Hadley officials mull future of vacant Russell School building

  • The Russell School building in Hadley has been vacant for the past five years. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Monday, January 18, 2021

HADLEY — Two local developers are telling town officials that the vacant Russell School in town center could be converted into housing.

But even though Barry Roberts of Amherst and Ronald Bercume of Hadley responded to a request for letters of interest put out by the town last fall, it’s uncertain whether town zoning rules would allow the building to be converted into apartments.

Town Administrator Carolyn Brennan informed the Select Board at its Jan. 6 meeting that Bercume and Roberts were the only ones who offered suggestions for the adaptive reuse of the 10,613-square-foot building, on a nearly 2-acre site, at 131 Russell St.

Built in 1894 and used as an elementary school until 1996, Russell School was last used on a regular basis five years ago when Northstar Self Directed Learning for Teens departed.

With the interest known, the Select Board is giving Brennan the go-ahead to proceed with a request for proposals document that will get more specifics about any potential project.

The board voted unanimously to put a long-term lease in its initial request for proposals, rather than selling the property. In Hatfield, though, the former Center School was sold to Roberts for conversion into condominiums.

Select Board Chairman David J. Fill II said his preference remains to lease the site on an indefinite basis so the town could reacquire it if additional space for town services is needed.

“I would hate to give prime real estate to someone for a killer deal right now and then be kicking ourselves down the line and wishing we had this land back,” Fill said.

“I just think the property is a valuable piece for the town to sell it — short-term thinking, I have a hard time doing that,” said board member Christian Stanley.

Though she agreed with the unanimous vote, board member Joyce Chunglo said it could be difficult to get someone to commit to significant renovations if leased, rather than binding a sale with certain restrictions. Estimates show the building needs about $20 million in repairs.

“I hate to put us in a position of asking somebody to lease a building (and) put all the work into it to make it viable,” Chunglo said.

Planning Board Clerk William Dwyer cautioned that town zoning is restrictive, typically allowing just one dwelling on a lot and not allowing that building to be used for multiple market-rate apartments.

“Under current zoning, basically the rule is one dwelling per lot,” Dwyer said.

Because the building predates zoning bylaw, though, a developer could use the building for two apartments through a special permit from the Zoning Board of Appeals.

In addition, since it is in the senior housing overlay district, units for people 55 and over could be built. Dwyer said another possibility would be for the town to support a chapter 40B affordable housing project that allows town zoning to be overridden.

Fill said if the town gets a request for proposals he would want community feedback, along with advice from town boards and committees.