to replace numerous vehicles include a one-ton hook lift all-season truck, one-ton utility body truck with plow, a one-ton pickup truck with and without a plow, all-wheel-drive sports utility vehicle, a one-ton van, a multi-purpose tractor with attachments, and a street sweeper.
The proposed capital budget includes resurfacing athletic courts, a project the city has undertaken over a number of years to improve surfaces of basketball courts throughout the park system. It also calls for $250,000 for repairs to the Wild Acres dam.
The multi-year renovation of the Springside House would continue with another $500,000 allocation, an increase in allocation from last year's $400,000. The Westside Riverway Park would see $100,000 for construction, and another $75,000 would go toward designing a future phase of the Ashuwilticook Rail Trail extension.
The airport only has one capital purchase in the proposal, asking for $30,000 for a blower attachment for snow removal operations. The proposal capital plan also calls for $750,000 in upgrading elevators in schools and improvements to school security systems. Three elevators — in City Hall, the Library, and the Senior Center — are all also proposed to be repaired with a $750,000 allocation.
The Police and Fire departments are also eyed for a number of equipment replacements. The capital budget for the Fire Department includes a new inspection vehicle, safety officer vehicle, portable radio replacements, and self-contained breathing apparatus replacements. The capital budget for the Police Department includes a support service vehicle, radio replacements, computer replacement, MDT replacement, new technology and software, a lake patrol boat, and replacing the chief's vehicle.
Finally, the capital budget calls for building security access upgrades to the tune of $98,000 through the Information Technology Department.
Meanwhile, the water and sewer systems will get $6.1 million in upgrades in a separate capital budget, one for the enterprise accounts. These systems are maintained through water and sewer bills and rates have been tentatively approved over the course of seven years with these projects taken into account. The first rate increase was certainly noticed by residents in the first quarter of this year when a large increase was approved for both.
The largest project in the enterprise accounts is to upgrade the Ashley and Cleveland water treatment plants at a cost of $5.2 million. The Water Department would also see two replacement vehicles.
On the sewer side, upgrades to the collection system, efforts to solve infiltration and inflow issues throughout the system would continue, and a replacement truck. The sewer enterprise capital budget is notably just $575,000 of the $6.1 million worth of repairs as the entire wastewater treatment plant is currently undergoing a full reconstruction.