Plans move forward for parking lot expansion

LONGMEADOW – The potential loss of a grassy area along Longmeadow Street took center stage at a joint meeting of the Select Board and Planning Board.

The Colvest Group, which owns 467, 471 and 475 Longmeadow Street, is seeking permission to expand the town-owned parking lot located in front of the building that used to house Hampden Bank and Visions eye care.

The lot currently features 13 parallel spaces. Under the proposal, the lot would be expanded to include 25 angled spots, with construction costs paid for by the Colvest Group. However, Selectman Mark Gold took issue with the proposal, particularly how the expansion would eliminate a grassy area on the west side of the existing lot. He called it “an intrusion on public land.”

Other members of the Select Board disagreed, stating that the loss of this small, grassy area is a fair tradeoff to make this building more attractive for potential tenants.

“We only have five percent of our property zoned for business,” said Select Board Vice Chairman Thomas Lachiusa. “I think we need to do what we can to make them (commercial properties) as productive as possible.”

Select Board Chair Marie Angelides added her support to the project, stating that the proposed changes would improve the parking situation and make the sidewalks safer.

“It’s a heavily-used area, and an important part of our town,” she said. “If we are going to have commercial space there, we need safer parking patterns.”
During a brief exchange between Gold and Town Manager Stephen Crane, Gold stated he was disappointed that Crane and other Select Board members were clearly supportive of the project. While Gold said that Crane “had a right to” his opinion, Gold indicated his desire for Crane to remain neutral. Crane responded
by stating that he formed his opinion after weighing what the town would be giving up, and what it would get in return.

“An empty commercial building is not as valuable as an occupied commercial building,” said Crane. “Any viable commercial enterprise (at that location) is going to need parking.”

A tenant for one of the vacant storefronts in the building has already been secured; Alex’s Bagel Shop will move its operation from the Big Y building on Williams Street to this new location on Longmeadow Street. Peter LaPointe, from the Colvest Group, said they are actively seeking a new tenant for the former Hampden Bank site as well. Fred Astaire Dance Studios’ corporate offices are occupying the unit on the Bliss Road side of the building.

The proposal contends that the expanded lot would ease parking constraints for all three businesses on the property, as well as provide overflow parking for the Mobil gas station next door. LaPointe noted the lot would remain public, meaning it would be open for anyone to use, not just those patronizing the businesses in their building.

“This represents an investment of private money on public property,” said LaPointe. “Going from 13 to 25 spaces would support new tenants in the vacant space fronting on Longmeadow Street, particularly the bagel shop, which would have quick turnover of customers.”

In addition to expanding the parking lot, the project includes reconfiguring the Bliss Road exit, which would help prevent drivers from taking a right into the parking lot from Bliss, or from exiting the parking lot and attempting to turn left onto Bliss.

“This change forces you to go out to the light,” said LaPointe.

Colvest also plans to pay to have a retaining wall on the property reconstructed, with a new guardrail placed on top. Additionally, damaged sidewalks would be replaced, and the sidewalk that meets Bliss Road would be made ADA compliant through a change in grading and the installation of a ramp. Finally, one tree would be removed to make way for the new parking spots, so Colvest has agreed to plant a new tree across the street, at the request of the town’s Tree Committee.

Through a 3-1 vote, the Select Board approved a motion allowing Crane to negotiate a license agreement with Colvest for the proposed parking plan. Gold’s was the lone dissenting vote, with Angelides, Lachiusa and Selectman Richard Foster voting in favor of the motion. Selectman William Low was not in attendance at the meeting.

The issue will now be discussed at an upcoming Planning Board meeting, where it will determine if a site and design review process is necessary.

– Article by Sarah Leete Tsitso