State seeks developers for unused land in Northampton, Belchertown, elsewhere

October 19, 2015 : Springfield Republican, by Shira Schoenberg

Some of the homes constructed at Village Hill in Northampton are these units on Olander Drive on the site of the former Northampton State Hospital. (The Republican file | Dave Roback)

When Harry Shaw died in 1963, he left his 32-acre property in Washington to the town. If the town did not take it, the property would go to Berkshire Community College. After the person living on the land died, the property would be sold and the money used for college scholarships.

The property was vacated in 1996. Ten years later, the state Legislature authorized its sale.

Today, photographs show a wooded property near October Mountain State Forest with one single-story ramshackle farmhouse. The 1,300-square-foot house was built in 1936, with the last major renovation in 1953, according to property tax records.

The state still owns the parcel, which it plans to auction in December.

"One of the things the commonwealth has that it's never figured out strategically what to do with it is a ton, a ton of real estate," said Gov. Charlie Baker.

Baker announced a new plan on Monday for the state to develop unused or underutilized property, holding a fair in which developers could look at 42 properties with the potential for development.

Baker said he plans to create a new working group that will evaluate proposals, hire a consultant to help the commonwealth identify other unused land, reactivate an Asset Management Board to work with private developers on long-term leases, and more effectively manage the state's real estate and leases.

The state owns more than 20,000 properties. Several of the properties for sale or lease are in Western Massachusetts.

In Northampton, for example, the state is continuing work on Village Hill, a new neighborhood that has been developing for a dozen years on the site of the former Northampton State Hospital, a state mental hospital that closed in 1993.

"It's not a simple one size fits all thing." - Joe Kriesberg

Richard Henderson, executive vice president of real estate forMassDevelopment, a quasi-public agency that has been demolishing buildings, cleaning up the site, and finding private developers, said the project is around two-thirds done.

Village Hill includes commercial properties and residential homes, with affordable and market rate housing for rent and for sale. A plan for net zero energy housing is in the planning stages and would include both single family homes and co-housing, where residents share a kitchen, dining room and play area. The neighborhood has a periscope manufacturing company and an assisted living facility. MassDevelopment is continuing to look for developers to build additional residential and commercial sites.

"Northampton is a great example of a creative use of what was a government property," Henderson said.

MassDevelopment is also developing the Belchertown State School, another former mental hospital with 40 buildings on a 90-acre plot of land, which state officials want to turn into a mixed use neighborhood with an assisted living center, housing and commercial space. The Legislature authorized $10 million to prepare the site in 2007-2008, and former governor Deval Patrick released $4 million of that.

"It's an underutilized asset we want to make into a vibrant community as part of Belchertown," said Claire O'Neill, vice president of planning and development for MassDevelopment.

The state is also advertising the availability of the rooftops and facades of public buildings for lease as sites for telecommunications equipment like cell antennae. For example, it is advertising space at community colleges in Holyoke and in the Berkshires; on Springfield and Pittsfield state office buildings; and at Westfield State University.

Other properties on the state's list include a 2-acre property with a building and loading dock in Greenfield that is being auctioned off, and land under I-391 in Chicopee that can be leased as a parking lot for development on an adjacent property.

Joe Kriesberg, president of the Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations, which are organizations primarily focused on building affordable housing, said he was happy to hear of Baker's plan. While the state has always sold unused property, he said Baker appears willing to settle for a lower price in order to benefit the public good – for example, to allow for more affordable housing.

"If you're looking for maximum dollars, it's likely a development catering to higher income and higher wealth people and markets, and that's not necessarily the best use for a public asset," Kriesberg said.

Kriesberg praised Baker for looking to the private sector for ideas. "It's not a simple one size fits all thing," Kriesberg said. "Saying to the private sector 'Bring us your ideas' is probably going to be a faster, more effective way than to have state government figure out what should happen on every parcel and find someone to do it for them."

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