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April 12, 2018 - Sentinel & Enterprise - ReImagine North of Main
Fitchburg council backs sale of former school for artist studios


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                    B. F. Brown Building                                                                        Fitchburg Art Community
               (photo: Fitchburg Art Museum)                                             (photo of artist rendering: Icon Architecture)


By Elizabeth Dobbins
April 12, 2018

FITCHBURG - Mayor Stephen DiNatale was prepared for a fight as he asked City Council approval to approve the sale of the former B.F. Brown School to NewVue Communities for artist housing and allocate $1.6 million of an insurance settlement toward repairs.

But he didn't need to bring his rhetorical boxing gloves to this decision.

In unanimous votes by all participating City Councilors Tuesday night, the body approve both measures 9-0. At-Large City Councilor Anthony Zarrella recused himself from the decision and Ward 1 Councilor Amy Green was absent.

"I thought I was going to have a lot more fun with this speech, but you're all in favor of it," DiNatale said to a laughing audience.

He paused and added, "Thank you, by the way."

The $20-$25 million project is collaboration between several entities, including NewVue Communities and the Fitchburg Art Museum, to turn the former school and several auxiliary buildings into artist housing.

Called the Fitchburg Arts Community, the effort is a bid to use historical and affordable housing credits to create a place for artists to live and work -- a concept the initially skeptical At-Large Councilor E. Thomas Donnelly said could have many "spin-off" benefits for the downtown area.

Though the timeline for the project is rough, officials hope it will be completed in the next few years, around the same time as two other projects near the Upper Common: the City Hall renovation funded by the city and the Theater Block renovation headed by Fitchburg State University.

"It's exciting there's a synergy in this room and a collaborative energy that we haven't had in a long time," City Council President Kushmerek said.

When the project first came before city council about three years ago, it met with greater skepticism, including from At-Large City Councilor Marcus DiNatale who questioned the demand for this type of project.

On Tuesday, DiNatale said a market study showing the demand quelled his concerns.

"I see the fact that the study says this is a 100 percent pre-lease indicates the demand is beyond my expectations," he said.

The greatest opposition during the most recent discussion came from Ward 2 City Councilor Paul Beauchemin, who favored using the majority of the $1.8 million insurance settlement between the city and MIIA Property & Casualty Group, its insurance provider, to pay down the replacement of the Longsjo Middle School roof.

When told by Nick Capasso, the director of the Fitchburg Art Museum, that a denial of the funding from City Council would effectively kill the project, he backed down.

"I'm not that mean," Beauchemin said.

The settlement was reached earlier this year, almost a year and a half after an arson blaze ripped through the former school, damaging one wing of the school and its roof.

The city plans to keep the remaining $200,000 not allocated to the repair of the building, to use at its discretion, according to Mayor DiNatale.

The $1.6 million will be used to start construction this building season, including the replacement of the buildings roof, according to Marc Dohan, executive director of NewVue Communities.

Councilors weren't the only ones excited by the project. A class of Fitchburg State University students attended the meeting to cheer the project and express support for a vision of Fitchburg as a college town.