Demolition Delay (Or Not) in Holyoke: Shame, Shame, Shame, Shame on You
On May 2, the Holyoke Historical Commission voted unanimously to impose demolition delay for 123 Newton Street. The property is privately owned but abandoned, and the City planned to use HUD CDBG monies to tear it down. This was not an emergency demolition for public safety but a routine demolition application which therefore rightly came before the HHC for review. In the discussion leading up to their vote, Commissioners said they were glad they had a new tool to recommend for preservation efforts – quicker acquisition and auction of abandoned properties by the City.
On May 16, the City Solicitor issued a legal opinion on Holyoke’s demolition delay ordinance, an opinion which contradicts both the text of the ordinance itself (and even explicitly acknowledges that it does so!) and twelve years of precedents. It claims that because the HHC had known of the possibility of demolition longer than six months ago, it could no longer impose a delay, even though the very trigger for a delay – notice of a demolition application provided via the Building Department – hadn’t come before the HHC until just before their May meeting. This new interpretation totally subverts the purpose and power of a delay ordinance and sets a terrible precedent for other historic buildings in the city. Guess which other properties have been mentioned to the HHC as possible candidates for demolition longer than six months ago, but for which the HHC hasn’t yet seen a demo application? That would include Mater Dolorosa’s steeple, Lyman Terrace in its entirety, 399 Appleton (a brick Victorian which the YMCA hopes to raze to make a parking lot), and others. If the HHC tries to impose a delay on any of those properties now or at any time in the future, their owners now have new grounds (grounds which didn’t exist at all before) to sue the city to lift the delay or to recover any losses experienced because of a delay. Any owner of a Holyoke property greater than fifty years old would be smart to send the HHC a letter indicating the mere possibility of a partial or full demolition some day; as long as any work would commence at least six months from the date of the letter, the HHC would be powerless to do anything about it. In the City Council’s lengthy questioning which led to the solicitor’s confirmation, I don’t remember anyone asking about basic reading comprehension or understanding the significance of precedent, but unfortunately those councilors who expressed reservations about confirming an attorney who believed and behaved as though she didn’t have to play by the rules and could put loyalty above doing the right thing (hiring a friend for a city job without ever posting the position) are now vindicated: apparently the attitude and behavior weren’t a one-off after all. Elizabeth Rodriguez-Ross, shame on you.
Armed with this ridiculous opinion — which was obtained at Mayor Morse’s request and presumably his direction — the mayor ordered demolition of the building without delay, and so it began. In taking his oath of office, Morse swore to uphold the ordinances of the City of Holyoke; in this case, he has not done so. On that inauguration day and since, the mayor has called for unity, but he should be reminded that it is not sycophants, friends or allies who keep a politician honest. It would have been better to have asked for integrity over unity. If demolishing that building were truly so important to him, the mayor could have attended (or sent a representative to attend) the HHC’s meeting to make the argument for demolition over preservation in a public meeting in accordance with Open Meeting law. (For the record, no one outside the HHC showed up to support or oppose demolition or delay for the two properties addressed May 2.) I understand the mayor is young and inexperienced, and there’s a learning curve to be expected, but it’s certainly feeling like it isn’t too soon for this Morse voter to hope he’s a one-off. Alex Morse, shame on you.
On June 28, the City Council Ordinance Committee took up a proposal from Councilor and Committee Chair Rebecca Lisi to update the demolition delay ordinance “to bring it in line with current city practices.” How about instead insisting the City’s practices get and stay in line with its ordinances?! There is room to improve the ordinance, but before getting to that, allow a moment’s digression to explain why the Committee took up the matter between 10 and 11 pm, by which time all councilors not on the Committee, all media representatives, and almost all members of the public had left.
Mayor Morse had called an emergency meeting of the full City Council during the previously scheduled time for the Ordinance Committee meeting in order to secure funding for the new arts position. I think the arts position is a good idea, and it’s exceedingly rare that I agree with Linda Vacon about anything (we’re about as far apart on the political spectrum as we can get and still both be Americans who value democracy), but she is sometimes the only voice of common sense in the room, and that night offered one of those moments: “Mr. Mayor, this is not an emergency.”
Back to the issue of demolition delay….the Ordinance Committee used the opportunity of ordinance review to assign blame in all the wrong places and to fail to ask for accountability where it was due. Councilor Vega demanded in a most hostile tone to know why the HHC had voted for a delay on 123 Newton Street’s demolition when other historically valuable properties had previously been allowed to progress to demolition without delay. If he’s arguing that the building had no value warranting preservation, he could have attended the HHC’s May meeting to argue that case. And if his intent wasn’t to blame the HHC for doing their job correctly (as they did with 123 Newton Street) but instead to ask why they hadn’t been more aggressive in the past, he’s had two and a half years on Council to address that issue. But he might remember that the City’s streamlined acquisition and auction process is only newly available as an alternative to demolition. So instead of directing hostility towards the party that is in compliance, why not demand to know why the interpretation of the ordinance has been changed and why city planners aren’t helping the HHC explore preservation alternatives? Of course, asking those questions would require confronting the mayor, who recently endorsed Vega’s campaign for state representative. So I guess that’s never going to happen. Shame on you, Aaron Vega.
Continuing the theme of misdirected blame, Councilor Alexander faulted the HHC for not working on a preservation plan sooner. But the language of the ordinance is very clear: the preservation planning period begins with the imposition of a demolition delay, which can only be triggered after receipt of notice from the Building Commissioner that a demolition permit has been applied for. Rather than blaming the HHC for complying with the ordinance, blame the ordinance’s authors (ahem…that would be the City Council), and blame city planners for working always and only towards demolition plans (where the HHC could only be stepping in as a hostile party under the terms of the ordinance) but never towards preservation plans (where the HHC’s input could have been sought sooner in the process). In regards to 399 Appleton, Alexander charged the HHC with an obligation to assist the YMCA with finding alternative solutions for its parking needs. Nonsense! Besides being an entirely specious issue (there’s always plenty of on-street parking available nearby), finding solutions to businesses’ parking needs is the task of the planning department, with its multiple, full-time, paid professionals and interns, not the part-time volunteers of the HHC. Again, addressing the issues correctly would require confronting paid, full-time professionals and everybody’s BFF’s: the YMCA management, the new head of Planning, and the mayor. But apparently it’s easier just to beat up on volunteers and ask them to work both harder and outside their purview. Shame on you, Gordon Alexander.
I will give credit, however, to Alexander for two things: first, for describing the City Solicitor’s legal opinion on the demolition delay ordinance as “not worth the paper it’s printed on,” and second, for defending the timeline for imposing a delay (when demolition is sought is exactly when a delay would be needed!) even while suggesting the preservation planning process should begin sooner. The ordinance should be improved with mechanisms for an earlier preservation planning period and clearer timelines for steps. Also, the language for exemption for properties identified by a now-defunct committee should simply be eliminated — already, emergency demolitions for public safety are exempt, and that is the only exemption truly needed. Council should use this review as an opportunity to strengthen the ordinance and the autonomy of the HHC, not to water it down to make destroying the city’s architectural heritage and built capital easier for Holyoke’s paid officials.
Earlier in the evening, the Committee took up the structure and by-laws of the HHC and its relationship to Wistariahurst Museum. Alicia Zoeller (of the Office of Community Development) made a worthy suggestion for getting the HHC professional assistance for their work. Unfortunately, no councilors and no one else present had the integrity or temerity to mention the elephant in the room, to ask the question whose answer is critical for determining any changes to the HHC structure and for assuring future compliance with the letter and spirit of a demolition delay ordinance and historical preservation efforts: can seven part-time volunteers, who all serve at the appointment of a mayor, be an effective check against the power of that mayor and the mayor’s administration? Particularly when the culture of government in this city has been and remains strongly tilted towards demolition and against preservation?
I’ve used up my four “shames” (though I’m sure it would be easy enough to find four more), but there’s also still the matter of a councilor (I believe it was either Vega or Alexander, but I honestly don’t remember which) grilling the HHC about structural integrity, a concern that is entirely the responsibility of the full-time, paid, professional Building Commissioner, who can seek an assessment from the City Engineer (also a full-time paid professional), and not the responsibility whatsoever of the volunteers who comprise the HHC, whose duties are solely related to historic assessment and preservation planning. Was it simply too uncomfortable to direct that question to the BC (who was sitting silently in the same room before the Committee), given that the BC is husband to the Committee’s Chair and an appointee of the current mayor? Just so I’m clear, I believe the BC did his job correctly — he provided notice of the demolition application to the HHC and did not order an emergency demolition for a structure where it wasn’t warranted — but if councilors believe otherwise or have questions about those decisions, they should be asking them of the BC, not the HHC.
Mayor Morse has been very effective at developing a cult of personality, and that can have some benefits (it’s yielded Holyoke some positive media attention, for example), but it also carries significant risks. If knee-jerk opposition (opposition without considering the merits of an issue) is wrong, and I believe it is, knee-jerk support is at least as wrong and probably more dangerous. Unfortunately, the councilors elected in the interests of progress and change continue to demonstrate they value political loyalty and unity over accountability, patronage and Leichtigkeit-des-Cocktails-trinken-zusammen over the checks and balances essential to democracy. They and Rodriguez-Ross wreck their own reputations by behaving indefensibly as they try to provide cover to the mayor for this mess. In place of another shame, I’ll say a pox on all your houses – may a wrecking ball soon visit, may you receive a certificate to relocate out of Holyoke, and may your wealthier new neighbors exert a positive moral influence on you (as if!), a moral influence that’s obviously sorely needed (unfortunately, too true).
Meet the New Holyoke, same as the Old Holyoke. And in some cases, worse.