North Adams Sullivan School

The North Adams City Council on Tuesday rejected a proposal from a developer to create 75 housing units at the former Sullivan School. The idea draw sharp opposition from neighbors. 

NORTH ADAMS — The North Adams City Council unanimously rejected a proposal Tuesday night to turn the former Sullivan School into housing units, after opposition mounted by neighbors.

The council voted 9-0 not to move forward with negotiations or additional discussions about the potential sale.

Ahead of the meeting, 125 people signed a petition asking the city not to sell the property to Xenolith Partners, a New York-based developer that proposed creating 75 housing units, the majority of which would have been affordable housing. Opponents voiced a wide range of concerns at Tuesday’s meeting.

Several councilors also spoke up against the proposal, including City Council Vice President Jason LaForest, who said that placing another low-income complex in the neighborhood, which already houses Mohawk Forest, effectively would have constituted “racial and economic segregation.”

Other councilors argued that the city makes no money off the property and needs more affordable housing, while acknowledging the intense public opposition to the Xenolith proposal.

Since the company’s price of $10,000 fell well below the appraised property value of $2.3 million, the city was required to seek approval from the council.

Under the proposal, Xenolith would have constructed a 33-unit apartment complex in the former Sullivan School building, followed by 42 two-story townhouses on the property. The company would have sought federal and state money to develop the units, the “majority” of which were scheduled to be affordable for people earning 30 to 80 percent of the area median income. The company had said it would need to enter a payment agreement with the city, in lieu of taxes, for up to 30 years.

The school, in the southeast side of the city, above Windsor Lake, has been vacant since it closed in 2016. This marks the eighth request for proposals for the property, Mayor Tom Bernard said, and the most recent proposal — to turn the building into a manufacturing training facility — failed last year.

After the Xenolith proposal first was made public, neighbors of the property rallied against the potential sale. They argued that a large affordable housing development would have created congestion, failed to contribute to the tax base and permanently altered the neighborhood.

Rebecca Cyr, whose family has lived near the property for several generations, said the opposition came from concerns about the future of the neighborhood and the city.

“I think the general consensus was that the majority did not feel that would be a good fit,” she said. “We absolutely, as a whole, want to see it used — to benefit not just our neighborhood, but the whole city.”

Residents, many of whom still mourn the loss of the school, worried that potential development would have overshadowed the nearby green space, Kemp Park, and that Kemp Avenue would not have been able to handle the increase in vehicles passing through.

“Our little tiny neighborhood would be inundated with 75 more families,” Mike Fierro, who lives near the site, said before the meeting. “The traffic is one of the bigger problems. The area is not ready for heavy flow traffic.”

Some neighbors opposed adding affordable housing stock, arguing before and during the council meeting that the city does not need any more affordable housing, as North Adams already has surpassed the commonwealth’s goal of keeping 10 percent of its housing stock affordable for low- or moderate-income households, according to state data.

Bernard pointed out, though, that a recent report showed North Adams does lack an “adequate supply of affordable housing” for a broad range of income levels, from extremely low income to middle income — a deficit of 465 units.

At the meeting Tuesday, several councilors acknowledged the need for more affordable housing. Councilor Jessica Sweeney said that it was difficult for her to hear the “stigmatization” of vulnerable city residents that had come up in the process, regardless of whether the project was the right fit.

“We do need affordable housing in this community,” she said. “I know people who don’t have housing at all.”

For her part, Cyr stressed that she was not opposed to affordable housing but rather the large-scale nature of the proposal.

“I grew up with Mohawk Forest in my backyard,” she said. “A lot of people think, because it’s low-income housing, this is about ‘not in our backyard.’ I don’t believe that’s the concern.”

Stefanie Tatro, another neighbor, told The Eagle earlier Tuesday that she believes the city does need more affordable housing but that she also wants to see the tax base expand, in order to attract new residents and repair aging infrastructure, and that the proposed tax abatement felt unfair.

“This particular company is doing it for the best interest of them more than the interest of the town,” she said. “I would be sitting in my neighborhood paying my fair share of taxes, knowing this developer behind me is making more profit and not paying their fair share.”

Bernard said before the meeting that one of his motivations for bringing the proposal forward was to get the property back on the tax rolls, at least to some degree, and avoid potentially spending city money to demolish the building.

“Sullivan School generates nothing in taxes for city, but it does have liabilities, significant ones,” he said, “and we have to pay for the insurance.”

Francesca Paris can be reached at fparis@berkshireeagle.com and 510-207-2535.