Special permits approved for Knox automobile housing plan; with councilors concerned about local input, developer says delays could kill the project

The City Council approved special permits Monday for a housing development at the historic Knox automobile buildings following a discussion that included strong praise for the project as well as strong concerns about neighborhood input and the developer’s track record on hiring minority contractors.

The special permits for the 96-unit affordable housing complex, at two vacant buildings at 53 Wilbraham Road and 42 Waltham Ave., were approved by votes of 10-2 — but not before the developer warned that applications for state tax credits needed for the $54 million project would be in jeopardy if the vote was delayed. Several councilors proposed putting off approval.

Councilors including Kateri Walsh, Orlando Ramos and Sean Curran praised the project in the city’s Mason Square area, as well as developer Gordon Pulsifer’s history of bringing quality residential developments to Springfield. Pulsifer, president and CEO of Hanover-based First Resource Development Co., promised to meet with the neighborhood councils but urged the council not to delay the permits.

“Mr. Pulsifer has a proven record in the city of Springfield,” Walsh said in support of the permits. “Every neighborhood where he’s had a project, he has improved the neighborhood, he has improved the quality of life in the neighborhood, he’s offered employment. He’s also offered security. I think his reputation should speak for itself.”

The council first considered sending the matter to committee to give Pulsifer a chance to meet with the Old Hill and Upper Hill neighborhood councils, as requested by the presidents of both neighborhood organizations. The property is located at the junction of those two neighborhoods.

City officials said the lack of a prior meeting between the developer and neighborhood councils may have been an oversight, but was not a legal requirement for the special permits. Attempts to hold a remote meeting due to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in delays.

Some councilors also raised concerns that the project’s proposed parking lot on Wilbraham Avenue would result in the demolition of three nearby houses and the displacement of those tenants.

Councilor Victor Davila said there was no apparent plan for residents being displaced by the project, and he voted against the special permits.

Pulsifer said he will confer with the owner of the homes planned for parking to discuss any assistance he can provide for relocation.

Councilor Justin Hurst also voted no, saying he was not satisfied with the developer’s track record in hiring local minority contractors for past projects in Springfield, including the former Mason Square fire station and Indian Motocycle Apartments.

Other councilors said Pulsifer did great work on those projects, which are in the immediate neighborhood of the Knox project.

Council President Marcus Williams took public comments via email, letters and one voice recording, and accepted live comments during a public speak-out before the meeting. He restricted live comments during the regular meeting under his set COVID-19 guidelines.

Councilor Tracye Whitfield voted for the project, but said she was extremely concerned about limits on neighborhood input. She cited both the lack of a meeting with neighborhood councils and the limits on pubic comment during the meeting. She questioned if the same restrictions would be enforced in a neighborhood such as East Forest Park.

“Inequity has been happening in the black and brown community for over 400 years and we all know it,” Whitfield said, adding: “Inequities have been happening throughout the history of America and yet the black and brown communities always have to give in and be submissive and accept it because it’s a great project.”

The minority community is “tired of not having a chance to be heard, just to be heard,” she said.

She was among five councilors asking for a delay on the vote until the next meeting in two weeks. A motion to send the issue to committee failed in a 5-7 vote.

Councilor Sean Curran opposed any delay, saying, “let’s take a vote for redevelopment, let’s take a vote for restoration of that old building and bring back a little bit of the history and the vibrancy that was once the hallmark of that building and street.”

Hurst said the council needs to work with Focus Springfield community television to figure out a way to allow live public testimony.

Pulsifer said there is strong competition for low income tax credits for affordable housing projects in Massachusetts, and any delay could cause the project to lose out on funds this year and beyond.

He said he has been working on projects in the neighborhoods for the past decade, and will work with residents to address concerns.