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Grant OK'd to save Main Street 'gem'

Vandal casts a dissenting vote

Memorial Hall owner Colm Cryan talks about the building’s architecture during a tour amid renovations last fall. File photo. (click for larger version)
August 05, 2009
SOUTHBRIDGE — Normally, an opportunity to get a grant of more than half a million dollars sails through a local governing board with unanimous ayes.

Not in Southbridge. On Monday, Town Councilor Conrad Vandal argued the Memorial Hall project, which a $578,802 grant would partly fund, could bring families with children to live on Main Street. He also objected to the fact its owner, Irishman Colm Cryan, isn't from Southbridge and that it could cause parking problems downtown.

"I think he found a sucker town to get $500,000," Vandal said before being the sole 'no' vote on the plan.

The rest of the board, however, sided with Denise Clemence, who argued the project would be a "showcase" for environmentally-advanced, LEED-certified technology.

"This is a prime opportunity for economic development, beautification and whatever you want to call it right on Main Street," she said. "Let's make it happen. Let's do something."

Richard Logan dubbed the project "a golden opportunity to save a gem" and attract much-needed business to town.

Specifically, the project aims to renovate the historical Memorial Hall building, 319 Main St., into a commercial first floor with three businesses (one of them Cryan's own) and two floors of apartments. The second floor is slated to house four middle-income apartments, the top floor, three higher-end ones.

Cryan, who was not at the meeting, has said they'd be equipped with various energy and water efficiency devices, natural lighting conduits, advanced windows and other "green" technology in part because he wants to be able to prove old buildings can be converted into modern ones.

For some time, Economic Development Director Sandy Acly has championed his project, shepherding the grant process for months.

"If you want your downtown to work, you want people there," she said, adding they "make it a livelier and healthier place to be."

David Livengood agreed, noting, "Nowadays, people are moving to downtowns because they want access to what downtowns offer." He said more crowding might give extra impetus to improving the parking situation.

To Vandal, however, a lack of clarity over whether the apartments are two- or three-bedroom (he said he read three; Acly said two) led him to believe it was being aimed at families, and he disliked the idea of children playing on Main Street. Instead, he said he'd rather see the site become entirely commercial.

"You're not going to be able to control these apartments. I'm against it," he said.

Pointing out that families living downtown is a fairly recent trend and most upstairs levels were once businesses, Larry McDonald voted yes because the building needs maintenance. When Cryan started his project, it was on the verge of being unsalvageable, with its alley wall bulging outward, water and fire damage indoors and other extensive problems due to years of neglect. Parts of the building have been vacant since the 1980s, and it has had two owners since it had any tenants at all.

He agreed with Vandal, however, that the town needs "to put parking on a fast track."

Acly agreed downtown parking is a problem and that Cryan's agreement to have his tenants park across the street at Notre Dame is "not a perfect one."

That issue bothered Council Chairman Steven Lazo as well. He said he could "look ahead" and imagine the building losing it's parking privileges across the street or being sold and becoming "a less desirable building." But he still supported the project, largely because Cryan plans to occupy part of it himself, he said.

Historically, it's actually three buildings combined into one. If looking at it from the street, the oldest part is to the left; it was built in 1878 as "S.K. Edwards Hall" and once had a notably different roofline. A few years later, the right half — the actual "Memorial Hall" — was added. Both came from the minds of the Edwards family, which constructed several of downtown's major buildings. The back section — which was at one time a theater — was added later, and, sometime before the 1960s, the front rooflines were flattened out.

Back in Sept. 2008, Cryan said he plans to restore those old rooflines, the left half's original column-like façade and the right half's curved Art Deco appearance, among other things. But he also wants to experiment with a host of 21st-century concepts, including advanced insulation, a heat exchange system to take advantage of the temperature difference between the upper floors and the cool basement, various kinds of renewable energy and ways of bringing sunlight into the building, and possibly even convert the roof into a green space.

"I want this to be an exemplar building," Cryan said. "It's a building I can try new technology in because it's a blank canvas."

Because it's from the state Department of Housing and Community Development, the grant money can only be used on the residential floors, Acly said. Cryan has to pay for the commercial areas privately.

In other business, the Council voted 5-4 to reject giving a one-year contract to Kopelman and Paige to continue as town attorneys after some members argued they'd prefer a local lawyer and did not like the firm's record.

Before the vote, Town Manager Chris Clark said they could also try two alternatives — a different lawyer within the firm, or a local lawyer with a major firm for backup. Some councilors, however, argued the latter would be more expensive because the local person would likely take more time to do things and might have to "farm out" some of it.

Clark said the town has paid about $150,000 in legal fees each of the past three years, prompting some to argue for halving it and others to point out the town has had several serious issues hit it in that time.

Gus Steeves can be reached at 508-909-4135 or by e-mail at gsteeves@stonebridgepress.com.

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