News

"Bad Energy"

A discrepancy between statements made by city officials raises questions about the principles that have been guiding them.

Comments (7)
Thursday, July 03, 2008

"It is the function of marketing to deal with the identity of a place. We have had potential clients that turned away because of the bad energy of the mental hospital association. This name change reflects the sensible concept of integrating clients into the community, away from the institution."

—Teri Anderson, Economic Development Coordinator for Northampton, in answer to a committee member who asked why "Hospital" had been removed from the name of a new development on the former site of Northampton State Hospital. Recorded in the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) meeting minutes for November, 2007

 

"It's not this group's purview. That's the only thing I'm going to say. The developer gets to make that decision about what it's called. You can have a conversation with them, but it's not the CAC's purview."

—Northampton Mayor Clare Higgins, responding to a similar question from a member of the public two CAC meetings later on June 18, 2008

These responses were quoted in a story published in the Advocate last week ("What's In a Name?", June 26, 2008) as one detail in a wider-ranging discussion. The two very different replies from city officials to what was in effect the same question deserve closer attention. The discrepancies raise questions about Northampton's recent past and imminent future, far beyond what's happening up on Hospital Hill.

Let's rewind the tape and play it again in slow mo.

Though the responses were from two different people, seven months apart, in both instances a very similar cast of characters was present. The majority of the CAC, two city officials, and representatives from the two developers, MassDevelopment and Community Builders, all met in the same room they have been meeting in for nearly a decade, up on Hospital Hill in the Haskell Building.

The big difference was that Teri Anderson's more candid reply in November was made when the meeting room was free of press and public. In June, she was present during the mayor's response, but remained silent even though, by having taken ownership of the decision and having defended it, her previous statement called into question the mayor's assertion that only the developers have a say in the site's name.

Also present at both meetings was the city's planning director, Wayne Feiden. While not a member of the CAC, he regularly attends these meetings, and with a mind for facts and figures, he frequently interjects corrections and comments. But he didn't clarify here.

The reason for the mayor's defensiveness and the room's silence is because until Anderson's remark had been caught in the meeting minutes, city officials and developers had always said they were doing everything possible to sell the site and its history. It was a central condition of the developers taking ownership of the land. Now it appears they may have taken a different course.

By demonstrating that city hall and the developers have been working with two agendas, one public and one private, the city's economic developer invites speculation over what other ulterior motives lurk behind past stated goals, and whom the city has really been trying to please.

In 1998, before a developer had been chosen, or any analysis of structural or financial viability had been done on the hospital that was eventually torn down, Feiden went on record in the Daily Hampshire Gazette saying that "most of the buildings on the hospital grounds will have to be torn down." Without the data to support fact-based reasons for demolition, perhaps it was the more emotional concern about "bad energy" that guided him.

Anderson's comment about prospective clients being turned off by Hospital Hill's history also raises serious questions about who those clients might have been, and whom the city is trying to attract to Northampton. She has repeatedly spoken to the press about potential clients for the site over the years, but until contracts are signed, she is not able to talk about them.

In view of major developments that are underway or planned elsewhere in the city, her comment opens the possibility that Smith College, the Hilton Hotel chain, and the developers looking to build a conference center on the Northampton fairgrounds all rejected the hill because of its ghosts. Maybe that's why Smith tore down affordable housing on Green Street for its new education building instead of building on the adjacent, available lot on the hill.

 

Many of the CAC members who voted unanimously in favor of a plan for defense contractor Kollmorgen to move from its facility on King Street to Hospital Hill agreed that the company is not an ideal fit for the new project. Kollmorgen's move, they say, is necessary in order to keep the company in Northampton. The key questions are, if Kollmorgen is not ideal, whom had the city envisioned as the dream tenant for that location, why did they fail to attract that client over the past 10 years, and what are they doing differently to attract those clients now?

The fact is that the majority of businesses who have stepped forward to invest in the site are the ones for whom no marketing has been necessary. Whatever the city has said they've done to cultivate new business on Hospital Hill to increase the tax base has mostly failed.

We do know the names of the very few businesses that have been lured to Hospital Hill (Kollmorgen and VCA, Inc.) as well as the names of those who have profited from selling property and building there (Goggins Real Estate and Wright Builders). Was it these businesses that needed Old Main demolished before they could take advantage of the hill?

In the 10 years I've lived in Northampton, I've worked for two businesses in transit. One had recently moved to a new location; the other moved while I worked there. The first, a nonprofit, had been open to relocating to Hospital Hill, but got tired of waiting for a way to move forward. They built elsewhere in town. The second company searched all over Northampton and considered several places that needed serious rehab, but according to the best information available, Hospital Hill was never offered as an option.

The Advocate invites readers to post a comment to this story online about what your experiences have been trying to set up shop in the Paradise City and how (whether) Hospital Hill was presented to you.

 

Comments (7)
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When I covered the proposed redevelopment at the former state mental hospital in the mid- to late-1990s, as a local news reporter, I toured the Main Building, where the debris from torutred lives littered the floors. In the basement of that building, jars containing former patient's internal organs in formaldehyde solutions sat untouched, right out of a sci-fi movie. Water leaking from the roof splattered onto the floors and down the molding walls. It was a spooky and rotting place, one that reeked of its former name: The Northampton Lunatic Asylum. Name changes and mnarketing plans will mean little to most prospective clients. VCA, the custom furniture maker from Easthampton, was ready to move in there 10 years ago, but had to wait all this time while the wheels of government slowly turned. The case for demolition was made early on since, while very expensive, it was dwarfed by the cost of rehabbing most existing brick structures there. Whatever marketing strategies seemed right years ago may seem senseless in today's altered business landscape. And without some amenities for the residents, businesses and visitors on Hospital Hill, its distance from dowtown will make it less desirable for commercial and office use. Kollmorgen's choice to relocate there makes more and more sense every day. David Reid, Northampton.
Posted by david reid on 7.3.08 at 13:09
Though I never toured the inside of the buildings, I examined the ample photo galleries available online. Google Northampton State Hospital-images for a look see. There are several virtual tours available. While it's true that the buildings were in a serious state of disrepair, it's also true that Northampton officials had our fire department use Old Main et al. for training, blasting the building repeatedly with high pressure water hoses, essentially pummeling the structures into submission before their time. According to local architect Tris Metcalfe a simple drainage pipe was removed from Old Main's roof causing signficant water damage to all of the floors below. Who removed that pipe and why? The buildings were never boarded up and many of the windows were broken leaving the building open to the elements. Cost estimates for rehabbing the structures also vary depending upon who you talk with. Some local architects feel the figures city officials and the local media use to be grossly inaccurate and misleading. As well, there is evidence of the re-use of like buildings. See Traverse City, Michigan and Roosevelt Island, NY. for examples. As a participant in the effort to Save Old Main I spoke with about a half dozen of its former patients, one of which remains a friend to this day. While none of them expressed interest in ever living on the grounds again, neither did they think that the buildings needed to be torn down based on moral arguments. Assertions that presuppose that all former patients and employees wished Old Main and its lessons in history be removed is hyperbole. The fact is that some did and some didn't. As for Kollmorgen moving there, the residents who bought into the hype several years ago that the grounds would be redeveloped into a self sustaining quaint village center are realizing now how often promises are broken. The grounds will likely look little like the plan that was endorsed by voters in the non binding referendum in 2003. The community once again is told that, "we have no choice," when in fact, we do.
Posted by Daryl G. LaFleur, Northampton on 7.4.08 at 5:54
Actually, the projected cost for rehabbing the historically significant portions of the hospital was millions lower than what it cost to demolish it and build fresh. Had the $5.5 million of taxpayer money been spent on rehab, instead of demolition, we'd now have a landmark building with tenants, offices, and public spaces that could attract visitors to learn more about what happened there. Not in a sci-fi version of events, but something more balanced and worthy of Northampton. The building did not commit the atrocities David Reid refers to. A tour of the former hospital is available on this site: http://www.valleyadvocate.com/mis/somvrtour/
Posted by Mark Roessler on 7.4.08 at 7:45
I would add that the community's choice to engage in a best practices initiative and the Notre Dame design study make more and more sense.
Posted by Daryl on 7.4.08 at 7:52
Who was more delusional the former patients or the citizens who believed the city could possibly deliver anything other than bread and circuses? At least one institution has been relegated to history perhaps the time has come to recognize the limits of our city government and our collective inability to control the insane
Posted by Robert on 7.4.08 at 17:09
It's clear Higgins and her backroom deal cronies have been caught lying yet again. The only solution to having such a crooked and lawbreaker in office (0ther than assasination) is to recall and impeach the dictator, and make a public example of her in her jail cell for anyone who even thinks they can get away with the same illegal, immoral, and indefensible conduct that Higgins has pulled. We the people will no longer let the woll be pulled over our eyes, Higgins must go for the good of Hamp, and she must be punished in the most heinous public way to make an example of her to all those who would try to decieve the city to meet their own personal agenda. Sign the recall petition and let's drive Higgins out of town forever!
Posted by Gregory on 7.9.08 at 11:24
I really get tired of the argument that tearing down the State Hospital was a good idea because of it's past. A few thoughts: First, how do you learn from the past if you don't remember it? Yes, acts of gross negligence were committed at the state hospital, but show me any institution where acts of negligence have not been committed. People who are quick to point out the negatives of the hospital also forget it's original model, which was that of "human and Compassionate" treatment. A little background on the treatment of Mental Illnesses: during the time of the State hospital's opening in the middle of the 19th century, one of the prevailing thoughts on metal illness is that people became mentally ill because of the stresses they were subjected to during their normal life. The original idea of places such as the state hospital was to give patients a serene place where they could relax and have stress-free routines that involved things such gardening, working with live stock, etc. Of course, overcrowding- which started soon after the Hospital opened with the advent of the Civil war, unfortunately changed much of this. The unique architecture that was possessed by the hospital will not be duplicated by the cookie-cutter houses that are now going in. We should have done more to preserve a historic land mark; instead we sacrificed it so that a few people can make a couple of extra dollars at the taxpayer's expense. Rather than using those millions of dollars to pay for the demolition of the hospital, it would have been nice to see them used to preserve the original Kirkbride structure.
Posted by Jeff on 7.9.08 at 13:15
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