WHEN DEVELOPER COULDN’T (OR DIDN’T WANT TO) RAISE PRIVATE EQUITY FOR ONOTA AND HOWARD BUILDINGS, RUFFER, CITY GLADLY LET TAXPAYERS PLAY VENTURE CAPITALISTS … WE THE PEOPLE WILL OWN 42% of the BUILDINGS, BUT FAT CHANCE OF GETTING A WORTHY RETURN
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, MONDAY, FEB. 18, 2013) — THE PLANET has toothy, satisfying memories of the Onota Building on North Street, for that is where, for 30 years, we went to the dentist. Dr. Charles Volk, D.D.S., looked like Robert Vaughan, had a witty chair-side manner perfect for a child-cum-young-man, and knew his stuff. Later on, in what we instantly determined was poetic justice, Sen. Andy Nuciforo took over Volk’s office after the doc stopped yanking them. It is a short cross from pulling teeth to pulling legs.
Today, the Onota Building, along with the Howard Building at First and Fenn, have come under a developer’s knife. On the surface, that would appear to be good news. They are two lovely old buildings, worth of loving restoration, but this is Pittsfield, remember. Hold your breath. It may well turn out great, but there are troubling signs in the sheetrock.
If things go according to plan, both buildings will feature a mix of residential and commercial units. The housing will consist of so-called “market-rate rentals,” a euphemism for units that aren’t “affordable housing,” itself a sugar-coated phrase for providing free or heavily discounted rides to moochers.
So what’s “market-rate” for a one-bedroom apartment? At the Howard, it will be $950 a month. At Onota, it will be $1,050. Want to splurge for a two-bedroom? They will rent for $1,100 and $1,200 respectively.
For Adults Only … and Gang Members
Who can pay these amounts? The developer identifies three target groups: young working people, retirees, and “empty nesters.” See the pattern here? “If you have kids, keep walking.” It’s also thought that downtown Pittsfield will be viewed by these populations on a regional and not merely municipal basis, though that sounds overly optimistic, given the problems downtown with indigent populations, crime, and gang activity which the police admit has become too multitudinous to count. That keeps more of the gentry away than you may realize.
Want a barometer at how gangs have proliferated in downtown Pittsfield and beyond? As one of our correspondents so astutely pointed out, look at the amount of gang tags spray painted under and spilling out from railroad bridges. Will the well-heeled want to risk it? As an aside, this makes yet again, crime a campaign issue as it has been for at least the past six cycles, another certain sign that the lawbreakers, dope dealers, and that ilk have little to hear about setting up shop in Benigno Numine.
Another less-than-obvious signal of trouble is how Pittsfield proudly markets itself as a “gateway city.” The term sounds innocuous enough, with a nice, free-flowing, forward-sounding ring to it … until you look at the actual definition used by governments, politicians, urban planners, and other “experts.”
To use the vernacular, a “gateway city” is one that is long in the tooth and short on the fly. Specifically, according to the state, a gateway city is one with:
— A population greater than 35,000. Check.
— A median household income less than the state average (in Pittsfield, the figure is $35,655). Check.
— A per-capita income below the state’s average (Pittsfield, $20,549). Check.
— Educational attainment rates below the state’s average (only 20.5% of Pittsfield residents have at least a BA college degree). Check.
Why is ‘Gateway’ so Cherished? … Could it be ‘Free’ Taxpayer $$ for Developers?
So why, do you ask, does a city want to be designated a “gateway”? Why would developers and politicians have a more-than-vested interest in seeing the city with these sickly parameters for population, income, and education?
ANSWER: When you’re a “gateway city,” you qualify for lucrative tax breaks from the state. Politicians love it because they can play Santa Claus. Developers and builders love it because they can roll the dice using someone else’s stash. Private equity stays away, pretty much, but developers such as Allegrone Construction — the firm handling the Howard Block at 124-132 Fenn St. and the Onota Building at 64-74 North St. — can’t resist. Why should it, seeing as how it can gamble using the house’s money? We don’t blame them one bit. We do fault a generation of pols and bureaucrats, who have turned the city into a “junkie for state aid,” to use Sara Hathaway’s memorable phrase, and Massachusetts into a welfare state.
Mary Jane and Joe Kapanski will indirectly put up the money but will not directly enjoy the rewards. If the project works, the developer makes out. If it flops, guess who’s on the hook? Got a mirror?
Then-Office of Community Development director Deanna Ruffer admitted as much. [AN ASIDE: We note that the city is seriously interested in giving Ruffer's job to a city planner from San Bernardino, Calif. Go back to the PLANET archives located on our landing page, the yellow toolbar, with your mouse over with word "BLOG" and read out entry for Nov. 19]. Ruffer said Allegrone is entitled to taxpayer money to redo the buildings because both buildings “are currently under-utilized and in need of significant upgrading. Yet the current economic conditions … make it difficult for private investors to secure commercial financing required for development.”
Ouch! Rarely does a public official come out and just say that private equity doesn’t want any part of these quixotic construction odysseys. When THE PLANET discloses this reality, the apologists for phantom downtown “progress” act as if we’ve just given them a wedgie. When someone like Ruffer says it, you have an idea of how smart private equity can be and how much cynical politicians use We the People (and our dough) as suckers.
Read that last part again: Yet the current economic conditions … make it difficult for private investors to secure commercial financing required for development.”
In other words, Ruffer admits in black and white: Private lenders were not confident enough in Allegrone’s Onota-Hoawrd projects. Her solution: Play the taxpayers for venture capitalists in the form of what are euphemistically called “public development incentives.” Don’t you just love such terms, like when Nixon bombed Cambodia and called it “protective reaction,” or when our not-so-smart bombs and drones kill innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and they call it “collateral damage.”
‘Public Development Incentives,’ Shorthand for, ‘Taxpayer, Bend Over.’
Allegrone’s “public development incentives” include tax-increment financing, tax exemptions, and tax credits that can be sold like currency. Total cost of the two renovations is estimated at $12 million. At least $5 million of this will come from taxpayers for a public equity share of 42%. If the project has overruns, the public hit could be much worse.
As we wrote back in May of last year, Allegrone owns the two buildings that it bought on spec. It bought the Onota in September 2011 for $350,000 and the Howard the year before at a cost of $400,000. Fine. We admire entrepreneurship. If Allegrone thinks developing the buildings will make it money, go for it, using its own dough. Leave Mary Jane and Joe Kapanski out of it, though. Capitalism works fine. If the market calls for it, Allegrone will do well on its investment. If the market doesn’t, it has no right to ask taxpayers to pony up.
Except it’s long too late for all that. Why shouldn’t Allegrone do what countless developers, builders, and entrepreneurs have done for a bunch of years now? Why should they take the money and run with it? Taxpayers have bought in whether they like it or not. That’s the serious game of representative government in 2013: too much political power in the hands of too few ethically challenged pols.
And wouldn’t you know it, this year will see another municipal election — time to here them once again promising wonders and spitting cucumbers.
Allegrone expects 14 apartments to be ready for occupancy in the Howard Block by June. It hope 25 units will open in the Onota Building in 2014. Who knows? Maybe THE PLANET will take one of the units to establish our Pittsfield address!
“When he, who is he unforgiven, / Beheld her first, he found her fair: / No promise ever dreamt in heaven / Could have lured him anywhere / That would have been away from there.” — E. A. Robinson
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.