More updates (or non-updates, depending on who you ask) about Holyoke's Canal Walk [Transcription errors clarified, 6/23/08] Something might actually happen: finally, Holyoke Gas & Electric is scheduled to begin laying down wiring for the Holyoke Canal Walk this summer. It's taken upwards of a decade to get this far for a project that could repopulate the demilitarized rust belt...
More updates (or non-updates, depending on who you ask) about Holyoke's Canal Walk
[Transcription errors clarified, 6/23/08]
Something might actually happen: finally, Holyoke Gas & Electric is scheduled to begin laying down wiring for the Holyoke Canal Walk this summer. It's taken upwards of a decade to get this far for a project that could repopulate the demilitarized rust belt between Front Street and Race Street. But believe it or not, the Holyoke Canal Walk has not, in fact, been the most time-consuming project of its sort in Massachusetts's history.
A project like the Holyoke Canal Walk, ultimately, is a transportation project, and is generally approached by the state and city in a fashion similar to converting an old roadway or stretch of railroad tracks into a park or a bike trail. The same tasks, often, are there: clearing the blueprints, in 25% installments, with MassHighway; the negotiating with property owners and whittling away to secure easement agreements - or a property owner's permission to let you build something on their property. So, the longest project, so far? The first phase, of three, of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail, which begins at the Lowell-Chelmsford line, took 23 years to get off the ground.
At a Canal Walk meeting on Race Street in Holyoke two weeks ago, realtor / lobbyist / author / bed-n-breakfast-along-a-trailway-owner Craig Della Penna brought this up. On average, he'd said, a transportation revitalization project like this took 10 years in Massachusetts. The shortest time ever spent on a rail trail, a 14-mile trail from Pittsfield to Adams, took 6 years. After the meeting, when I asked him why this was, he said, "Institutional cowardice." He gave me his card and said "Google me."
"What's going on here in Southern New England is not like anything in the United States," Della Penna told me when I followed up with him earlier this week. "These are not obscure, forgotten, coal-mine branch lines in the middle of nowhere. They're where people live, work and play."
Della Penna marketed rail freight for twenty years. His background is in railroad history. As a hobby, one of his customers took obsolete topographical maps and converted them to stationery and, as a professional, published outdoor recreational guidebooks. In 1994, they'd got to talking - about how there wasn't a good, comprehensive book about New England railways - and Della Penna found himself with the chance to write a book on the subject.
"So I went out, and my wife and I bought a place that year and proceeded to bike every open mile, every rail trail in New England," he said. "I published a book that came out in 1995, called 'Great Rail Trails of the Northeast.'"
Della Penna, basically, knows a ton about all of this. He's both relaxed and dead serious, and is quick to rattle off biographical stats. He's given over 750 lectures in 16 states. Nobody falls asleep at his lectures, he says, twice - both over email and in conversation. He's the most in-demand speaker on smart-growth real estate. He's also the co-chair of MassHighway's Trails & Greenways Task Force.
"I know everybody, I know every skeleton in every closet of MassHighway. Literally," he tells me. "I live and breathe the politics of this stuff. I know how to make this work."
I'd have written a condensed narrative-type article here, but Della Penna has a lot to say. Part I of my slightly-trimmed interview with Della Penna is below. Forthcoming is a writeup about my conversation with Senior Planner Karen Mendrala about the progress on Holyoke's Canal Walk, and the work still left to be done.
At that [Canal Walk] meeting last Thursday, Karen [Mendrala] had mentioned that the relationship between the City of Holyoke and MassHighway has improved over the last few years. Do you know what factored into that?
Sure. Luisa Paiewonsky coming aboard, and the deadwood, retrograde Apparatchiks leaving MassHighway.
What was the process like before in working with MassHighway?
Massachusetts had the worst record in developing things like this in the United States. Ranked last, literally last. And they got sick of being last. And one of the problems was - not in the context of Holyoke, per se - but in most of the places where there were wars on this stuff. There's three ways you can approach this stuff. You're either going to have good support from the community, or you're going to have 'nobody cares', which is the case of Holyoke, or you're going to have opposition.
I typically go into places where there's opposition, and I teach the locals how to defeat them. Or I go into places where there's institutional ambivalence, and I go in and raise the level of interest. And in the case of MassHighway, they were always, up until 18 months ago, the only DOT [Highway Department] in the United States that said: 'You had to pave these projects.'
You have to pave them?
Yes. So in the context of Holyoke, and the urban trail, that wasn't a big deal. But when you go into places like Belchertown, Southampton, Westford, Danvers, Westport, on and on and on - these places that like to think of themselves as rural, but they have a big equestrian component - and you go in and you say, 'I've got a great idea, I'm gonna pave that woods,' it's not seen in favor. And you typically have a war break out. And MassHighway and even the regional planning agency would melt into the background. They don't want to know about wars. So what I do is go in and teach the locals how to win, or if they lose, I go back in ten years later and teach them how to resurrect the project.
How do you do that?
You have to come to my lectures! Nobody falls asleep at my lectures.
You mentioned 'institutional ambivalence'. Last Thursday, you said 'institutional cowardice.' In Massachusetts it seems like there's this culture of being used to waiting for this stuff to happen. In your opinion, on what levels does that 'cowardice' occur?
Well, politicians - they're adverse to pain. And projects that are painful will not have a lot of interest in helping them along. Many times they'll put their finger up to the wind and see which way the wind is blowing, and come down on the side of the wind. So you just have to change the direction of the wind, sometimes.
Typically, local politicians won't be the leaders in projects like this; they'll lead from forty paces behind. So, you have to have an active core group to be the leaders, and then give the opportunity for the local politicians to be participants and then let them become the leaders. But you have to clear the way in the first place.
...Before they'll emerge to the front. And how has that developed, how can that happen in Holyoke?
I would have to think that there are some surreptitious, bad things going on. But I know that you can look at the last ten years of investment in Holyoke - public investment - and you don't really see too much down the hill from High Street. Or even Maple Street.
[...]A lot of those buildings appear to be abandoned, but there are actually small operations in them.
The Parsons Mill burned down. And, you know, that's not the biggest fire.
There was the one in 1999.
That was much bigger, and the Skinner Mill in 1980. The problem in Holyoke also goes beyond the Canal Walk. In the 1970s, Holyoke was the fire capital of the United States. There were more fires there than anywhere else in the country. It was on the nightly news sometimes. Sometimes there's arson, arson for insurance, sometimes there are arsonists doing it for fires, sometimes it's spontaneous combustion, sometimes there are accidents because of bad wiring, all the above.
Everywhere you see an empty spot in Holyoke, I'm like the kid in "The Sixth Sense:" he sees dead people; I see the missing buildings. And there was an 18-month window in the 1990s, when there were more municipally sanctioned demolitions than the entire decade of the 70's. And so, when my book on Holyoke came out, it sort-of launched a little renaissance in Holyoke in terms of historical awareness. And there was a group formed to stop the municipally-sanctioned demolitions. And we succeeded to a degree to slow down, and actually, the demolition delay ordinance came about in the same type of awareness growing around town.
Then, there was one of the first notable hearings on the demolition delay ordinance was the Bull's Head building on Race Street, which had a four-story terra cotta facade, with a bull's head on it. It used to be Swift Meatpacking Plant right next to the railroad. The railroad side in there right by the Hotel Jess - right where it's blank now, right where nothing's there. So we wanted to buy that building, and the builder wouldn't sell it to us, the developer wouldn't sell it to us. He sold it to a guy whose intention was to gently tear it down, dismantle it, and sell it on eBay. And he had the guys lined up to buy it, ship it to Houston Texas.
The whole thing.
The whole building, the whole facade. Take it apart, gently, and ship it Houston Texas for a steakhouse. And we stopped that. And he was actually one of the antique dealers here in Northampton. He knows who he is.
Then the building kept getting flipped and flipped and flipped to other speculators, waiting for the Canal Walk to get built. In the meantime, the building's getting more and more deteriorated. Part of the facade comes off, lands on the street. The mayor says 'Time's up, we're tearing that down.'
So the demolition company comes in to take the building down, something goes wrong, guy gets killed. Part of the wall fell, collapsed onto the adjacent auto body shop, seriously injuring the owner of the body shop who was in his office, sitting there. A few weeks later, MassHighway's 25% design hearing is up in City Hall. These are transportation projects, and the way they lay it out, it's the same format as transportation delivery. You have a 25% percent design hearing, so you have everybody's feedback on how the project is starting to look.
I went to the hearing and threw several bombs. I laid it out that here was a city that was totally incompetent, and there was a person that died because of their incompetence moving forward a project that many communities can do for just a couple of years. And here, now, this thing is being segmented to the nth degree and it's because they're cowards about [not] dropping their eminent domain hammer on a guy and getting him out of the way.
It seems like developers are either trying to game the system a little bit, or they're in this Catch-22 of waiting to see what will happen with the Canal Walk, and then nothing happens with the Canal Walk. Is that generally the dilemma with the developers along the Canal Walk territory?
Everybody's waiting for it to get under way. So they can, in turn, invest in their properties. I believe there's $20 million dollars on the sidelines for private sector investment in the buildings.
You had mentioned that other states can get this done in three or four years. And you had mentioned at the meeting that there was a project in Lowell and Chelmsford that took them 23 years to complete. Is that project like Holyoke's?
No. That's called the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail. Phase 1 started at the Lowell-Chelmsford line. The section going into Lowell proper through the Canal District is different than this. That's two of the 200 projects under way right now. But the section of the Bruce Freeman Rail Trail Phase 1 starting at the old Wang tower on the Lowell-Chelsmford line, going through all of Chelmsford and 200 yards into Westford 23 years in the making.
Some opposition in Chelmsford. And there was no real leadership. Most municipalities don't have the capacity to move projects like this forward. They don't have the planning staff.
So the state had to take a leadership role. And that was done through getting DCR [Department of Conservation and Recreation] planning staff, who are experts on building these things, to take a lead in moving the project forward. They're not going to be ones managing or running the project when it's done, but they're the ones that really got it through. So by the time they brought DCR in to develop the plan and everything, it was probably 1998. So it started to move along fairly quickly after that. But, it's under construction right now.
Is that the longest one that you know of?
That's the longest one. The previous longest one was the one called Minuteman Trail, the Minuteman Commuter Bikeway, which runs down from Bedford down to Arlington's red line. That was 18 years. The fastest one ever built was in the Berkshires, from the north side of Pittsfield to just downtown Adams, and that was about 14 miles. That took 6 years.
What do other states do differently? Is there something about Massachusetts culturally, bureaucratically, politically? What do other states do to get this done within a matter of years?
Pretty much, for projects to move forward [in Massachusetts] you have to have at least two of the three legs of the stool in function. One leg of the stool would be political activism; advocacy from the neighborhoods and the community.
Then the local municipality has to have some support; the best possible kind would be from the DPW director to be a leader - typically that's not the case - or at least the Planning Department to be leaders, usually that's not the case. Sometimes a mayor might be, but that's usually not the case.
And then the other one would be strong state rep or state senator support, and there's only two places where that's the case. So if you only have strong municipal support without any kind of citizen advocacy to help support it, then you don't move fast. If you just have the state rep and not one of the other two legs, you don't move fast. Any two of those three will move a project forward.
Why is it that the municipality has trouble being advocates for these sorts of projects?
Oh, because it's frivilous! [laughs] It's a frivolous thing, and we need important things! We need real economic development! We need to put a CVS in the heart of our urban core. We need take the country's only art-deco Buick dealership, one of the earliest Buick dealerships in the United States, and we need to turn that into a Walgreens bunker that's going to be so ugly, we have to bury it underground. The lunacy - the crack-cocaine of economic development. The first planned industrial city in the United States: the major planning conference in Massachusetts was this past week; next door to the first planned industrial city in the United States; the Massachusetts Association of Planning Directors. There was no one there from Holyoke! How does that happen?
[Part II continued tomorrow.] UPDATE, 6/13/08: Actually, probably not. More likely: continued on Saturday or Sunday.
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