If Dan Bianchi deserves a new title, it should be Mayor Compassionate. I personally saw Dan Bianchi in action and his trademark concern for the common man.
As widely reported, the Manos Unidas Center on Fenn Street, a building built in 1880, was scheduled for demolition on Monday, Jan. 23. An electrical fire had caused the electrical system to be in need of repair.
While it would not be a fair description to call the building “gutted,” a party that was seriously interested in rehabbing the old property estimated the cost of fixing up the facility at about $100,000. Most of the cost of the repair was due to the fact that it was a 132-yearold building that suffered from deferred maintenance and needed such things as asbestos removal and new roof.
I had participated in a number of events at Manos Unidas before the fire, including helping with the community garden in the backyard. Tomato and pepper plants grown from seed in my father’s basement were transplanted and fed the poor members of the community by late summer. The seeds for the tomatoes my father grew descended from plants brought over by old Italian immigrants many generations past, with their fruit feeding new immigrants.
After the fire, Manos Unidas went on with the community garden, despite several mishaps. Someone charged with upkeep of the property after it was locked- up was severely botanically challenged: on several occasions they weedwhacked beautiful flowers, squash plants planted on the side of the house, and a beautiful mint patch and a strawberry patch. Fortunately, they did not mistake a staked tomato for a weed.
Just days before the scheduled demolition, a potential buyer that had previously shown some interest began to show greater earnest not previously exhibited – unlike before, he was willing to meet with the mayor, put money in an escrow account to guarantee repair, and contractually agree to begin repair immediately – legitimate new developments. The investor was even willing to pay the outstanding property bill (which according the tax assessor’s office is $5,645.93). In addition to getting the property taxes, the city would have avoided the expenditure of $48,000 of demolition cost. While in theory the city can put a lien on the property to recover the tax and demolition leans, there was serious concern by those close to the situation whether a new building would meet the building code on the existing footprint – in other words, it is very possible that the city might only recoup a small percentage of the lien money.
After a harrowing weekend desperately trying to contact the mayor who was off to the Massachusetts Municipal Convention, on Jan. 23, as the wrecking ball was about to sweep down on the building, the corner office at City Hall was teeming with people trying to stop the demolition. Included were Manos Unidas founder Anaelisa Vanegas, the Reverend William Durant, and Bill Shein, a local humorist, candidate for Congress, and part of the local ” Occupy Berkshire” movement.
At first, things seemed promising. Then it was learned that it was too late for the city to extricate itself from the expense of the demolition and hearts began to sink. It was a likely deal killer because the investor made it clear that he was not willing to assume the demolition liens. Still, and this shows the kind heart of Mayor Bianchi, Manos Unidas was given a one week reprieve to try to get a deal off the ground. Shein agreed to take on the task of getting hold of the contractor to see if there was any way the bill for the demolition could be made minimal and capped. Bill worked tirelessly for the next few days trying to get the owner, investor, the city, and contractor in a single room, but things started to unravel.
It turned out that the contractor appeared to tear off more of the roof than was first expected, and it did appear like some demolition was continuing after Mayor Bianchi called a halt to further demolition. In an e-mail to other member of Manos Unidas, Nicole Fecteau wrote “Clearly there is a lot of suffering on the part of those involved, due to the fact the verbal and written order from the city to the contractors was not followed thus exposing the home to the elements.” The deal feel through.
Ultimately, the edifice constructed when Williams College graduate James Garfield was running against former Civil War General Winfield Scott Hancock and the big issue was continuation of Reconstruction in the South, was razed. It is questionable whether the city will be able to recoup the loss through the lien on the property which possibly may only have value as a parking lot. But Mayor Bianchi is to be commended for giving another possible outcome one last chance.