My Turn: Taking the French King out of the box

  • The “green entryway” looking north from Stop & Shop on the French King Highway. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO/AL NORMAN

Published: 1/21/2021 6:05:33 PM

Twenty-two months ago, the Greenfield City Council voted to kill the French King Corridor Overlay Zone that had been adopted by the Town Council 25 years earlier as a “green entryway” into town. One-hundred-sixty-two acres of land were suddenly opened up to strip development — like gas stations and drive-through fast-food restaurants. The corridor deletion was half of a “deal” to secure enough Council votes to pass a new library measure — even though the “green entryway” zone was completely unrelated to the need for a new library.

Since the corridor repeal — which was opposed 4-1 by the Greenfield Planning Board — nothing much has happened on the French King Highway, despite the fact that it has been zoned General Commercial for the past 17 years.

When a court ruled in the fall of 2020 — after a nine-year legal battle — that a Connecticut developer could have a special permit to build a 135,000-square-foot building at the end of the French King, directly across the road from the site where Greenfield voters stopped a Wal-Mart in 1993, Route 2A became one of the most controversial roadways in Franklin County.

Despite the well-documented record of big box stores like Home Depot and Walmart as retail killers and exploiters of workers, several Greenfield political leaders have had a 30-year obsession with attracting national chain logos to hoist our economy. But today many residents lament the loss of so many small merchants that used to line our Main Street. Recently, a woman standing in long queue at the UPS store returning her Amazon Xmas gifts said to me: “I told my husband, this is the time I wish we still had Wilson’s.”

Yet in our planning documents, we as a city have created a list of specific needs: adding more affordable housing, expanding our industrial base, revitalizing our downtown, protecting open space and small-town quality of life. In the City’s economic development plans for 2021, on the priority list is expanding the Interstate 91 industrial park with new building sites—but nothing about the 10 acres of developable land on the French King.

I argued in 2004 that the French King Highway should remain zoned for industrial use — not commercial sprawl. Fortunately, our General Commercial Zone on the French King allows a wide range of uses with a special permit: light industry, manufacturing, processing plant, solar farm, single, two and multi-family housing, and marijuana cultivation, to name a few.

Any of these permitted uses would be more economically useful to Greenfield than a large retail box store that will displace more existing jobs than it will create. For example, a development of small, energy- and cost-efficient houses makes more sense than squeezing them into existing side- or backyards. Or a solar installation, like the one at the Greenfield landfill.

“Ten flat acres is enough for a 2.5 megawatt ground-mounted solar PV system,” Claire Chang, the owner of the Solar Store of Greenfield told me. “It could generate 3 million kilowatt hours per year which will power about 250 homes.” She added the city could set up a community-shared solar array “for residents who are unable to install solar on their own home for a variety of reasons. They could receive 100% renewable electricity to offset part of their electric bill.”

No new water or sewer lines would need to be extended to the French King site. Deerfield just signed a contract with Nexamp to develop a 3 megawatt solar installation at the town’s landfill. A big box store would raise our carbon load, while a solar PV system would lower our carbon footprint for many years to come.

There’s an important role here for the City Council. They should be deeply involved in any discussions about the French King’s future. Development along Route 2A should not be decided by one or two people. The company that owns the former Mackin parcel should be meeting with a city development committee to look at a range of permitted uses that would make the French King more productive for all city residents, and better address some of our pressing needs. Walmart’s brick and mortar store construction is almost non-existent for 2021. Big box retailers are not building 135,000-square-foot anything. They are preoccupied with building online retail capacity instead.

Given the city’s housing, energy and manufacturing/industrial needs, there is reason to insist that the French King overlay corridor killed in 2019 should be restored. Now is our chance to create something totally outside of the box.

Al Norman is a resident of Greenfield.

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