Wilson’s project secures special permit from Greenfield ZBA

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 06-10-2023 10:40 AM

GREENFIELD — The Wilson’s Department Store redevelopment project has cleared its final hurdle of approval from city boards, with the Zoning Board of Appeals issuing a special permit on Thursday.

The permit was unanimously approved on the condition that the applicant, MassDevelopment, abide by the recommendations of the traffic study and, to that extent, be willing to pay for traffic mitigation costs that are required by engineers or the Department of Public Works within a year of the project’s completion. Mitigation strategies include traffic-calming signs.

“It’s a terrific project,” said ZBA Chair David Singer. “We’re all really looking forward to the completion of it as soon as possible.”

Wilson’s Department Store, one of the last independent, family-owned department stores in the country, closed in January 2020. Mark Abramson, a real estate agent with Coldwell Banker Commercial Upton-Massamont Realtors, previously said the property, which includes the parking lot behind the building and two lots on Chapman Street, was priced at $3.95 million when it went on the market. Mayor Roxann Wedegartner announced in November 2022 that the city worked in partnership with The Community Builders, MassDevelopment and the Franklin Community Co-op — which operates Green Fields Market — on MassDevelopment’s acquisition of the property.

The redevelopment project, which involves relocating and expanding Green Fields Market into the Main Street building’s first floor and turning the upper floors into 65 mixed-income rental apartments, has already been given the green light by both the Planning Board and Historical Commission.

The project first appeared before the ZBA last month, but meetings on the proposal were continued to allow MassDevelopment time to improve upon its original traffic study, which was based on inaccurate travel patterns with respect to Davis Street. Singer previously explained the initial traffic evaluation was based on the ability to take a left turn onto Davis Street from the posterior parking area, when, in fact, drivers leaving the property can only take a right turn onto the one-way street, which then funnels traffic onto Main Street.

“It ended up being better results, with no intersection losing any level of service except the intersection of Pleasant and Federal Street,” Planning and Economic Director Eric Twarog said of the revised traffic study.

According to Twarog, many of the public comments on Thursday addressed concerns about traffic on Chapman Street. Others questioned the impact the development would have on the sewer and water system. Twarog, however, said the project had been reviewed by the DPW and its engineers, during which no concerns for sewer and water were raised.

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As for traffic concerns, ZBA member Peter Wozniak said there will need to be a “tremendous effort” to get people to accept heavier pedestrian and vehicular traffic — traffic more comparable to a time when Wilson’s Department Store was open.

“I support the project,” said ZBA member Mark Maloni, echoing Wozniak’s comment. “If you want a busy thriving downtown, then you’re going to have heavier traffic and that’s just part of the package. Everyone seems to indicate they want a busier, thriving downtown.”

Acknowledging existing issues with Chapman Street, namely the narrow width and lack of parking, Singer added that part of the ZBA’s work was to determine whether the project as proposed would create new problems.

“I don’t see, for the traffic study, that there has been a material change in the traffic and pedestrian conditions due to this project,” Singer said.

The board appeared to be in agreement that all other requirements for special permit approval — such as impact on wastewater and other public facilities, and open space — were satisfied.

Concerns over Cleary Jewelers’ relocation

Several residents spoke during public comment Thursday in support of one of the businesses that is expected to vacate the former Wilson’s building as the redevelopment process moves forward.

On the same morning as Wedegartner’s announcement in November, the three businesses that lease space in the Wilson’s building — Cleary Jewelers, Hens & Chicks, and Lucky Bird — were informed of the sale and told they’d be expected to vacate their respective spaces by spring. Since then, Hens & Chicks has shared plans to move into the Baker Office Supply, which announced its intent to close.

In a statement, Kerry Semaski, owner of Cleary Jewelers, expressed disappointment in MassDevelopment’s effort at negotiating its move to a new site in Greenfield.

“In short, MassDevelopment is breaking our lease contract and asking us to vacate a lease six and a half years early at our own expense,” she wrote. “This is not acceptable. MassDevelopment touts itself as a business-friendly entity suitable for developing downtown economies. So far, their actions convey that their business development plans and projects are more important than existing family-owned businesses, no matter the collateral damage.”

According to MassDevelopment, with the acquisition of the Main Street property came a “commitment to work with the three small businesses” on the first floor. In a statement, the agency said it is “focused on working with the remaining two businesses to ensure they have a smooth transition to a new location in downtown Greenfield once construction begins.” MassDevelopment is “still in negotiations with Cleary’s and [hopes] to come up with a resolution so they can continue to serve the Greenfield community in a new location.” However, the state agency has declined to answer specific questions, citing negotiations between both parties’ legal counsel.

On Thursday, officials emphasized that the matter is outside the ZBA’s purview.

“I don’t know what jurisdiction we have over that,” Singer said. “I hope that this gets ironed out but that’s really a post-permit issue. That doesn’t have anything to do with us.”

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.

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