Walmart Supercenter: Filling a void or a sellout?
Related | Some say Walmart proposal not so smart
PITTSFIELD — Peter White grew up in Pittsfield's Morningside neighborhood and represented one of the city's poorest areas on the City Council from 2010-12.
From his home office on the top floor of his childhood home on Plunkett Street, White could look out and see the parcel at the William Stanley Business Park of the Berkshires, where a developer recently announced plans to build a Walmart Supercenter.
"I lived there for 33 years," said White, who now lives on Jason Street on the city's west side. "If I lived there still I'd still be in support of this project. Because I don't see anybody who's going to go in there and spend $12 million on it."
White, who was re-elected to the City Council as an at large member last November, is one of many city residents — some with deep ties to Morningside — who are in favor of this proposal.
It's Waterstone Retail Development of Needham's third pitch to city officials to develop this same site over the last five years with the same anchor tenant, a process that has involved three different mayoral administrations. The previous proposals in 2011 and 2013 never panned out.
This time around, Waterstone Retail Development has proposed the construction of a 190,000-square-foot building that would house a Walmart Supercenter on a 16.5 acre parcel known as "the teens" that is the Stanley Business Park's largest building lot.
The $30 million project, known as Woodlawn Crossing, has been presented by the developers as the first step in a mixed-use development that would eventually feature medical offices, life sciences, retail, light manufacturing and research and development in areas near the business park in the city's Morningside neighborhood, which is one of Pittsfield's poorest areas.
Waterstone will be hold an informal Community Open House event on the project from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, June 28, at Hotel on North. Waterstone has created a website, www.woodlawncrossing.com for viewing and also set up a Facebook page at www.Facebook.com/woodlawn crossing.
Officials of Downtown Pittsfield Inc., a business organization considered the principal advocate for the city's downtown commercial corridor, plan to attend the open house before officially commenting on Waterstone's proposal.
"I think once we see what's really involved with this proposal we'll be in a position to meet as an organization and settle on a position," said DPI President Jesse Cook-Dubin.
"I don't know enough about it," he said when asked to weigh in on the proposal. "There is certainly concern among some of the merchants about the impact of Walmart. I think we need to learn a lot more about the development before taking a public position."
State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, who spoke about the project Monday morning on the Good Morning Pittsfield show on WTBR-FM (89.7), said she has mixed feelings about Waterstone's proposal, but believes the project should be allowed to take its course through the city's permitting system.
Last week, Waterstone obtained a letter of intent from the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority that gives the developers an exclusive 60-day window to obtain a lease/purchase agreement for the teens parcel. A quasi-public agency, PEDA is charged with the Stanley Business Park's development.
Farley-Bouvier said she "hates Walmart as a concept" because the corporate giant's pay rate is so low that many employees qualify for government benefits.
"That being said, I think it's appropriate," she said about the proposal in general. "I support the idea that we're having a conversation. Let Waterstone come in, and give their presentation and have the opportunity for public input to whatever permitting board — I imagine there's more than one. Then, let them make their decision.
"My job as a state representative is to support the community," she said. "Let them make their choice then I'll support it."
City Councilor Christopher Connell, who is running against Farley-Bouvier for the seat in the 3rd Berkshire District this fall, said he is keeping an open mind about the project.
"I was actually probably against it a few years back," Connell said. "But actually Waterstone's brought forth some new developments and things that they're going to take care of that weren't mentioned in the proposal the last time."
Michael Bloomberg, of Pittsfield, who is challenging Farley-Bouvier in the Democratic primary for the seat in the 3rd Berkshire District, is against the proposal.
Diane Marcella, who heads the Tyler Street Business Group, an organization of merchants in the Morningside area, said her group is also trying to get its members to learn more about the project. The group is suggesting that members attend Waterstone's community open house next week, and is considering holding a meeting of its own.
The feedback received by the Tyler Street Business Group so far has been mixed, Marcella said.
"Honestly, I get some of both (pro and con)," Marcella said. "But I've been finding that when people understand that this is not just a Walmart project, and when businesses understand we have a $10 million (brownfield) site to clean up that this is not just like any other site, it's major."
The teens site is completely covered by 18 different building foundations and slabs of General Electric's former power transformer complex. They cover over 459,000 square feet and vary in size and shape, according to a assessment of that parcel that was prepared for PEDA. The parcel also slopes from north to south with an elevation change of 31 feet, which makes the lot "undevelopable" under its current configuration, according to the assessment.
Below the concrete are numerous old storm drains and miles of utility pipes and conduits that connected all of these former buildings, along with a stormwater removal system that needs to be replaced to bring it into compliance with new Environmental Protection Agency standards. Full compliance would require a new treatment facility that would cost $8 million.
"Removal of foundation materials or soils from the site and removing/plugging the maze of underground utility structures is very costly because of the existence of PCB contamination," the assessment states.
Outfall from the drainage under the teens parcel enters a stormwater retention basin that empties into Silver Lake. Last year it was determined that tighter federal regulations regarding stormwater discharge from the Stanley Business Park into Silver Lake could cost PEDA an additional $50,000 per year.
One developer estimated that the costs for slab and foundation removal, environmental capping and a new stormwater management facility to prepare the parcel for a single use, one level facility at $6 million. Waterstone, which plans to pay to remediate the site, estimates the total cost of remediation at $12 million.
"It's just so much more expensive because this is a brown (brownfield) site," Marcella said.
People who aren't familiar with the Stanley Business Park specifically, "don't understand the hurdles of building on this site," Marcella said.
"The remediation cost that they have to incur before they put one brick in place is between $12 million and $15 million, to my knowledge," Connell said. "No one's ready to take care of that site and to my understanding there's no funding (available for remediation) from the EPA's Brownfield fund.
"They're also looking to expand across the street so it makes it more of a destination," Connell said, referring to the scope of the entire project. "And if they (Walmart) do move out of their other location they're willing to work with the landlord to find a viable tenant. That's exactly what they did in North Adams.
"I think it has potential," Connell said. "I'd rather have something there instead of nothing."
A Walmart Supercenter also is expected to bring an increase in foot traffic to an area of the city where many people don't drive, and provide people easier access to fresh produce for an area that doesn't have a supermarket within easy walking distance.
"I generally think it's a good development," said Joe Castoldi, a Tyler Street merchant who has owned Castoldi's Barber Shop for 37 years. "A supercenter would create walking traffic. Some people say no, but I say yes. Some people in the Morningside area don't even have cars.
"I'll tell you what, I can count the people who walk by (now)," Castoldi said. "If a dozen people walk by that's a big thing.
"Also, I don't look at Walmart as a box store type of thing," he said. "It's an anchor store that's bringing in other people who have an interest in development."
Walmart has had a store in Pittsfield since 1995, and has had a presence in the Berkshires since opening its North Adams store in 1993. In some areas, the corporate giant's expansion into a community has meant the death knell for small independent businesses who can't compete with the corporate giant's prices. Castoldi doesn't agree.
"Let me put it to you this way," he said. "If you give people what they want they'll come.
"I was in Allendale (shopping center)," he said. "When you're next to a Sears or a Walmart, the parking lot's full of people. If you give them what they want, they'll buy it."
Contact Tony Dobrowolski at 413-496-6224.