Springfield School Department Settles Into New Headquarters Downtown

August 1, 2010 : The Republican, by Peter Goonan

SPRINGFIELD – At first glance, the former federal building at 1550 Main St. might seem uninviting as construction continues in the outdoor plaza and visitors are directed to enter by way of the back doorway on a temporary basis.

In the floors above, however, approximately 150 employees of the School Department's central office continue to settle into their new home, and describe the conditions as far superior to the former headquarters in the now-vacant, century-old building at 195 State St.

“It is night and day,” said Azell M. Cavaan, the School Department's chief communications officer. “It was a long-time coming. We are so thrilled to be in this new location.”

The former headquarters lacked air conditioning, and had poor ventilation, little natural light, and aged, worn conditions, school employees said.

The new downtown corridor site, owned by the Massachusetts Development Finance Agency (MassDevelopment), is modern, clean, spacious, air-conditioned and well-ventilated, several school employees said last week. The central office moved to the new site in phases this summer, leasing more than 50,000 square feet on the second and third floors at a cost of approximately $560,000 a year including rent and operating expenses.

Many boxes of supplies still line the walls as school employees continue to unpack.

The five-story building was left nearly vacant two years ago when the primary tenant, the U.S. District Court, and related tenants moved to the new courthouse building on State Street.

The building is now about 95 percent rented and will have approximately 300 to 400 employees when the moves are complete, according to Kelsey Abbruzzese, MassDevelopment spokeswoman. MassDevelopment has invested approximately $6.1 million in the property, including the purchase of the building last October for $2.5 million, armed with lease commitments from the School Department and Baystate Health.

“We're committed to a vibrant downtown,” Abbruzzese said.

Baystate Health plans to occupy the fifth floor by late fall, while the specific office uses not yet determined. The health system expects about 100 to 125 employees will occupy about 50,000 square feet of space.

“Our main goal is to support the city,” health system spokeswoman Jane Albert said.

The front plaza is no longer lined by concrete barriers, which were installed to protect the courthouse and federal agencies after the terrorism of 9/11. The U.S. General Services Administration and some other federal tenants remain in the building.

Daniel J. Moore, of property manager NAI Plotkin, said the exterior changes are scheduled to be completed in October and include facade improvements, planters and paving. Ongoing improvements also targeted elevators, bathrooms, lighting and security.

Inside the building, Wyatt Leak Jr., supervisor of school crossing guards, praised the new administration offices. The old building was difficult, particularly in the summertime when the building would be hot and crowded, he said.

“It's a more professional environment,” Leak said. “It's pretty comfortable. With the air conditioning, it makes quite a difference. We had no air conditioning whatsoever.”

The city allocated $2.8 million on interior renovations and upgrades affecting its leased area. The state is providing $3 million to assist MassDevelopment with various physical improvements and related costs.

City Councilor Timothy J. Rooke has repeatedly criticized the relocation and cost of the lease, saying the city should have sought proposals from other downtown landlords, predicting a far lower lease could have been found. Mayor Domenic J. Sarno and other officials have defended the lease, saying it was important to keep that building from going dark and was the best decision for the downtown economy.

The city plans to seek a buyer for the vacated, city-owned building at 195 State St.

School employees praised the comfort and professional surroundings at the new site.

“Oh my God, it's fantastic,” said Bonnie M. Roy, the School Department's coordinator of licensure compliance. “It's huge. It's motivating.”

Armando Cruz, human resource manager, said the new site is “a big improvement, we definitely upgraded.”

“No more sweltering summer afternoons,” Cruz said. “I'm thinking about buying a couple of sweaters.”

Several employees, however, did say that it hurts to have to pay for parking, ranging from $35 a month to $80 a month. There were also difficulties with parking at the former School Department site on State Street, but there was some free parking available a few blocks away, employees said.

© Copyright 2010 The Republican.