2014/12/07 in H.U.S.H.
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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.
Pioneer Valley GRP Resolution, June 28, 2012
Whereas decent, affordable housing is essential for equitable and sustainable communities;
Whereas the relocation and reoccupancy plans proposed thus far for Lyman Terrace, Holyoke, are inadequate for meeting varied tenant and community needs and unfairly target and further marginalize a vulnerable population;
Whereas tenant and community involvement in planning has thus far been inadequate;
Whereas current living conditions require significant improvements; and
Whereas preserving and rehabilitating existing structures is more cost-effective, more environmentally responsible, and more conducive to maintaining cultural heritage and a sense of place than wholesale demolition and new construction;
Now be it resolved that the Pioneer Valley Green-Rainbow Party opposes the demolition and disposition of Lyman Terrace housing project and supports more inclusive processes for developing better plans.
Reprinted with permission, a letter from Sonia Gonzalez, President of the Lyman Terrace Tenants Association:
April 22, 2011
Residents Advisory Board
To Whom it May Concern,
With all due respect that you may deserve I would like to explain my worries that us tenants have about Lyman Terrace in Holyoke.
On February 17, 2012 we received notice from Holyoke Housing Authority about the demolition on Lyman Terrace. They stated that this will not cause a “significant impact.”
This statement as residents from Lyman Terrace has offended us and has disrespected us because we are human beings. We feel that this decision that was made by the Holyoke Housing Authority along with the approval of Mayor Alex Morse is discriminatory because the majority of us that leave here are Hispanics.
This will be a significant impact to all of us emotionally. I would like to explain the impact that this will have.
The majority of us that live here are seniors in which our children and grandchildren have been raised here. This has been our home for decades.
There are also young adults that are raising their children here.
Holyoke Housing Authority did not notify us with enough time about their decision about the Lyman Terrace demolition. They did not meet with us to hear their options; they just made the decision without caring about our thoughts and feelings. They did not give us any options.
The only meeting that they had with us about the demolition of Lyman Terrace the administration of Holyoke Housing Authority and other individuals that are involved with the demolition. They basically ran the whole meeting in a way that for the residents was impossible.
The only question that they made to us was “Would you like better living?” We felt as if they were making fun of us and it was offensive because they are not sure if they find something for us after the demolition.
In this are there are adults that are disabled, Along with other individuals that have several other medical conditions, there are also children that have several medical conditions and they do not have transportation. The treatments that these individuals receive are in the Holyoke Health Center which is located very close to us and we go see our doctors without any problems.
We live close to the businesses that are here in Downtown. In these businesses we buy food, clothes, and all of the things that we need for our children, grandchildren and for our homes. This will cause a significant impact to us as residents but as well as the business owners in which the majority of their sales are from the Lyman Terrace residents.
A lot of our children go to Dr. Marcella R. Kelly School which is located at 216 West Street, Holyoke. In Holyoke we have the school zones and the students that live in Lyman Terrace have to attend this school. There are students that have been attending this school for many years and if we have to leave our homes this will affect the education of our children and grandchildren and it will also affect the school.
Another excuse that they are giving for this decision is that it is because of the community, drugs ect. These situations are everywhere. I would like for you to know that we call the police and they do not come. When they hear our Hispanic accents they speak to us very sarcastically and they ignore us. It is not our fault it is the Holyoke Police Departments fault.
The people from the Holyoke Housing Authority stated that the apartment are very deteriorated, we live very happily in our homes and if in one way or another they are deteriorated it is the Holyoke Housing Authorities fault because they do not fix things the way that they are supposed to. The workers that they have for maintenance here do not care about doing a good job. We have gone to the main office of the Holyoke Housing Authority to give complaints about something that needs to be fixed and they reply that we do not have to worry because those projects are going to get demolition. Did they purposely not give these projects the proper maintenance so they have an excuse to demolition these projects and take us out of our homes?
Many years ago when Mr. Murphy was the director of the Holyoke Housing Authority, they gave money so that they can put up new windows in the apartments. Only one apartment from the project got new windows. Where is the money that was supposed to go into putting up new windows in Lyman Terrace? Where is the money that they are receiving in order to maintain and better Lyman Terrace? These questions we are making them to the director Rosaline Dean and the sub-director Matthew and they have never given us an answer. We would like that there be an investigation about this done.
They are offering us Section 8 but they are not sure if they will have those vouchers. We are not going to live in the streets with our children and grand children because that is what the personal of the Holyoke Housing Authority and the Holyoke Mayor want. There are not enough living areas in Holyoke to place all of us. Is it that because we are Hispanic they want to make us leave Holyoke?
The personal at the Holyoke Housing Authority say that these projects are not historic. These projects are one of the first projects that were federally funded in the state. Lyman terrace represents the history of the New Deal and they should be preserved. Lyman terrace has been built for 72 years. The evaluations that the ERR made are not fair and they are not the correct information they only used the information from 1982 and when Lyman Terrace only was 42 years old. Did they make these evaluations with the purpose to believe that there is another reason to leave us without our homes?
Please I hope that you hear us because we have not had correct presentation to help us. We are human beings that are now affected emotionally because we do not know what is going to happen to us and our families. We have been treated as if we were objects and as if we do not have any rights. We deserve respect; we pay our rents, when there are elections we go out to vote. Also when we need help from the people that we voted for they have left us alone and have not helped us. We are Hispanic and the personnel form the Holyoke Housing Authority have disrespected and humiliated us. They are emotionally abusing the residents in Lyman Terrace.
With all due respect,
Reprinted with permission, a letter from John Brigham, who teaches at UMass and lives in Holyoke, on tearing down Lyman Terrace:
April 24, 2012
TO: Holyoke Historical Commission
I recently moved to Holyoke after 30 years in Amherst. I teach at the University of Massachusetts in the Political Science Department.
The attractions of Holyoke were its history and its dynamic and diverse population. Tearing down Lyman Terrace would go against both of the things that attracted me to the city.
I have lived in New York City in both Brooklyn and Manhattan. I have visited the “First Houses” on the Lower East Side and the former industrial district that is now SOHO. I know what it means to preserve the physical structures that tie the present to the past. I also read the wonderful article on Lyman Terrace published by Amy Hewes in the Social Service Review from the University of Chicago in 1942 that tells of the hope for the then new housing project.
I also have a lifetime of experience with the attractions of diverse populations. My entire career at UMass has spanned a transformation of my department from one that was predominately white and almost entirely male to one with a more diverse faculty. I do not oppose change that honors who we are.
While Holyoke is neither NYC nor UMass, there are lessons from both places about how we build for the future. Caring about our past and our residents seems like such an obvious thing that I sometimes think a proposal like that for tearing down Lyman Terrace is just a bad dream.
Yet I know the reality. There are interests that would demolish our history and remove those who inhabit our historic buildings. But history shows that there can be serious political and financial repercussions for destroying the historic and social fabric of a city.
In response to Mayor Morse’s statement on Lyman Terrace, I’d like to address a few false ideas and assumptions on his part, present a better vision, and suggest some ideas towards developing a better plan to realize that vision. One characterization Morse gets right is that the issues are complex. Unfortunately, his analyses and proposed solutions do not reflect that complexity. I can’t hope to cover it all here, but I’ll try to avoid replicating the problem of glossing over important considerations, and therefore my response will not be brief. To avoid cluttering the home page, I’m putting my response to the mayor in as a first comment to this entry.
For those who haven’t already seen these publications about Lyman Terrace, they are a fascinating look at the concerns of the day and provide important context for understanding the history of this New Deal public housing complex.
From 1942, this piece includes information about the people displaced from the tenements razed to make way for Lyman Terrace; the author was from Mount Holyoke College: http://api.ning.com/files/V89jqQsqrROgt84B3Ph6tWKOR*eIgQ4JFuZmGSLw2EGQZINgSHezItFcSzY7XCl8QE8l4bI7alwr*d4YFvS*vqNXOMeQM8X2/LymanTerraceHewes1942.pdf
And from 1940, this Springfield Republican article includes wonderful descriptions of the design & building materials: http://holyokemass.com/2012/02/22/fine-living-quarters-for-holyoke/
The following was submitted to last week’s public hearing of the Lyman Street Study Committee, which is examining the possibilities for a historic &/or conservation district for the Lyman Street area (Mater Dolorosa church and Lyman Terrace housing complex are among the structures that could potentially be included):
Testimony to the Lyman Terrace Study Committee
April 26, 2012
My name is Max Page. I am a Professor of Architecture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I write about the history and theory of historic preservation, and am Director of the UMass-Hancock Shaker Village historic preservation program. We train students to restore historic buildings and to advocate for our common historic resources
When people hear a historic preservationist is speaking, they assume we are only interested in saving pretty old buildings.
I certainly do believe that beautiful architecture and outstanding examples of types of buildings are essential to maintaining our history and creating pleasurable cities and towns. Without the evidence of the past, and without examples of past achievements in architecture, our cities towns would be lifeless. Even as we build for today, we must maintain continuity with the past. Lyman Terrace is indeed important as architecture. Dating to 1939, and coming out of Roosevelt’s New Deal, the project is an outstanding example of early public housing. Just because there have been decades of neglect should not prevent you from seeing the strength of the construction and the quality of the idea behind Lyman Terrace.
But, frankly, I probably wouldn’t be getting involved in this struggle if I thought this was only about trying to preserve beautiful architecture.
Historic preservationists are ultimately interested in preservation of communities. We believe that by honoring the past – by protecting the key buildings and landscapes of our communities, telling their stories, and keeping them in use – we build a more sustainable and just world.
If you preserve Lyman Terrace you will are making a commitment to the idea of affordable public housing in the heart of your city. You will make a commitment to build a new Holyoke without pushing the poor and people of color to the margins.
If you choose to demolish it you will tearing down a lot more than architecture.
I arrived to live in Atlanta in 1996 just after the city had wiped away Techwood Homes, one of the very first public housing complexes in the country. They did it for all the reasons some in Holyoke are proposing to tear down Lyman Terrace – they said it was run-down, that there were “better” uses for the space, and so on. They put up Centennial Plaza, a glitzy, underused park for the Olympic Games. They never replaced all of those housing units and those they did were built beyond the city center, reinforcing segregation in the city. What they tore down in Atlanta – and what you are threatening to do here — was a commitment to affordable housing for working people in the heart of that major city.
Don’t do that in Holyoke. Honor your past. Don’t wreck it.
Available online here: http://issuu.com/elsollatino
The main editorial in this edition sets the Lyman Terrace issue in the context of Holyoke’s history with redevelopment issues and how they’ve affected the Latino community here. The guest editorial is copied below with permission:
The great irony of the Holyoke Housing Authority (HHA) plan to demolish Lyman Terrace is that it uses the poor conditions of the development — conditions resulting from decades of neglect by that same Housing Authority — to justify demolition and privatization. In this context, it is not surprising that tenants are discontented with their housing. But is the solution to demolish housing that’s basically sound but needs significant renovation? To thrust tenants onto a shrinking affordable housing market with little hope of finding better housing at affordable prices? Or should tenants and other members of the community have been included in planning long ago, so they could work with the HHA to come up with an effective and sustainable plan to save and improve Lyman Terrace?
We oppose the HHA’s proposed demolition of Lyman Terrace, a public housing development in Holyoke, for several reasons: residents were not sufficiently consulted, the relocation plan is inadequate, demolition without guarantee of rebuild will significantly reduce the supply of affordable housing in the city and region, demolition and rebuilding carries a higher material, energy and carbon impact than renovation, and lastly, as one of the earliest federally funded housing projects in the country, Lyman Terrace represents New Deal and working class people’s history worthy of preservation while the brick and copper exteriors contribute to downtown Holyoke’s visual sense of place. The architecturally-distinct buildings reflect a period in American history when citizens and their government provided good housing to neighbors who could not afford adequate homes on the private market. This is a noble ideal to emulate today.
The residents of Lyman Terrace have not had effective representation, which made it impossible for them to be full participants in the process of deciding what happens to their homes. The Tenant Association (TA) at Lyman Terrace was not tenant-run. Not only were HHA property managers and staff present at all TA meetings, but they informed the TA president when and where to have those meetings. In addition, the HHA set a context where genuine input from the residents was near impossible. Both the failed HOPE VI applications and the demolition and disposition plan were presented to the tenants as inevitable. Asking tenants if they want better housing without being reasonably sure that the residents will actually get something better after demolition is unfair and coercive.
So who are the residents of Lyman Terrace? Many are young working adults for whom housing costs exceed affordability for wages earned. Others are senior citizens or disabled. Many are young children whose schooling would be disrupted by mid-term relocation and whose daily presence playing together in the courtyards under the watchful eyes of numerous adults belies the HHA’s claims that these are “indefensible spaces.” The great majority are Latino, so any relocation plan which drives residents from their community can be seen as racist as well as gentrifying.
Relocation shouldn’t be considered without certainty of portable Section 8 vouchers and the real ability for tenants to use them. Western Massachusetts lost hundreds of rental housing units to tornados, floods, fires, and bankruptcies while the foreclosure crisis and a weak economy added pressures to the rental market. Yet when asked, the HHA could not quantify how many eligible units will be available for relocatees. Section 8 housing choice is an empty promise if market realities mean families will be forced to leave their community whether they wish to or not.
Similarly, luring tenants out by suggesting future return is deceptive. Low income housing has been destroyed in far greater numbers than has been rebuilt. Prior inhabitants have not been the beneficiaries of demolition and new construction. And in the case of Lyman Terrace, there is no rebuild plan yet to evaluate.
The demolition of Lyman Terrace will be detrimental to the residents, and it contradicts an inclusive vision of downtown (re)development for the city of Holyoke. Downtown businesses depend on Lyman Terrace residents, who constitute a source of revitalization. Better property management — including renovations, maintenance and policing — would address problems for the surrounding community, erase stigma, improve quality of life for tenants, and yield economic benefits for area businesses. We all deserve better from the HHA.
There is an assumption that since there are many vacant properties in and around downtown that affordable housing will not be in danger in Holyoke. But how can we be so sure? The HHA is not making any commitment to have those 167 units replaced at the present site. If this site is lost, who is to say we will see those units replaced as affordable housing in a prime location? We would like to see all of Holyoke’s citizens able to live downtown. Demolition and privatization of Lyman Terrace would be a big step in the wrong direction.
Marcella Jayne, Lyman Terrace tenant
Preston Smith, associate professor at Mt. Holyoke College
Susan Van Pelt, Holyoke resident
Reprinted with permission:
6 March 2012
I write to associate myself with those who are seeking to preserve the Lyman Terrace Housing Project in Holyoke. I will restrict my remarks here to its preservation, leaving the question of further action for another day.
It is troubling, to say the least, that the otherwise conscientious Massachusetts Historical Commission relied upon incomplete and biased information to reach its decision against preservation. Its critics and Ms. VanPelt in particular have drawn attention to the flawed procedure and I see no need to rehearse their claims here. It is enough to observe that the project itself reflects an important moment in policy formation dating to New Deal social programming in the name of easing the plight of the working poor. The project embodied the most advanced thinking on public housing policy in the worst economic crisis in the nation’s history. It was an ingenious partnership between Federal and state government and its stands as a monument worthy of preservation. That we would opt for a different policy today is no argument for wiping out such an important emblem of our common past. By that reasoning, we would not preserve Mt. Vernon or Monticello or any other historic house.
Of course, no one of the stature of our first or third president lived at Lyman. Instead, it housed ordinary people whose labor made Holyoke a leading site of the First Industrial Revolution. In recent years, historic preservationists at the National Park Service have sought to rectify the obvious imbalance in preservation by seeking to preserve the living quarters of working people. Lowell is the best example of its enlightened policies. By preserving Lyman, the city of Holyoke would align itself with the such a sensible policy. It would also allow this generation to repay our debt to the sons and daughters of hard toil.
We historians have long sought what we call a useable past, a past that tells us who we were at a certain point in the historical continuum and what we might to do to guide us through the current day, one way or another. Lyman is a fine example of such a past. It marked a policy at once more humane and salutary than the high-rise, high-density public housing projects that succeed Lyman and that have since succumbed to the bulldozer. Lyman showed a better way. It makes no sense to erase from memory such an important structure.
Bruce Laurie, Professor of History Emeritus, University of Massachusetts Amherst
There’s “no significant impact on the human environment” when 5.5 developed and inhabited urban acres are leveled? When architectural heritage, a community’s visual sense of place and working class people’s history gets erased? When 167 low income housing units in the heart of downtown are razed? When families leave our downtown? Really, Holyoke?!!! If there’s “no impact,” then I’d prefer to keep it, thanks.
What happened to preserving and capitalizing on our incredible downtown brick structures to promote revitalization? What happened to fostering a sense of community and working towards inclusive redevelopment? I reject the idea that we must accept a false choice between safe, decent housing and historic preservation. These are lovely buildings with potential for thoughtful rehabilitation, and their destruction will be a loss that can never truly be replaced.
I learned about the planned demolition and disposition in a Holyoke Redevelopment Authority meeting (which I’d spent about 40 minutes finding because it had been relocated, and I was sent on wild goose chases to get there). The city’s planning department asked the HRA to put Lyman Terrace back in the Urban Renewal Plan as a lot for private redevelopment. By sheer coincidence, Greg Saulmon was just then writing a beautiful piece about Lyman Terrace, which can be read here: http://birdsdowntown.wordpress.com/2012/02/17/hawks-housing-and-the-fate-of-holyokes-lyman-terrace/
From the Holyoke Housing Authority Notice of Finding of No Significant Impact and Notice of Intent to Request Approval of Property Demolition and Disposition for Lyman Terrace Housing Complex (dated February 17, 2012): “The City of Holyoke has determined that the project [the demolition and disposition of Lyman Terrace] will have no significant impact on the human environment….Any individual, group, or agency may submit written comments…to the City of Holyoke Office for Community Development, City Hall Annex Room 400, Holyoke, MA 01040 by first class mail, by fax to 413-322-5611 or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. All comments received by March 7, 2012 will be considered by the Holyoke Housing Authority and the City of Holyoke prior to submission of a request for release of funds. Comments should specify which Notice they are addressing. All commenters should verify receipt of their comments.”
Please also submit a copy of your comments to the Holyoke Historic Commission and to HUD:
It ain’t over til it’s over…
…so now I’m going to have to do more campaigning than be mayor for a little while… –Elaine Pluta 9/20/2011(http://videos.masslive.com/republican/2011/09/holyoke_mayor_elaine_pluta_on.html)
Disasters and weather emergencies bring out the best and the worst in people. They are a test of political leadership but also an opportunity to demonstrate skills. As it happens, I’m alright with a little mild opportunism (like a trite photo-op) so long as it is also in service to community needs and does not obstruct assistance efforts or jeopardize anyone’s safety.
So when Tony Pluta took to Facebook Saturday night during the storm to encourage residents to call the brand-new mayor’s hotline with questions or problems, I didn’t at first see any reason to complain. But when a mutual Facebook friend asked where attention from Holyoke’s leaders had been last winter, when sidewalks were impassable for weeks and pedestrians were getting injured, I felt he raised a legitimate issue.
Sunday evening I checked in on Facebook again to find another mutual friend had put out a message requesting help. She was at home without phone service and needed someone to notify HG&E of a downed wire that crossed her driveway and was hanging very low over the street. When she thanked me for calling on her behalf, she indicated she’d twice posted comments to the mayor’s Facebook page reporting problems with accessing the mayor’s hotline and then with reporting the downed line after she lost phone service completely, but her comments had been deleted without further response.
I see no legitimate excuse for this. It would only have taken a few moments to write back, “We’re sorry you’re having difficulties, but the hotline is working. We’ll pass your information along to HG&E for follow-up.” The only reason to delete the comments rather than deal with them responsibly is that the campaign was so paranoid about image and so motivated by narrow (and even counter-productive) self-interest that it was unable to get its priorities straight.
Maybe to understand why to me this felt like such a slap in the face, it would be helpful to provide some context. Along with various neighbors, I’d spent much of Sunday clearing my block, mostly by hand. Cooperatively and safely, we got the street re-opened, the sidewalks cleared, the alley accessible for repairs, and at least one route of quick egress for every home. Damages to vehicles were documented for any future insurance claims, but no one argued about property lines or whose limbs had fallen where. I suffer chronic pain and fatigue, so I had to take frequent breaks, but I was so glad to participate in helping. The mood was cheerful — we were genuinely happy to lighten the burdens for each other and to make the city’s work easier.
In between turns helping outside, I checked on friends around the region and felt very fortunate in both relative and absolute measures. I also got caught up with the news online, and by Monday, it was overwhelmingly clear that misplaced priorities and ineffective leadership and communication weren’t an aberration for the mayor of Holyoke’s storm response.
Last winter, Holyoke residents at times received outdated or erroneous and conflicting information from Swift 911, the weather emergency line, and the city’s website. This time around, I got my first Swift 911 call more than 48 hours after the storm began. And again, the city’s website and the weather emergency line weren’t kept updated in a timely way. It seems ridiculous to have added a hotline in the mayor’s office without using the authority of that office to be sure the city’s existing methods of communication were being used accurately and effectively.
While information on the city’s website was very sparse, the mayor did post regularly to her Facebook page. Surely, I’m not the only resident who thinks it’s absurd that one has to have a member account on Facebook and be aware to check the mayor’s page in order to see regular online updates? It would be more appropriate to keep the city’s site updated, and then use Facebook (as well as other media) to further broadcast the information. At the least, the city’s site should have had a link for people seeking those updates.
Then there are the problems of content. Mayor Pluta posted to her Facebook page frequently, but what she had to say was often unclear. At times, she or her campaign suggested residents with power or line problems should call her hotline first, and they’d call HG&E; other times they indicated residents could call HG&E directly (which makes sense to me – why make it a two step process?) and then call the mayor’s hotline (I’m not sure why that second call would be needed). One day, she wrote that anyone needing “immediate assistance” should call 911; the next day — at the request of emergency providers — she changed that recommendation to the more standard use of 911 only for “life-threatening” emergencies.
The leadership void and lack of a coherent message were especially apparent in regards to a question of the day throughout the region: to Halloween, or not to Halloween? On Sunday, Mayor Pluta via her Facebook page asked residents to remain in their homes for two days. On Monday, she said candy would be available to trick-or-treaters in City Hall even though the city’s website showed the City Hall celebration was already cancelled. MassLive reported there had been no cancellations for Halloween activities in Holyoke, but a statement from the mayor on her Facebook page advised not going door-to-door this year and to use caution because of the hazards of downed lines. So which of the above was it? Perhaps Mayor Pluta would have been more comfortable assembling a citizen’s commission to moot the issue behind closed doors for a few months or years, but the residents of Holyoke would be better served by a leader who can make an intelligent decision and communicate it clearly.
For the record, I don’t think posting web updates (whether on Facebook or elsewhere) should be a mayor’s top priority in a weather emergency. But effective communication from city officials is vital. Also, my criticisms should in no way be construed as complaints about the city’s workers and first responders. Their efforts have been heroic, and the problem here truly is at the top.
Looking at the mayor’s performance, I can only conclude that the purpose of the new hotline and the frequent Facebook updates wasn’t public safety or effective communication – it was naked self-promotion stripped of real service to the community at large. This has radically & irrevocably changed my impression of her. Although I supported her 2009 campaign, I’ve always found her too listless, passive and uninspiring (which is all still true), but I had also believed she was a nice person who meant well. Unfortunately, her post-storm response is consistent with her framing of the election – she’s repeatedly said she’s in the fight for her political life; I’d prefer a mayor who wants to work for Holyoke.
Pluta has publicly complained about the hardships of serving as mayor while running for reelection. But that is the definition of what all incumbent candidates do, and it is almost always a huge advantage, not a handicap. Effective mayor-candidates capitalize on incumbency rather than treating the duties of office as an expendable burden, secondary to their desire for political gain. Great leaders win continued and new support through their records, and Pluta’s announcement yesterday that she’s cancelling further campaign activity looks to me like she’s making excuses for a poor showing at both roles.
I can only hope the citizens of Holyoke step in to ease the mayor’s burdens on November 8. And I can only feel very fortunate — in both relative and absolute measures — that we have in Alex Morse a candidate ready to fill the vacuums of leadership, transparency, communication and accountability in our mayor’s office. It’s time to make change happen, Holyoke.