Thumbs up to projects rebuilding New Bedford

Thumbs up to projects rebuilding New Bedford

On our best days, we are a community here in New Bedford. We look out for ourselves and our loved ones, but we also look out for the community at large.

We care about what life in the city is like, what it looks like, what’s available for jobs, education and housing, what kind of shape the parks and roadways are in and, yes, how high are the taxes.

It’s this attitude that we are all in this together that is reflected in city voters’ adoption of the Community Preservation Act almost 10 years ago. It wasn’t a close vote as New Bedford votes go; some 54% of those who cast ballots willingly approved the property tax surcharge vs. only 46% who voted against it. 

An 8% margin of victory in any election is quite a healthy one. And it was, after all, a modest 1.5% surcharge in order to accomplish long-delayed improvements to New Bedford that have tended to get swallowed up in other municipal government spending purposes. Like the seemingly ever-escalating costs of health care and retirement benefits we provide to deserving city employees.

In a city like New Bedford, whose economy has been depressed for a half century, the CPA is extremely important. It offers an effective way of finally making some improvements that have enabled the city to be a little more liveable and on a closer par with the surrounding suburbs.

That kind of do-gooding, of course, drives some folks crazy. There’s a certain mindset common among some citizens that it’s always all about me. But that’s another issue for another column.

So here’s a few of the things that have been accomplished by way of the New Bedford Community Preservation Committee over these last 10 years: The rebuilding of the most historic church in the city (First Baptist, which inspired Robert’s rules of Order) into a first-class community theater; the renovation of a decades-long vacant Catholic high school (Holy Family) into 15 affordable housing units in a city that badly needs them. Thank you locally-born developer Gerry Kavanaugh; the expansion of the bucolic open space at the Acushnet Saw Mill into an unspoiled slice of nature where you can walk through a riverway and wetlands as beautiful as anything in New Hampshire; the resurfacing and rebuilding of basketball courts and tots playgrounds in the parks in almost every part of New Beige, from the Far North to the Peninsula.

121 North, an affordable housing apartment building converted from the former Holy Family High School. Among the government-supported funding for the development was the New Bedford Community Preservation Committee. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

So the CPA is a good thing, right?

Well, even though it seems an indisputably good thing, every year there’s a prickly battle at the City Council over approval of certain CPA projects. There’s always a councilor or two who get worked up over things like whether the same projects receive too much money year after year. The answer to that one is the same every year: big construction projects are expensive, and the CPC has limited funds and they spread the money around to as many projects as they can. So projects take multiple years. 

A councilor here or there is also always complaining that big nonprofits are favored over smaller ones. That’s also a canard — the big projects have professional staffs and just tend to follow the grant process a little better, but the CPC helps little ones in any way they can. But they have to be careful who they recommend money for. If they ever lent money unwisely and a project didn’t get done, there would be no end to the criticism that they wasted taxpayer money.

There’s also the councilors who every year want to relitigate whether the CPC should even be doing things like building affordable housing and spurring economic development, even though that’s exactly what the law calls for. As the late City Councilor George Rogers might say, “It’s ridikolos.”

The money has already been raised. It has to be spent on something. And there is a deep well of need in New Bedford. 

The simple fact is that there is a strain of conservative values that runs deep among some city councilors and they are not above trying to bend the CPA to their own views of what it should be, rather than what the state Legislature actually passed it to be. That is how I would describe the longstanding opposition of Councilor Linda Morad to some projects, and this year’s over-the-top questioning by freshman Councilor Leo Choquette. Second-term Ward 3 Councilor Shawn Oliver also seems like he’s just on the edge of outright opposition to taxpayer money being used for privately owned affordable housing, despite the law.

New Bedford city councilors a few minutes prior to voting on the 2024 Community Preservation Projects. Credit: New Bedford Cable Access TV

Don’t get me wrong. All three councilors asked good questions at the annual presentation of the CPA projects several weeks ago. One does have to wonder if some of the applicants are working very hard to find matching funds, and it takes a while to adjust to the ever-escalating costs of things in this inflationary era. And the councilors themselves have a fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers as Morad frequently points out.

Some of the councilors, of course, have gone further and even made a furtive effort to put the whole CPA bylaw back before the voters. That was quickly beaten back by an outcry of residents who favor it across the city. That is after Mayor Jon Mitchell wisely vetoed the council’s move. Whatever you want to say about this mayor, he gets the importance of government-assisted programming in helping develop a challenged economy like New Bedford’s.

This year the prickly councilors were egged on by a concerted campaign by my friend Chris McCarthy over at WBSM. A libertarian-type guy himself, McCarthy particularly led the charge about the major effort to rebuild the Capitol Theater on Acushnet Avenue in the North End. More about that in a minute. The mid-morning host tapped into some legitimate questions about why the project has taken four years, although the CPA has well explained the delays.

Part of the CPA opposition, I think, is because the council tends to be a bit more conservative than New Bedford as a whole. I’m not exactly sure why this has always been so, except that I’ve long thought conservatives are more passionate about their beliefs than progressives. They run for office in the city more often than the left-leaning folks do. Maybe it’s something about them being very unhappy with the way things are, all these liberals running everything in Massachusetts.

But even though these folks run often, it is the great swath of moderate City Council candidates who usually win the most seats. And it is they who push through the valuable CPA projects. Thank you to folks like Maria Giesta, Brad Markey, Joe Lopes, Ian Abreu, Brian Gomes, Ryan Pereira.

So every year, even though there’s always a lot of hemming and hawing from some councilors, in the end the moderates — the men and women on the council who are the most quiet but the most influential — almost always win out. And the overwhelming majority of CPC projects are approved. The historic preservation, the park upgrades, the housing and economic development projects all get done.

This year was no different. But there were a few explosions of indignation at the April 24 Finance Committee meeting before they got there. 

Much of the umbrage came from freshman Ward 1 Councilor Choquette, who was nothing if not entertaining with some of his verbal missiles about, shudder, “nonprofits.” He and second-term Councilor Shawn Oliver asked some questions about why the Capitol Theater project (my personal favorite of this year’s proposals) is taking so long (four years) and increasing in cost so greatly (from $7 million when it began to $11 million now).

The theater and offices portion of the Capital Theater building. The theater has been closed for 50 years and some city councilors expressed concern as the cost of the project, begun during the pandemic, has increased from $7 million to $11 million. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

CPC chair Jan DaSilva and manager Jessica Bailey have explained it all before. Big projects take multiple years because the CPC has limited funds. The pandemic intervened during the year after the Capitol started and had an ongoing effect. Construction costs then greatly escalated, significant amounts of asbestos was discovered; working with the grant bureaucracy takes time on a big project, as does complying with environmental regulations, building codes.

Choquette was not deterred.

“I mean $11 million for six low-income apartments and a storefront and a CEDC clubhouse, that seems like a lot of money there,” he piped, both miscategorizing the actual project and insulting it.

Choquette, of course, perhaps playing to the local talk radio crowd, left out that the CPC is only paying for $1 million of the $11 million total. An impressive number of other state and federal projects are paying for the bulk of the cost. Bailey listed no less than eight federal and state agencies that have given grants to what really is a critically important project, which will significantly change the long-struggling commercial heart of the Near North End.

Choquette told me he personally supports the development itself, but he certainly didn’t sound like it when he made his wiseguy crack about the Community Economic Development Center building itself “a clubhouse.”

The CEDC for two decades is actually exactly the kind of entity that you would think folks who pride themselves on being fiscally conservative would be fans of. It is a business incubator whose purpose is to advise low-income folks on how to start and run their own businesses and properly do their taxes. 

The Capitol Theater project includes a place for the business incubator, a community bank, community health center, after-school classrooms geared to Spanish instruction, possibly a recreation area, and the six apartments Choquette mentioned. It is hoped that it will be a hub for a section of Ward 2 that has seen little investment in decades.

I fear the real heart of some of the opposition to the Capitol Theater project in this town is that this agency works with many of the Central American immigrants who have come to New Bedford over the last 25 years. But that’s also an issue for a whole different column.

Choquette is an affable and interested guy who it’s hard not to like. He told me that he just could not support this spending after hearing from attendees at a recently revived Ward 1 Neighborhood Association meeting. Many were particularly opposed to the theater rebuild and a separate effort to make handicapped accessible a rooming house for low-income women run by the YWCA.

A plaque honoring four New Bedford residents (then Bedford Village) killed in a Revolutionary War skirmish is on the grounds of the YWCA’s new rooming house on County Street. Handicapped accessible work at the facility was approved as one of this year’s Community Preservation projects. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

“At the Ward 1 neighborhood association, a lot of people were raising hands saying they didn’t want taxpayer money going to nonprofits,” he said.

I don’t know. Ward 1 is certainly on the conservative side but I know a lot of progressives and moderates who live up there, too. They certainly have benefitted from city efforts like the expansion of Pine Grove Park and the improvement of the water at Sassaquin Pond. 

Choquette did “recant” his clubhouse crack after Bailey called him out on it. But it seemed like a politician lobbying the grenade and then saying afterward, “Oh, did that go off? I’m so sorry,”

Ah, those non-productive nonprofits.

You mean like the Boys and Girls Club? And the YMCA? And the New Bedford Fishing Heritage Center? Because those are some of the other nonprofits that got CPC money.

No, it’s not nonprofits that are the problem but some particular nonprofits that certain folks don’t like. 

It’s just my opinion, but I think some folks don’t like certain “helping hand” purposes like including a commercial kitchen that can help folks learn the ropes of running a food truck or a small restaurant. Other folks don’t like the idea of supporting a theater that runs all those leftie plays. Some folks really don’t like the idea of government support for a low-income rooming house for abused women, even if it is run by the YWCA. 

By the way, some have derisively and inaccurately labeled the YWCA project a “sober house” because some residents at one time or another have had substance abuse problems. But this house could not be further from some of the for-profit versions of that kind of place. The YWCA and its leader, Gail Fortes, are one of the most respected organizations in the city.

Here’s the reality for all you folks who are so ecstatic about the vaunted private sector. The Capitol Theater has been empty for a half century. 

No private concern has been able to do a development there, never mind even tear it down. It’s simply too expensive to turn a profit and it’s a mammoth eyesore that is holding back an entire section of the city.

Part of the Acushnet Avenue front of the large Capitol Theater building. An ambitious rebuild of this key Acushnet Avenue building in the North End was again approved this year. It is scheduled to begin visible construction this year. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

The alternative to the CEDC’s dedicated project, and all the hard work that went into it, is to let an important North End block continue to deteriorate and sit vacant another 50 years. I’ll take the CEDC’s proposal. And the same for the good folks at the YWCA who have done a very challenging effort, taking on the rooming house.

We can all second guess every proposal until the last clothing mill leaves New Bedford. Personally, I would like to have seen the theater project contain a component of a gym. The North End, unlike the West and South Ends, does not have a youth facility like the Boys and Girls Club, YMCA or Dennison Center.

But I’m not on the committee, I haven’t developed the project. The folks who are involved came to their own conclusions about what’s viable in that building and what’s not.

Some of these government-spurred projects have been gold for New Bedford. 

Up and down Union Street we have new housing going in because of them. The redeveloped empty mills in the North End have been given new life because of them. They did what the private sector was unable to do.

Private sector developers haven’t developed much housing in the city for decades because it’s hard to make a buck here. The construction costs are almost as high as Boston and Providence but the rents are much lower. Virtually all the development that is going on is supported by government assistance like the CPC or state or federal programs.

One important CPC project this year almost did go down in flames. But there was a last-minute effort to rescue a $285,000 request for funding to restore the facade of the Bristol County Superior Courthouse. The 1838-41 built Greek Revival courthouse designed by renowned architect Russell Warren is the place where Lizzie Borden was tried.

Councilors initially voted not to fund it over concerns that the other municipalities in the county were not contributing. But after County Commissioner John Saunders, a former longtime city councilor and South Coast political power broker, lobbied some councilors, the council changed its mind.

The exterior facade, but not the dilapidated cupola at the Bristol County Superior Court House is an approved New Bedford Community Preservation project this year. The county has agreed to pay for the cupola restoration and also toward the facade restoration. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Ward 6 Councilor Ryan Pereira told the body that it had come to his attention that New Bedford had received “quite a bit of ARPA funds from the Bristol County commissioners.”

“Seeing the increase in ARPA funds more than we were supposed to get from the county, I definitely think $2 million gain is worth a $285,000 CPA project,” he said.

Pereira later told me Saunders was the source of his ARPA information, and I was able to verify that with another source. I’ve been a frequent critic of Saunders over the years, but if he lobbied for the court and steered county funds the city’s way, good on him. He evidently knows the handsome and historic building needs an infusion of money to be restored.

In any event, the council received a separate letter before the revised vote from the county outlining its financial commitment to the project of $1.4 million, and the possibility of county towns that have the CPC contributing to a coming $1.2 million window replacement project. The courthouse is continuing to function, although the state is said to be planning a new court complex for the city at some point.

In the end, most of the councilors came around to vote for the whole $2.2 million CPC package with only Choquette and Ward 4 Councilor Derek Baptiste voting against it.. 

Baptiste had concerns about the Carney Lodge project’s $104,000 request being reduced to $25,000 while bigger projects got more money. He said he’d rather see projects like the Carney Lodge, the Underground Railroad cafe and the Cape Verdean Ultramarine Band Club — all establishments in the city’s Cape Verdean enclave — receive more funding than the courthouse. The CPC granted the lodge $25,000 toward a roof repair after it expressed concerns about the fraternal organization’s ability to realize the project. They first wanted an assessment of all the work that needs to be done, as it has requested of many other small projects.

The William H. Carney lodge on Mill Street in the West End of New Bedford. Disagreements between the owners and Community Preservation Committee arose over a request by the committee to do first do a building assessment. They agreed to first devote a portion of their funding request to an immediate roof repair. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

Baptiste, who represents the minority-majority Ward 4, said he prefers “some other places that actually get used in the community, that would actually sustain places in the community that have been there for a long time.”

Choquette said he would have voted for all the projects except the Capitol Theater and YWCA house, but he wanted the votes on the projects broken down individually. When a motion by Councilor Morad to pass all the projects together passed, he had no opportunity. “I had to make a snap judgment when the vote came,” he said. And he insisted it was his responsibility to support what he saw as the opposition of the majority of his ward.

Such is the way community preservation sausage is made in New Bedford. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t even terribly logical. Still, I’m glad it got done once again. Because this city as a whole deserves it. We are a community.

Email columnist Jack Spillane at [email protected].

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