Northampton Historical Commission denies early end to demolition delay

Sept. 7, 2021 | Dennis Hackett

NORTHAMPTON – During the Northampton Historical Commission’s Aug. 30 meeting, the commission voted to deny an early end to a demolition delay period at 61 Warner St., which is set to end in October, and discussed goals for the city’s preservation plan with Planning and Sustainability Director Wayne Feiden.

After voting on to delay demolition at the property located at 61 Warner St. in October 2020, commission Chair Martha Lyon said they received a request to end the delay early, which she said has not happened with other properties in the past under similar delays.

“We had voted back in October to properly preserve this structure and put a one-year delay on the demolition. In front of us is the request to end the delay a couple months early, this is something we have not typically done,” she said.

Commission member Craig Della Penna summed up the thoughts of the commission and said he did not think there was enough evidence to end the delay early.

“I just think we should put a time out on this, John has other houses he can scrape off and build in other places. I think this one deserves its year long delay. I have not been convinced that we need to move this, I believe we should let it stay as it is,” he said.

Commission member Barbara Blumenthal said she agreed with keeping the delay in effect until October.

“I agree with Craig too, I was leaning toward not lifting the demolition early, but it is unfortunate that all over the country demolition delays or review ordinances rarely actually prevent a demolition. Sometimes they do, but I still feel like we must try when we feel it is important for a particular structure and the character of a neighborhood to try and preserve a building,” she said.

The commission unanimously agreed to deny the end to the demolition delay.

To start the preservation discussion, Feiden said one of the next big steps in the city’s wider preservation plan is guidelines around preserving historical structures.

“There have not been a lot of conversations about preserving historical landscapes, we have some in our open space plan, but not about buildings. The next big thing is the cultural historical preservation plan. The cultural historic plan is really about what are the critically important cultural and historic resources we want to save,” he said.

Through her work, Lyon said she is seeing historical structures and districts altered across the state.

“I am working in towns where they have hundreds of teardowns a year and their historic neighborhoods are being altered. There is a lot of small housing built after the war or even before that is getting torn down and replaced by enormous structures. Older people who want to downsize and stay in the community have a hard time finding places to live,” she said.

Blumenthal added that the plan should include the ability for the commission to be proactive about preserving historic structures and districts.

“It has been a lot longer than the 11 years since we started Sustainable Northampton that Northampton has had a real historic preservation plan. We wanted to figure out a way we can be more proactive and identify buildings, landscapes and issues we wanted addressed and preserved rather than being reactive,” she said.

New commission member Steven Moga said he was in favor of giving the city the ability to designate single structures as historical landmarks instead of historical districts as part of the plan.

“I think the ability to designate an individual landmark would be really smart here. There are a few Massachusetts municipalities that can do that, and others use the local historic district process to designate one property, but I think that is clunky. I think there is something elegant about recognizing a singular building as a landmark,” he said.

In addition to designating individual landmarks, Moga said the new historic preservation plan should include an LGBTQ context for buildings and spaces that were important historically, especially over the last 50 years.

“I certainly think that an LGBTQ context is urgently needed, it certainly is one of the things that makes Northampton distinct. Now we have more than 50 years of gay and lesbian history and there may be others that do not appear in past plans and are not considered in terms of social or community history,” he said.

The Historical Commission next meets on Sept. 27.

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