• Local
  • Pittsfield, MA
  • more weather >
The Great Barrington Fairgrounds in the 1980s as thoroughbreds entered the first turn before a crowded grandstand. The town is now debating how it should respond to a proposed revival of horse racing at a refurbished track.

It’s Not That Simple: Reader questions

By Monday, Dec 9, 2019 Life In the Berkshires 2

If the solutions were easy, there wouldn’t be problems.

Ed Abrahams and Pedro Pachano at the WSBS studio.

This column is a companion to the WSBS-AM radio show, “It’s Not That Simple.”  (Listen to the podcast here.) We look at issues facing Great Barrington and explore the question, “why don’t they just fix it?” 

We discuss the complexities, the competing interests, the less obvious costs or consequences, and the missing information that explains why It’s Not That Simple.

We do our best to steer clear of opinion and to just point out the issues that make the problems more complex than they might appear.

Although we both serve on elected town boards, we are not speaking for those boards or for the town in any capacity. We are only representing ourselves on the radio show and in this column.

*     *     *

This week we continued to address questions and comments left on our Facebook page, our email (NotThatSimple528@gmail.com) or comments right here on the Berkshire Edge, published every other Monday after our Friday 9:05 AM broadcast.

GB town government is considering bringing horse racing back to the GB Fairgrounds, while the bridges are going down one by one. This is not a good ranking of priorities.

On the merits, our reader is mixing a private venture with a municipal responsibility. The Town isn’t bringing horse racing. A private business has publicly expressed interest in horse racing in GB. They have an agreement with a private nonprofit that owns the fairgrounds. They need legislation to change at the state level to make it possible. So far, the only involvement from town government has been outreach to our state delegation for information and a request to keep us informed — and scheduling a town meeting at the request of a citizens’ petition seeking to influence the state legislation.

To be clear, the town doesn’t recruit specific industries to town. Rather, it attempts to create the right business and development environment in which businesses can start and prosper. What happens on private property is entirely the decision of the owners, within the limitations imposed by the town’s zoning and other bylaws.

We’ll talk about bridges later in the column.

Railroad Street in Great Barrington.

Upscale expansion places the town in perilous condition. Increasingly GB is becoming a place too expensive to live in or to visit. What’s with all the NYC-type boutique stores?

Again, private development is a decision made by private businesses which are motivated by profit. If “upscale expansion” is how developers and retailers think they will make money, they have that right. The town doesn’t get to set prices or choose the types of retail stores allowed to open. The market decides that.

Market-driven development involves a great deal of what we call competing interests, which we talked about in our last column. Someone is obviously willing to pay the prices that are being charged even if many of us aren’t able to, and those prices are created from business plans and profit goals. For example, my desire to buy a house I can afford competes with your desire to sell yours for as much as you can get. We could ask homeowners to sell only to people who already live here or who have limited incomes, but none of us would want those limits when we sell our own house. The same rules apply to stores. We can’t require retailers to limit the types of merchandise and prices to what some of us want to pay. The market decides that.

What the town can do is encourage development through zoning, tax incentives, and other state and federal funding options.

Recent downtown development policy has created more retail spaces, creating more competition among landlords which could lead to lower rents and lower prices. In fact, the town’s downtown development policies have encouraged a lot of retail development, with 12-15 new retail spaces recently created or being created soon.

Still, not everyone is in favor of more development. Many people don’t want stores and businesses, with parking and outdoor lighting, opening near their homes.

*     *     *

For obvious reasons we’ve gotten a lot of comments about bridges. Here are a few:

The Division Street Bridge, critical to linking neighborhoods in Great Barrington, has been closed for repairs.

What about these options for fixing the Division Street Bridge? Why don’t you “fast-track” the repair/replacement?

Fortunately it is being fast-tracked, but state Department of Transportation (DOT) review still takes months. The bridge is in a Natural Heritage Site which means the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) must also weigh in. Their review also takes months. Design and engineering take months. Massachusetts’ procurement process takes months, with advertising and notice requirements. Also, DOT doesn’t consider this an emergency even if it’s inconvenient and detrimental to business because there are other routes across the river.

Ideally, a lot of this work is done in advance of a shutdown. The Department of Public Works (DPW) doesn’t have a crystal ball, but biennial inspections by DOT can give them an idea of when bridges will be in need of upgrade, so that they can do the engineering and permitting in advance.  So what went wrong? DPW has many projects on the docket, including a $20 million federally mandated upgrade to the wastewater treatment plant, 16 other bridges, 90 miles of roads, and about 30 other projects on the superintendent’s desk. All of these projects have an effect on the town’s already high tax rates so the previous Town Manager, the Finance Committee, and the Selectboard, recommended to the voters at Town Meeting that bridge replacement planning be put off until last year’s budget. As it turns out, the Division Street bridge was bumped down the list one too many times. But that is hindsight.

How about a temporary bridge? Sandisfield did it.

The DOT happened to have a temporary bridge that matched the span needed. So there, it was that simple. Unfortunately, DOT does not have a 140-foot bridge sitting around. The town does not have one and purchasing one would run upwards of $1.5 million and would still require engineering, new abutments, a possible (very expensive) change in the roadway. All of which  would require engineering and environmental permits. DOT and DEP consider a temporary bridge the same as a permanent bridge. Any work and money invested in temporary solutions would be lost once a permanent bridge is installed. Would that be worth it? Maybe. Part of the work happening now is a comparison analysis to see the options, costs, and timing. A temporary bridge, if it makes sense, will get traffic flowing faster, but it still takes a year or more and it will be expensive.

How about making the bridge one-way and banning trucks so it can stay open?

DPW has explored this option but changing traffic patterns on the bridge will require upwards of $1 million of upgrades which would have to be taken down when a permanent solution is chosen. These upgrades would also require time, upwards of 10-12 months, which would lead to an extended period before the permanent bridge would be installed. In the end, this suggestion boils down to a significant investment for a short-term gain. Is it worth it? The comparison analysis will help to answer that.

 

The Cottage Street Bridge ove rthe Housatonic River in downtown Great Barrington is also closed because of its deteriorated condition.

Why not establish a public works committee and plan ahead? 

Fortunately, GB has done just that. Three different teams of consulting engineers and architects continue to create comprehensive capital plans to address the wastewater plant, pavement management, facilities and other infrastructure.

The town of Lee has a longstanding Board of Public Works that is a group appointed by the Selectmen… A similar board would seem to make a lot of sense for Great Barrington. There are a number of very qualified people in town who would serve on this board that would report to the town.

A great idea which Great Barrington offers. The town has several committees, similar to the one described above, made up of appointed citizens by the Selectboard. One example is the Ramsdell Library Design committee which was put in place to select a firm to design and oversee the accessibility challenges there. It was, however, filled with familiar faces. Getting more people to step up isn’t easy. GB has many open spots on committees that could benefit from qualified professionals. So, if you are reading this and care about what happens in GB, get involved! It’s easy. In the past there was a committee for the renovation of the Mason Library, for the Main Street Reconstruction and many others.

How can we get the DPW to think about 21st century solutions such as placing hydraulic turbines as part of the sewer upgrades performed during the Main Street Reconstruction to generate power?

DPW did think about that but Great Barrington does not have the “head” (pressure), as they say in sewer-speak, into or out of the system to make it an efficient energy producer. If these were implemented the town would have to spend energy to create energy resulting in a net negative.

DPW is always looking at innovative solutions or technologies for every project it undertakes. One of the first actions of the current DPW superintendent was to engage a team of engineers to assess the town’s assets and develop improvements for efficiency and resilience. For example, the Division Street road reconstruction involved the design and construction of a stormwater system capable of handling more frequent and worse flooding that climate change will bring.

The Selectboard has also created the Strategic Sustainability and Livability Committee whose mission is, “To research, recommend, and support implementation of sustainability initiatives that have the maximum impact on reducing the town’s greenhouse gas footprint, while improving resilience to the changing climate, and building community cohesion.” Climate related solutions are on the radar of the town’s policy makers. Please, if you are interested in this subject and have expertise to contribute, get involved.

The Searles School on Bridge Street.

The Searles School was supposed to be transformed into a splendid hotel. So far there is nothing happening. What’s happening?

The hotel project proposed for the school is a private development that has had several delays, one of which was the developer listening to the community and agreeing to make major changes to the look of the building. That required re-designing and re-engineering the initial proposal costing time and significant money. A few months ago they asked for changes to the special permit for the project. Those changes resulted in smaller conference facilities, the elimination of the restaurant, a smaller overall building footprint and more parking. Construction should start in the spring and take a year and a half.

A historic rendering of the Housatonic School overlooking the village.

 

Over in Housatonic there is a beautiful and presently unused school building. Surely the Selectboard can figure out a productive use for that wonderful old building.

Maybe the Selectboard can figure out a productive use, but private developers haven’t been able to. It was offered for sale twice yet no one offered even one dollar. There was a proposal many years ago by Community Development Corporation to create affordable housing, but that was rejected by our friend, Competing Interests. People didn’t want the building used for affordable housing.

It is said that the town is not very good at managing real estate. While the town does a fine job managing the real estate it uses (Town Hall, two libraries, the senior center, etc.), it is important to note that often new real estate the town gets are properties that no one else wants. They are usually either contaminated of derelict which make them difficult to develop without a major infusion of capital.

So, what should it be? Housing? Office Space? Child Care? Water Park? Or should it be demolished? How many taxpayer dollars should the town spend? Recently, there was a meeting held in Housatonic asking the residents there what they would like to see. All of the options just mentioned (except water park) were suggested. It was also suggested that the town retain ownership and develop it. So, the Competing Interests may have competition to determine its future!

The Housatonic School will come back to the Selectboard in a few weeks so please stay tuned.

The Cottage Street light on Main. Is that still necessary now that the bridge is closed? Why isn’t it just set to blinking yellow?  

The reason the light is not set to blink is that there are businesses and people who live on the Taylor Rental side of the street. The light, which is on a sensor, is triggered by either a pedestrian or an automobile. Main Street is a state-controlled road so the town would presumably need state permission to put it on blink mode. When the Brown Bridge light was recently on blink mode for a significant amount of time there were no reported accidents and traffic flowed freely!  Maybe this suggestion is that simple. We will forward it to DPW.

How about those stupid protrusions that rise out of our sidewalks in downtown Great Barrington?

One person’s ‘stupid’ is another person’s accessibility. The design’s intent was to accommodate for elevation changes in order to meet federal and state guidelines for ADA and drainage. So the good news is that if you are on crutches or in a wheelchair you can get around easier. The bad news is that more of us could end up on crutches or wheelchairs because of these curbs! Great Barrington is currently studying a remedy and some will be addressed in the next few years at a potential cost of $350,000. What! That much to fix something that was imposed on the town by the state! Well, the current design meets all accessibility codes. It will be up to the citizens of GB to approve the funds, so we’ll see how that debate turns out.

Why don’t the police enforce speeding?

They do. More so now than in the past. There are only two police officers patrolling at any given time. The town could spend more money on more police and have them cover more roads more often. However, would the citizens of GB approve the appropriation (and higher taxes) that will require? The police chief tries to reach a balance within the budget he’s given, the training and patrolling demands, and the wishes of the voters, which are not all the same. If there is a specific road or part of town that needs attention, let the police know. They have a system in place to respond to citizen input on traffic safety and to increase patrols where requested.

Why spend money on a rotary [in front of the police station] when we don’t need one? Let’s use that money for bridges?

Here are the not-so-simple pieces to this puzzling decision.

  • DOT collects accident, delay, and infrastructure deterioration data and prioritizes the worst intersections.
  • Of all the intersections in the Commonwealth, they have made this one a priority. (Many of us don’t see it, have never seen an accident there. Some say there are more dangerous and confusing traffic sites. But DOT has the numbers. They don’t just make this up.)
  • DOT has evidence that rotaries reduce accidents and reduce delay.
  • DOT has a pot of money to address bad intersections.
  • This intersection needs an upgrade whether or not it becomes a rotary.
  • It would cost the same to replace what is there now as it would to create a rotary.
  • It is a different pot of money than bridge repair. The DOT doesn’t keep all of its money in one fund and they can’t use traffic safety money to build a bridge (especially one they aren’t responsible for fixing).
  • If the town were to reject any of DOTs projects, which would be difficult to do, DOT would take the funds they were going to use here and fix another intersection in another town or city.

Our final comment is a critique of our show by one of our listeners:

“…the column/radio show is also predicated on promoting complexity (and stasis) so the debate is meant to be largely for its own sake? I’m extremely results-oriented, so not a good candidate for a weekly worry session that seems largely zero-sum.”

In other words, we sound like bureaucrats giving excuses for why nothing ever happens.

The sole purpose of the broadcast and this column is to test that theory. Inaction on the part of local government is very rare. We’ve found that when it looks like nothing is happening, often many wheels are already turning. The answer to most of these and other questions and suggestions is usually either, “Good idea, the town is already doing that,” or “Good idea, unfortunately that isn’t possible because it’s illegal/technically impossible/too expensive.”

Perhaps GB could do a better job communicating what it IS doing to address challenges. If you have suggestions, let us know. But finding ways to get the word out is pretty simple with little effort. Every board and every committee holds every meeting in public with the agenda posted online and physically in Town Hall, with at least 2 days notice. Our town boasts three local newspapers, a subscription newsletter, and a town website that lets citizens have meeting agenda and minutes automatically emailed to them. It has never been easier to stay informed.

*     *     *

That’s all we had time to cover on our program this week. We are on the air every other week and publish this column the Monday after our Friday show. We encourage you to click here to listen to the WSBS podcast of It’s Not That Simple for more details than we are able to cover in print.

Is there’s an issue you’d like to discuss on the show? Have comments about this or previous episodes? We invite your contribution of topics and concerns that may be of interest and that might seem simple to address. Maybe there IS an obvious solution we haven’t thought of, or maybe It’s Not That Simple. Email your suggestions or questions to NotThatSimple528@gmail.com, of find us at Facebook.

Next Show: December 20th, at 9:05 a.m. on WSBS, 860AM, 94.1FM, Your Hometown Station