HOLYOKE – The City Council’s Ordinance Committee recommended rezoning a former church on Hampden and Pleasant streets, helping clear the way for a planned museum, restaurant and Indian motorcycle dealership.
The Ordinance Committee and Planning Board closed a public hearing July 26. On Tuesday, the council committee approved the zone change in a 5-0 vote. The rezoning needs an affirmative vote by nine of 13 councilors for final passage. A special meeting is set for Sept. 1.
Dennis Bolduc, who owns Indian Motorcycle of Springfield, now located on Routes 10 and 202 in Westfield, plans to convert the former congregational church at 474 Pleasant St.
Bolduc’s proposal received widespread support from councilors, some Planning Board members and the public. Several Planning Board members expressed concern about rezoning the property from Residential-2 to Business-Highway.
Ward 5 Councilor Linda Vacon, who chairs the Ordinance Committee, described the plans as a “wonderful, creative, entrepreneurial” addition to Holyoke.
Vacon said the Planning Board did not submit a recommendation within a required 21 days after the public hearing. As a result, the Ordinance Committee had to proceed with the matter.
“I cannot speak as to why (in) this instance the Planning Board has not made a recommendation,” Vacon said, speculating the board was waiting for more information. “I believe that time is money, and people who want to do business need to have their request acted upon promptly.”
Ward 3 Councilor David Bartley recalled Planning Board members speaking about the rezoning at past meetings, including Mimi Panitch and Kate Kruckemeyer, who expressed reservations about the zone change.
“The speeches amounted to nothing but rhetoric. It wasn’t terribly positive in terms of the zone change,” Bartley said. Nevertheless, he said he hopes the investment is forthcoming to preserve the church and create a taxpaying entity. “It’s going to be a wonderful benefit to the city as a whole,” Bartley said.
Pantich, meanwhile, said the Planning Board sought an opinion from the Law Department on whether the rezoning constituted spot zoning. The opinion was not received within the 21 days, although several requests were made, she said.
“We agreed to close the Planning Board’s public hearing only after a discussion of the issue, and after being assured that we would still be able to receive and consider it before making our determination,” Panitch stated in an email.
The issue of spot zoning is not a trivial but a legal matter, Panitch added. Though the 21 days passed, the board has 90 days to render a recommendation. Under state law, the City Council may proceed with a vote if the Planning Board did not submit a report.
“Nor was it a situation where there’s an obvious answer to the question, as sometimes is the case,” Panitch wrote. “So any recommendation we might have made would have been weaker for not having been able to take it into consideration.”
Councilor At-Large Kevin Jourdain said he thinks the rezoning and Bolduc’s plan did not require special conditions. He cited overwhelming community support and a benefit to the current owners who found a buyer for a “positive reuse” of the property.
“This building had the potential to go into disrepair. To have a creative reuse is exactly what we’re trying to foster,” Jourdain said. “This is an all-around home run, particularly in light of what’s going on with the other owners at that intersection.”
The corner and the neighborhood have seen an uptick in economic development. Dunkin’ Donuts opened a “next generation” store across the street in July 2019. In addition, the Yee family plans to buy and convert the former PeoplesBank branch on an opposite corner of Hampden and Pleasant streets into a White Hut restaurant.
In past hearings, Bolduc said he would preserve the church building and voiced interest in purchasing the former Mel’s Restaurant next door. “It’s obviously a building with extremely important, historical significance to the city that should not be discounted,” Jourdain said.
Councilor At-Large Israel Rivera said the Bolduc project would add value to the Highlands neighborhood that has “found a new identity.” Several bars and restaurants opened in the past few years.
Highland Hardware remains Hampden Street’s retail anchor. “People got won over through the process, and that was a good thing to see,” Rivera said.
Ward 4 Councilor Kocayne Givner said she looks forward to the project advancing. She said she met with Bolduc and constituents several times about the zone change. “There was very little opposition. Everyone who was an abutter was mostly in favor,” she said. The ward councilor said she received one email opposing the rezoning.
Councilor At-Large Jose Maldonado-Velez said former churches are difficult to attract developers, especially with the current zoning. However, he noted that the business-highway designation makes sense with the property situated on a portion of Route 202.
The Rev. Winston Baldwin, pastor of the United Congregational Church of Holyoke, said plans will proceed to sell the church to Bolduc.