A true test for Mayor Sarno
Here's the front page top of the fold story I wrote for our Springfield edition:
SPRINGFIELD -- Mayor Domenic Sarno met with various members of his administration on Monday to discuss a plan that would scrap the controversial apartment complex on Longhill Street in favor of building a new Forest Park Middle School on the site.
Sarno's Director of Communications, Thomas Walsh, released the following statement Monday afternoon from Sarno:
"Mayor Domenic J. Sarno had received information late last week indicating that the Longhill Gardens Project located on Longhill Street may be a viable site for the new Forest Park Middle School. At the direction of Mayor Sarno, city officials are currently looking into the feasibility of this site being a potential location for the new school.
"If the Longhill Gardens property is determined to be a feasible site it will save the city significant expenses on displacement and/or relocation costs that would be incurred for alternative sites in the Forest Park neighborhood. Presently, the Longhill Gardens properties are vacant.
"Mayor Sarno has directed city officials to work expeditiously and to report their findings back to him as soon as practically possible.
"Mayor Sarno maintains his commitment to continue working with the neighborhood to ensure that the best option for this location is ultimately chosen."
The question that confronts the mayor is whether or not the city can change directions at this point on how the property can be used. The state has already requested the release of federal HOME monies to help fund the apartment complex to be built by Winn Development and the city has made a similar request for the release of its HOME funds for the low income project.
The city has until June 30 to show the the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) "substanial progress" on the selection of a site for a new Forest Park Middle School in order to qualify for a 90 percent reimbursement of what is estimated to be a $32 million project.
School Committee member Antonette Pepe told Sarno Monday morning she is "upset and concerned that we could lose the money for the Forest Park school."
Pepe said the mayor needs to act quickly on the site selection to preserve the funding for the new school. She noted there are many people in the Forest Park neighborhood who support the use of the property for a new school. Although Sarno has not yet announced an answer to the question he posed to the state in March concerning the ability to change the apartment project to include 40 percent market-rate housing, he went ahead and requested the city's share of HOME funds with a form dated March 23.
The request described the project as being a total of 109 units and "all of the units will be utilized as family affordable housing." There was no mention of a change to include market rate units.
On April 30, Philip Dromey, the deputy director of the city's Office of Planning & Economic Development, sent Robert Paquin of the U. S. Department of Housing & Urban Development (HUD) the request for funds as well as a letter that dismissed the two objections made to the project, one by Springfield activist Karen Powell and the other from the McKnight Homeowners Association Inc.
The documents concerning the school project as well as the city's request for funds came through Springfield Forward, an advocacy group that has long opposed the current plans for the property, an apartment complex for low income residents.
Maureen Hayes, of Hayes Development Services in Springfield, sent Sarno an e-mail on May 4 with an outline of the middle school proposal. She described the current Forest Park Middle School as being in "deteriorating condition and its facilities are obsolete."
"Discussions on upgrading or replacing the school have been ongoing since the 1990s. In July 2007, the MSBA determined that renovating the current building is not an option due to its deteriorating structural condition. Immediately thereafter the city initiated an identification and feasibility study process in an effort to locate a potential site for a new middle school," Hayes wrote.
The new school would serve 660 students. The present one has 300 more students who would be assigned to other middle schools.
"Recently, CBI Consulting Inc., the consultants evaluating potential school sites, identified Longhill Gardens as a possible location. Based on a cursory review, Longhill Gardens seems to offer a number of advantages as a site for the new middle school: it is located in the Forest Park neighborhood; it meets or exceeds the minimum size requirement; it is in single ownership; it would require no displacement of occupants and it would involve no relocation costs," Hayes wrote.
George Pappas of Springfield Forward said his organization "consistently advised the mayor to build the new middle school at the Longhill Gardens location."
What concerned Pappas is what he described as "astounding" -- that Sarno's present discussion of the site for a school is coming at "the 11th and an half hour of this process."
He charged that Sarno has been "disingenuous" with his comments since March 2008 that he has been reviewing all of the options for the Longhill property.
"We now know that was not true," Pappas told Reminder Publications.
Pappas and his group have called on Sarno to retract his request for HOME funds in light of the report about using the site for a school.
Now we have a set of unresolved issues here:
1. Has the state ever replied to the mayor's request to add market-rate housing to the project?
2. Why did the city apply for the HUD HOME funds before the state have the mayor an answer?
3. Does this mean the mayor supports the project as planned – more low income housing?
4. Doesn't Win Development own the land?
5. Are there any other sites for the Forest Park Middle School?
6. Why has the city waited so close to the deadline to consider the site as one for the school?
If the mayor can address these questions to the satisfaction of the voters, he may be re-elected. If he can't his campaign will not be an easy one.
© 2009 by Gordon Michael Dobbs