Westfield Council authorizes PVTA agreement

WESTFIELD – The City Council authorized Mayor Daniel M. Knapik to enter into an agreement with the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority to investigate the potential for a downtown development project.
Knapik has requested council approval to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the PVTA, which is receiving a $400,000 grant from the state Department of Transportation to conduct a feasibility study for the development project, which will have a transportation element, as well as commercial and retail facilities.
The authorization vote was made with tepid approval, as several council members express reticence for building an intermodal facility in the city’s core district.
At-large Councilor David A. Flaherty, who cast the sole dissenting vote, said that the city needs a transportation facility, but not at the intersection of Arnold and Elm streets.
“I’m going to vote no because it’s already been predetermined that this will be the site of a bus station,” Flaherty said. “The only reason we’re doing this is because of the ‘free’ money. We need to learn to say ‘no’ to free money. It’s time to stop the PVTA and the people in Boston telling us what we can have in our downtown.”
“It’s going to be an attractive nuisance,” Flaherty said. “I think it’s a bad idea.”
At-large Councilor Patti Andras countered Flaherty’s statement.
“A bus station should be in the downtown,” Andras said. “This project has been around 15 to 18 years. I thank Mayor Knapik for have the courage to take on this challenge.”
Ward 5 Councilor Richard E. Onofrey Jr., chairman of the Finance Committee, said the $400,000 feasibility study is the means to access nearly $7 million in federal funds for a development project.
Onofrey said the estimated cost to acquire property, perform environmental remediation and demolish the existing structures is $5 million.
“This is the only way we can do this,” Onofrey said. “The city doesn’t have $7 million, it will never have it, so unless we can get state and federal funding to clean up that area, nothing will happen.”
“So if you like derelict buildings on Elm Street, the hole in the ground, vote no,” he said. “If you vote no, you’re not doing anything to redevelop the downtown.”
Al-large Councilor John J. Beltrandi III said that he has reservations about a project with an intermodal facility at that location.
“I will vote yes because that area is an environmental nightmare,” Beltrandi said. “Is it the ideal project, probably not, but the opportunity is there to really start to make things happen.”
Ward 3 Councilor Peter J. Miller Jr., said he was “a nine-year old kid on a Cross Street soccer field when the smoke went up from the Newberry’s fire” creating the hole in the ground for the past 30 years.
“If the private sector was going to do anything on its own, it would have happened by now,” Miller said. “The buildings there now are not 21st century structures, investors can’t get return on their investment to rehab those buildings, so it will not happen.”
Ward 6 Councilor Christopher Crean, an executive with Peter Pan Bus Lines Inc., said that the MOU is not for a specific project.
“It’s just a proposal to do a study,” Crean said. “We haven’t decided what we’re going to do. That’s the reason for the study. I am not a fan of a stand-alone intermodal center. I am a fan of a public/private project approach.”
At-large Councilor Nicholas Morganelli agreed with Crean, adding that the council is “voting on the potential of a project.”
Ward 4 Councilor Mary O’Connell rates the transportation project as a six or seven on a scale of 10. “Do I love it, no, but I will support it,” she said.
Ward 2 Councilor James E. Brown Jr., chairman of the Legislative & Ordinance Committee, which brought the resolution out with a 3-0 recommendation for approval, said the transportation element will be about 2,000 square feet.
“The rest of this project will be retail, restaurants, offices and residential space, to increase the number of folks living downtown.” he said. “This opens the door to another $3.5 million in obligated federal transportation funding and another $3.5 million in federal funds earmarked. So the $400,000 is the gateway to those federal funds.”
The resolution passed by a vote of 11-1-1, with Flaherty casting the only no vote. Councilor Brian Sullivan, who had spoken in support of the MOU during the debate, was absent during the vote.

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