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North Adams City Council Rejects Sullivan School Housing Plan

A brutalist brick building sits past an American flag on a pole and a lawn.
JD Allen
North Adams, Massachusetts city hall.

The North Adams, Massachusetts city council has rejected a proposal to turn a former school building into 75 units of affordable and market rate housing.

City residents attended Tuesday night’s virtual city council meeting to protest the project. Michael Fierro said he represents many who live near the Sullivan Elementary School property on Kemp Avenue.

“We propose you demolish the current school building, revitalize and expand Kent Park into a neighborhood park, seeing our tax money put into green initiatives and a community space rather than more infrastructure,” he said.

Council Vice President Jason LaForest made the motion to deny Mayor Tom Bernard’s ability to proceed with negotiating the offer from Zenolith Partners, LLC and Sano-Ruin Construction.

“This proposal is not worthy of the pride of our residents," said the councilor. "It disrespects the progress of the immense hole we’ve been climbing out of since Sprague Electric Company and the hospital closed, and countless other businesses – and frankly, it dishonors the foundation of the new economy we’ve helped create in the MASS MoCA era. Where is the return on all these sacrifices and investment? Is $10,000 and laughably, a 30-year tax break respectful to the city and residents? I think no.”

LaForest said North Adams’s subsidized housing inventory rate of 13% already exceeds the state average of 10%.

“What other community in Massachusetts has placed not one, not two, but three subsidized housing projects in less than 1/10th of a square mile?" he asked. "This is residential segregation based on economic status. Irrefutable statistics show that minorities are more likely to be poor than Caucasian Americans, and on the basis of this racial and economic segregation alone, this proposal should be voted down tonight.”

Councilor Lisa Hall Blackmer said the project was too large, and Councilor Keith Bona said the terms for negotiation were too far apart to reconcile.

Councilor Jessica Sweeney said the project was a bad fit for the neighborhood, but said she was disturbed at the reaction discussion of affordable housing brought up among city residents.

“I have received many, many, many emails talking very negatively about people who are struggling right now in the middle of a pandemic,” she said.

Former council president Benjamin Lamb, who has announced he’s stepping down at the end of his fourth two-year term, said the city has harsh realities to face about housing.

“We have 22 people right now living in hotels in this area because there’s no room in our homeless shelters to house them because the folks in our homeless shelter system are staying there for six months to two years because there’s no housing for them to step up into,” he said.

The motion to deny passed unanimously.

City Councilor Wayne Wilkinson, who initially questioned LaForest’s motion, left himself unmuted after the vote to offer a candid insight into his thoughts on the city’s coming mayoral election this fall before being cut off.

“He knew this was going to happen!" said Wilkinson. "The two guys running for mayor…”

Wilkinson told WAMC Thursday that he had no further comment on the statement. So far, there are no declared candidates for mayor in North Adams.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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