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Rewriting Historic Preservation after MGM’s Design Change?…

Six months after its groundbreaking, MGM designs have changed. (WMassP&I)

Six months after its groundbreaking, MGM designs have changed. (WMassP&I)

SPRINGFIELD—Ralph Slate received an email September 18 from an MGM Springfield official requesting a meeting. Although the historic issues on the plot MGM had purchased for their casino had been largely settled, some details were still in flux. It did not surprise Slate, the chair of the city’s historical commission, that the company wanted to chat with him.

They settled on a phone call the following Tuesday around 8 a.m. when Slate learned MGM would be deleting its 25-story hotel tower originally planned for 73 State Street, to be replaced by a food court. Within hours, MGM publicized its intentions in a press release and letter to Mayor Domenic Sarno. Not nine months ago, it insisted the hotel could go nowhere but 73 State Street, thus necessitating the demolition of the historic United Electric Building currently at the address.

“I am taking the position that this is a material change in the plan, and therefore needs to have an additional review,” Slate said.

MGM unleashed a furor here after announcing the removal of the tower from its $800 million gaming and entertainment complex, prompting fears that the Las Vegas-based gambling company was pulling back on its promises to the city. Residents’ opinions are divided as to the aesthetics, but many note the tower was explicitly mentioned in the 2013 referendum.

MGM has insisted their commitment to the city remains strong, and the towering omission was merely a function of “skyrocketing” construction costs. Still, the move has prompted more than a war of words. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is reviewing the changes and that will necessarily cover reevaluation of the Section 61 findings for MGM’s license.

That, in turn, will include further discussions with the Massachusetts Historical Commission because among the structures affected by MGM’s redesign are buildings covered by the memorandum of agreement MGM and the gaming and historical commissions were hammering out.

Ralph Slate (via LinkedIn)

Slate remarked that if demolishing the beaux-arts building—its façade is being preserved—was necessary because the hotel could go nowhere else, “To come to an agreement based on the false premise that a hotel will be there would be wrong.” Writing in an email last week, he continued, “I will be forwarding those concerns to MGM, Mass Historic, and the MGC.”

Local historical commissioners have been adamant that they do not care about the redesign itself. “The issue of what the hotel looks like is not a concern for the Historical Commission,” said Robert McCarroll, the Springfield Preservation Trust’s representative on the city’s historical commission.

However, the redesign comes after a laborious consultation process between the state and local historical commissions and MGM. Under state law, the gaming commission must have meet with environmental and historic agencies before issuing a license to MGM. The company took the lead on negotiations, which dragged on for months.

MGM President Michael Mathis, speaking to the Springfield City Council Tuesday night, acknowledged his company and the state historical commission were on the cusp of signing an agreement before the tower was removed from designs.

The new rendering for 73 State Street still preserves the facade, but not much else. (via Springfield City Hall)

The new rendering for 73 State Street still preserves the facade, but not much else. (via Springfield City Hall)

Reviews of local commission meetings suggest MGM avoided significant decisions until after the 2014 casino repeal referendum failed. Observers of the process describe MGM’s position as rigid, making progress only on peripheral issues.

Meanwhile, The Republican editorial board, in several mocking and snarky editorials perhaps better suited for an upstart, know-it-all blog than a major outlet, pummeled local commissioners—unfairly at times—for gumming things up and seeking to protect marginal structures at the expense of Springfield’s future.

Yet McCarroll was hopeful about 73 State Street. “I tend to be a Pollyanna,” he said of such things.

A Massachusetts Historical Commission spokesperson declined comment, but indicated it was awaiting revised information from MGM. Elaine Driscoll, the gaming commission’s communications director, told WMassP&I historic implications will be part of the review of the new design.

73 State Street, roughly as is. (via centuryinvestment.com)

On Tuesday, Mathis left room for reconsidering 73 State Street, “Some of the underlying assumptions that were spoken to about earlier did change.” Though he apparently foreclosed saving the structure’s dome, the MGM executive added, “We believe we got to do some more negotiations with Mass Historic. They are entitled to talk to us again about some of their concerns.”

Notably, the new renderings do not necessarily preclude preserving the building as is and integrating it into larger complex.

Still, it puts all parties in uncharted territory. Slate, the Springfield Historical Commission’s chair, said the state commission does “not seem to have ever dealt with this kind of situation before.”

In December, MGM argued it could not preserve 73 State Street any further because the tower’s elevators would run through 73 State’s lobby. As Mathis observed, that changed. Although costs do appear to be MGM’s motivation, both it and the historical commissions may need to rebuild some trust.

That may be as simple as MGM detailing when it realized costs escalated, which it must do before the gaming commission anyway. Springfield historical commissioners also expressed sympathy for how finances prompt adjustments.

“The consultation process is supposed to be performed in good faith, with the project proponent genuinely trying to eliminate, minimize, or mitigate adverse impacts,” Slate emailed last week, adding elsewhere he understood plans can change.

The impact upon the Union House on Main Street is a concern, too. MGM’s spokesperson confirmed the company would retain the façade as MGM had agreed. Because the six-story hotel will now sit on the Union House’s block, there could be issues related to scale, a point Slate raised during Tuesday’s Council meeting. But that could be minor compared to the fate of 73 State Street.

Historic preservation—and MGM’s flexibility toward it—is not likely to rock the overall project as much as getting local approval for the changes themselves. More to the point, obtaining further preservation is out of the hands of local officials and residents entirely.

“I don’t know what the Gaming Commission and Mass Historic will do,” McCarroll said.

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