Manos Unidas gets a hand

Tuesday January 24, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- A former community center slated for demolition by the city won a one-week reprieve Monday from Mayor Daniel Bianchi.

The decision came just hours after workers began dismantling the dilapidated structure, which housed Manos Unidas until a 2007 fire ripped through the building.

Organizers had been unsuccessfully pushing to delay demolition since last month, when an anonymous donor offered a $100,000 donation to rehabilitate the building, which has been condemned by city officials.

Bianchi decided to give the group more time after 10 supporters of Manos Unidas crowded into his office's waiting area for what they called an "impromptu meeting," to which he assented.

"There's been a condemnation order on it for three years," Bianchi told The Eagle. "I guess the least we can do is give them a little more time."

Anaelisa Vanegas, the founder of Manos Unidas, called Bianchi's decision gracious.

"This was our last push," she said. "It was, you know, intense."

Bianchi said he gave the group a week to meet with the anonymous donor who has apparently now offered to buy and renovate the building, as well as pay the back taxes owed to the city. The group also is expected to pay a $50,000 construction lien on the building, which covers the cost of the demolition.

"If they can demonstrate that to me in the next few days, that's fine," Bianchi said. "If they can't, as much as I hate to see that old building come down, it will have to."

Vanegas said she thinks a week is enough time to sort out the situation. She said at this point the only sticking point is the construction lien, but she declined to discuss that disagreement further.

The group has been unsuccessfully pushing in court to stop the demolition. Last week a judge declined to intervene, deciding to uphold the demolition order of the boarded-up building. City officials have described the structure, which is visibly deteriorating, as unsafe.

Manos Unidas plans to turn the 335 Fenn St. back into a center to help at-risk youth and immigrants. Vanegas said she sees the building as a chance to foster community spirit and curb crime in the Morningside neighborhood.

The Rev. Willard Durant was among the community members who participated in Monday's meeting. He said he was heartened by the way Bianchi readily responded to the group's concerns, even as the mayor had to cancel scheduled meetings to make time for the talks.

"We went in there not really expecting a lot, but hoping and praying that we'd get a chance to hold onto that building," Durant said. "This really is looking very good right now."

To reach Ned Oliver:,
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On Twitter: @BE_NedOliver


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