Take My Council Please: Experiencing Gerena Tunnel Vision…
SPRINGFIELD—Echoing demands from North End community leaders, the City Council made a dramatic call for upgrades to the German Gerena tunnel that many consider a public health risk to the vulnerable population that attends the school. The Council implored Gov. Charlie Baker to issue $3 million in bonding the legislature earmarked in 2014 to begin repairs that would contain mold and other particulates that have bedeviled schoolchildren there for years.
However, the resolution was not the only call to arms the Council made Monday night. It also moved to place a question on the November ballot asking voters whether the city should adopt the Community Preservation Act. If approved, the City Council could then design an ordinance could make available funds for community-sponsored parks, historic preservation or housing projects.
At-large Councilor Justin Hurst was absent from Monday’s meeting.
The meeting was one of two scheduled during the Council’s lightly scheduled July-August period, but featured two high profile initiatives on the body’s front burner in addition to the normal housekeeping.
Among the grants were a bounty of grants Health Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris secured. Mass Cultural Council funds for the Central Library were accepted as well as money for the Elder Affairs, Fire and Police department. Also approved was a Massworks grant and authorization for the city’s participation in a Department of Housing and Urban Development loan program.
But the meeting’s opening drama was on the Gerena School in the North End. Situated on a sliver of land between I-91 and the former Boston & Maine railroad tracks, the school has long been a lightning rod for community alarm about health and safety. Its proximity to the highway has prompted concerns about respiratory issues and unauthorized crossing of the ex-B&M tracks is a persistent worry.
On Monday, a tunnel connecting the school to Main Street on the far side of the interstate was the focus. Deterioration has allowed water, mold and other airborne irritants to invade it to the detriment of children and residents who use the tunnel. However, some health issues have been debated.
“It’s a shame that we’re here,” New North Citizens Council President Norman Roldan told the Council Monday evening. “To be standing here and still fighting for this.”
In 2014, then-Governor Deval Patrick signed a transportation bond bill that included $3 million to restore the Gerena tunnel’s membrane. But while the legislature authorized the borrowing for the fund, Governor Charlie Baker, who took office in January 2015, has yet to be allocated in an annual bond. Ward 1 Councilor Adam Gomez, who represents the surrounding neighborhood, sponsored the resolution which urged the governor to make the funds available.
Out of $29 billion in bonding the legislature has authorized in recent years, only some $2.19 billion was bonded in FY2017, of which $330 is transportation related. Because the Genera tunnel was included in a transportation bond authorization, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation would need to allocate part of its annual bonding to fund the project.
The Main Street entrance to the Gerena Tunnel on the opposite side of I-91.
The materialization of the Gerena funds does not appear imminent.
“The administration has been pleased to introduce capital spending plans that prioritize the maintenance and modernization of existing assets and transportation infrastructure, the preservation of thousands of affordable housing units and the training of a Massachusetts workforce for tomorrow,” Garrett Quinn, Communications Director for the Department of Administration and Finance (ANF), emailed after WMassP&I queried the governor’s office about the Gerena tunnel.
Quinn said $70 million in Greater Springfield projects were included in the FY2017 bond including funds for Union Station and road construction.
Responding to ANF’s statement, Gomez acknowledged that Monday night’s push was unlikely to deliver the funds this fiscal year. “We’re shooting for 2018,” he said referring to the fiscal year starting next July. “We’re just going to keep playing it day by day and applying awareness” to the conditions at Gerena.
The future of Gerena School remains a bigger issue than the tunnel. The fortress-like building on Birnie Avenue suffers from many issues, but city officials have said it has many more years left to its useful life.
Late on councilors confirmed housing authority appointee and cleared betterment liens imposed some years ago. It also renamed Falcons Way after Bruce Landon, the hockey team’s longtime owner, and granted an easement for construction of the new senior center in Blunt Park.
The Council also took second and third step on new ordinances erecting a historic district and limiting utility companies’ work on recently paved roadways.
The Thomas Wason Historic District surrounds a home and warehouse on Liberty, recognized as part of the city’s manufacturing history. It passed 11-1 with at-large Councilor Thomas Ashe in dissent.
The utility ordinance will prohibit utility companies from tearing open recently resurfaced streets except for emergencies. Streets freshly resurfaced will have a three-year moratorium while those part of major reconstruction projects are off-limits for five years. The ordinance passed 12-0.
Earlier, the issue of utilities opening up streets stirred up some debate on a Comcast request to install a conduit on James Street. There was a move to put that into committee to urge the cable company to leave the street as found, but Ward 3 Councilor Melvin Edwards interceded, suggesting delaying the conduit could unfairly harm residential customers. Another utility petition went to committee instead.
The Council passed first step of an ordinance that would change some of the city’s animal control rules. At Council President Michael Fenton’s suggestion the fee for interfering with an animal control officer be raised to $300.
Despite a great deal of anticipation, the Council’s placement of the Community Preservation Act (CPA) onto the city’s November moved smoothly. Ward 6 Councilor Ken Shea, who chaired a special committing looking into the act introduced the recommendation of a 1.5% surcharge on property tax bill. The first $100,000 of property would be exempted. Matched by some state funds, the money could go toward housing, parks or historic preservation.
“All that is being asked here is to give the citizens of Springfield a chance to vote on it,” in November Shea told his colleagues.
The measure had attracted some opposition in the press as the work of Shea’s committee wound down, but Monday night the only opposition was a single dissent on the roll call.
Robert McCarroll, a former Historical Commissioner, outlined the rules of the CPA, noting that the funds were for projects, not maintenance or staffing. Members of the community could step forward to recommend on what the city spend the money.
“Unlike the normal budgetary process, CPA is a bottom up process,” McCarroll said. “Anyone a city department a civic association or a nonprofit organization can bring a project to the committee.” If voters adopt the CPA, the Council would then write an ordinance establishing a board to select projects.
McCarroll noted that as structured, a home valued at $125,000 would face $7 a year. Some $1.3 could become available with the state match. The final vote was 11-1 with Ashe voting the negative.
After the vote, Shea again thanked the CPA review committee members for delving into the matter on behalf of the city, “I want to underscore the extremely complicated process of going through this data.”
But for a permit hearing next month, the Council will not meet again in regular session until after the September 8 Democratic primary in which Ashe is running for sheriff and Bud Williams for the 11th Hampden House seat. Thus, in addition to whatever visibility opportunities Monday provided, Councilors could return to a council on the cusp of change. That changed membership could be the one deciding how to write the CPA ordinance, if voters want it, and how battle on for the sake of Gerena.