AYER — To maintain control of land on Central Avenue, selectmen voted Tuesday night to seek Industrial Development Finance Agency (IDFA) financing to purchase three contiguous parcels of land aside the Post Office and along the railroad tracks.
The goal is to provide a temporary commuter parking lot while a proposed MBTA garage is built on the Rail Trail. The lot can later become a downtown parking solution, offered Chairman Rick Gilles.
Montachusett Area Regional Transit (MART) Authority Director Mohamed Khan was again a no-show at a selectmen’s meeting. He missed a meeting last month with Ayer and MassDOT officials in Boston at which the board took steps toward the public securing of lands for the so-called “hybrid” parking solution, which includes the garage at the Rail Trail and a secondary facility on Central Avenue.
Word surfaced recently that developer Edward Deely is considering purchasing the former Sudz-It Laundromat and adjacent Central Avenue parcels. This sparked a vigorous debate between former selectman Connie Sullivan and Selectman Frank Maxant as to whether a Central Avenue parking facility should be publicly or privately owned.
Maxant has intimated that Deely plans to develop the parcels into a parking lot to provide parking for his rumored potential purchase of the Fletcher Building on Main Street.
Sullivan, who remains attached to the hybrid project at the behest of the selectmen, argued Tuesday the town’s best interest is to acquire the land rather than be “at the whim of the private property owner.”
Pauline Hamel, the board’s representative to the Montachusett Joint Transportation Committee, recalled a year-old conversation with Khan in which he suggested that she “go around town to see if there’s any land available.”
She did so and suggested to Khan that St. Mary’s parking lot and/or the Reggio Building on Shirley Street, which has since been rented to Pan Am. “Too bad Mo isn’t here tonight to tell you more about that,” Hamel said.
“I’m a little bit disappointed Mo Khan’s not here,” echoed Selectman Jim Fay. “The fact that he’s not here tonight is kinda typical,” said Maxant. “He doesn’t have a clear answer yet.”
Maxant said Deely was meeting with Khan on Thursday. Maxant lobbied for privately owned and developed Central Avenue parking. “Keeping it paying taxes (with) maintenance on somebody else’s budget and not the DPW budget. I would hope the meeting Thursday is positive with Mo… It certainly will be done for less expense with private money to avoid prevailing wage laws. To me, the right course would be to leave it in private ownership.”
Selectman Gary Luca has consistently abstained from deliberation and voting related to the Rail Trail project. Luca is related by marriage to the owners of 13 Park St., a parcel contemplated to be purchased for a Rail Trail garage.
On Central Avenue parking, Luca made a generalized statement, suggesting parking behind Concord Center’s Main Street retail businesses is a positive example of a public parking facility.
He sought clarification as to whether any Central Avenue land purchase was “still in conjunction with the other lot to be proposed. I just want to know where I can’t talk about this.”
Economic Development Director David Maher answered Central Avenue would be a “stand-alone entity,” but added it “will be used by the Rail Trail project.”
With that, Luca ceased deliberating on the Central Avenue parcels except on procedural matters, agreeing with Maxant that the selectman should table any vote for two weeks to “see what Deely and Mo say.”
Thomas Gibbons of Ayer, an attorney representing a one West Main Street landowner, suggested that the three Central Avenue parcels are “individually hard to develop (but) together anyone can develop.” He asked, “Is it worth the (public) expense? Is it worth taking those properties off the tax rolls?”
Sullivan spoke to “remind the board of the obvious,” adding “parking on Central Avenue isn’t a new issue…this has been a five-year plan, stating the concept has been thoroughly debated before charettes, prior boards of selectmen and “multiple votes” of Town Meeting.
“My only advice would be stick to the plan,” Sullivan advised his former peers.
“As great as your sound bites are, Frank, we’ve seen cases in this town where what’s good for the town has not been done by the downtown businesses,” Selectman Carolyn McCreary said. “I don’t really buy your argument.” McCreary urged a publicly owned Central Avenue parking lot so “we can do what’s good for all of us.”
Maxant then paused to disclose that his sister, Ruth Maxant-Schulz, is one of the three parcel owners on Central Avenue. Unlike Luca who has recused himself to avoid conflict of interest issues, Maxant later voted in opposition to the IDFA’s purchase of the Central Avenue lots for public control by the town.
Maxant suggested Gilles recognize other audience members looking to speak before returning fire at McCreary for what he perceived as an attack on Phil Berry. Berry owns a significant stretch of southern Main Street storefront, Depot Square and the parking lots immediately behind both. Berry once had a lease with MART to provide commuter parking but the lease was not renewed by MART. Maxant referred to “bickering” between Berry and Khan. “He was being shafted — not being paid for service being provided.”
McCreary discouraged the suggestion, countering that the board “should not allow statements to be made that are not accurate.”
Downtown Ayer Business Alliance President Chuck King is the owner of Fresh Ayer Sports, a purveyor of bicycle sales and rentals from a store located at the foot of the Rail Trail bicycle path he rents from Berry. King railed against a Rail Trail garage and spoke in favor of a publicly controlled Central Avenue parking lot.
King said in his year-and- a-half experience as a downtown merchant, there’s “plenty of parking daytimes” and suggested instead that any parking garage be built on Central Avenue. Gilles replied that the plan for the past seven years has been to obtain funding from MART and the federal government. “We’re just about to build the garage at the end of the Rail Trail”, adding that parking is needed now and for “projected growth over time.”
“What we’re following through on right now,” Gilles said, is a “couple of smaller facilities straddling both sides of downtown.”
In response King lobbied against the building of a “behemoth,” saying he warns businesses on Park Street, “be careful because if they want to build a parking garage, they’re going to get rid of you.” King’s comments provoked “no” murmurs from the selectmen but King interjected, “excuse me – I want to tell you what I’ve been told.”
King said he’d heard that the selectmen were looking to ultimately purchase and demolish Park Street structures starting with his storefront down to the NAPA store. While Gilles suggested King had the parcel assembly wrong, former decadelong Finance Committee member Mary Spinner said, “I think Mr. King is right.”
Spinner noted that two of four “Conceptual Site Plans” in the December-released Montachusett Regional Planning Commission’s “Ayer Parking Garage Impact Analysis” contemplate buying and leveling King’s 3 Park St. store. Numbers 3 and 5 Park St. are owned and controlled by Worthen Dale Realty Corp, owned by Lester, Phil and David Berry.
Spinner said when talking to Phil Berry, he’d said “everything is negotiable” with regard to the potential sale of his Park Street parcels for a garage. Gilles offered that the “most recent plan presented” didn’t include the Berrys’ property.
McCreary sought to “limit the discussion” to Central Avenue. Gilles responded that he was “trying to be respectful to all here” seeking to speak on the issue.
Ironically, Gilles’ comment came moments after he leveled a sarcasm-laden “you’re really welcome” to former selectman Pauline Conley, who reminded selectmen of Sullivan’s earlier recommendation to “stick with the plan.” She questioned how a Central Avenue parking lot for 70 to 80 cars would alleviate the need for a 450-space Rail Trail parking garage that Sullivan had vowed would not be built.
“Any way you slice it,” there’s still the need for a 400-car garage at the Rail Trail, with 50 more spaces for recreational bike trail use. “We’re all in agreement with that,” Gilles said. He said that Conley was unaware that DOT money was about to be released to hire an architect and engineering firm to begin design work over the summer months, saying it’s “not done yet but we’re close.” An alternative Central Avenue parking lot would help by “ameliorating” the need for a larger garage, Gilles said.
Conley read from a Maxant e-mail regarding a recent Fitchburg Rail Line working group meeting at which an MBTA official commented that decks would be added to the Rail Trail garage “once the public grows accustomed” to a garage at the locale.
“How do we prevent that from happening?” Conley queried. “How do we prevent the government from adding to a garage that no one really wants on the Rail Trail in the first place?”
“I don’t want to get into this whole thing because we’re late as it is,” countered Gilles. “We’re acting on a Town Meeting vote.”
If future Town Meetings decide to increase the parking garage’s overall height and number of parking levels, “we can’t control that,” Gilles said.
“Town Meeting will dictate as to whether they can add another level?” Conley pressed. “Town Meeting hasn’t approved anything at that Rail Trail yet.”
Conley was referencing a May 2007 citizens petition, filed by then-Selectman Sullivan, which supported, by non-binding vote, keeping Ayer’s train station downtown and using $3.1 million in federal and state funds to “develop and implement a comprehensive parking plan to service the current and future needs of our downtown businesses, residents and rail commuters.”
Concluding her comments with “thank you, Mr. Gilles,” there was an awkward and sarcastic outburst from Gilles taunting Conley as she left the table.
“You’re really welcome,” Gilles shot at Conley, who turned back for a moment then returned to her seat in the audience.
McCreary then sought to limit the discussion to the Central Avenue parcel purchase only, which passed on a 3-2 vote, with Luca and Maxant opposing it.
“Absolutely not,” said Luca. “Everybody can stand up and talk. Welcome everybody.” Nonetheless, the selectmen immediately voted 3-1 (Maxant, with Luca abstaining) on the underlying land purchase.
Luca later chastised McCreary for statements he said “disrespected downtown business owners a little bit” and issued a public apology to Conley. “You didn’t deserve to be sarcastically talked to tonight by the chairman,” Luca said. “I apologize. I wasn’t a part of it.”