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Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dispute about transparency of Nashua’s Broad Street Parkway project lingers

NASHUA – The Broad Street Parkway has a long and complicated history, so it’s no surprise that the impending construction of the two-lane roadway continues to cause disputes.

Last month, Mayor Donnalee Lozeau offered a lengthy multimedia presentation at an aldermen’s meeting to try to dispel talk that the route was devised in secret. Her cursory review of reports, studies and meetings attempted to quell recent charges of closed-door planning by Alderman-at-Large Barbara Pressly.

But Pressly still finds fault with the city acquiring property in the downtown Millyard for the parkway, saying the general public and property owners didn’t know until recently that certain old buildings would be lost to the project.

Pressly also says aldermen didn’t publicly discuss the impact of these Millyard properties when they voted to finance the project in September 2008.

On this last claim, Pressly seems to be correct.

After reviewing the minutes of meetings of aldermen and committees, The Telegraph found no substantive discussion by elected officials about the taking of Millyard buildings in the month leading up to or the night of the crucial vote that approved the city borrowing $37.6 million to fund the parkway.

Instead, aldermen focused on the project’s cost, the advantages and disadvantages of two possible routes, and the need to stop delaying construction of the parkway.

There was occasional talk about how the parkway would benefit the Millyard. But other than some references to the so-called Boiler House, The Telegraph couldn’t find detailed talk about potentially affected Millyard properties.

Revisionist history?

That doesn’t suggest the parkway’s chosen route was designed in secret, or that the possibility of partial or full acquisition of Millyard buildings was kept in the dark, as Pressly has suggested.

It is possible that elected officials publicly discussed the Millyard buildings earlier in 2008, months in advance of the bond vote. Many city officials, including Lozeau, say parkway plans were scrutinized in public before and after the vote.

The Telegraph found records from April 2008 that detail the full extent of the two parkway routes and evidence of a Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce meeting that reviewed the proposed options.

Also, records show that Pressly attended a city infrastructure meeting in October 2010 at which John Vancor, who was then the city’s Broad Street Parkway manager, discussed in detail the finalized route and listed the various Millyard properties that would be claimed.

That contrasts with an aldermen’s meeting last month, when Pressly openly criticized city officials, saying they hadn’t publicized when and why the parkway’s path had changed.

Asked last week why she made such a criticism knowing that she attended a meeting two years ago that reviewed the parkway’s chosen path, Pressly told The Telegraph she isn’t saying she didn’t know about the Millyard buildings but rather that the public had no knowledge.

Asked why she waited two years to speak about the issue, Pressly said when she was elected to her current term as alderman-at-large, she was told that the parkway was a “done deal” and there wasn’t much she or others could do about it. She has since decided to speak out to reach a resolution that would spare some historic parts of the Millyard.

“I knew it was not going to be good for the Millyard,” Pressly said. “I sort of took the position … that I tried to make it as good as it can be.”

But Pressly said she had a recent change of heart when learning that the owners of affected Millyard buildings have never been notified.

‘Anxiously waiting’

At least one owner said he knows what the Broad Street Parkway will do to his property.

Ken Forrence, along with other family members, owns Gate City Fence near the Millyard. Gate City Fence had been in the path of the parkway route that eventually was abandoned by the city, but the route that was chosen will claim a portion of a building they own in the Millyard, the old Nashua Manufacturing Co. railroad depot.

Forrence said he hasn’t been formally notified by the city about the depot or seen an acquisition price, but he has met with city officials about the parkway and knows part of the building will be taken.

The dissemination of information about the parkway has been sufficient, Forrence said, as long as he doesn’t get “blindsided” by the process. Everybody knows about the parkway, he said, but its development had been idle until only recently.

“We’re anxiously waiting,” Forrence said.

Aside from demolition of the Boiler House and partial acquisition of the depot building, the city could relocate a small building known as the Waste House and already has shaved off part of the landmark Millyard chimney for structural issues. The city hopes to keep the chimney intact to serve as a gateway for parkway motorists.

Roger Gauthier, a retired Nashua District Court judge who owns a Millyard building that could be affected by the parkway, couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

At an aldermen’s meeting in December, Lozeau denied Pressly’s claim that the city had surreptitiously moved the parkway’s path. She listed several public hearings and informational sessions at which officials detailed the route.

Alderman-at-Large Fred Teeboom – who proved to be a decisive swing vote on city financing of the parkway – said at that same meeting, “Where has Alderman Pressly been all this time?”

Involving the public

Over the last four decades, the Broad Street Parkway has lagged because of money and land issues, but in 2008, aldermen approved borrowing $37.6 million to go alongside federal funding for a project that could cost up to $68 million.

Supporters hope the parkway will alleviate downtown traffic with a third crossing of the Nashua River, as well as revive a dormant Millyard. It will start on Broad Street, cross the river and end in the Millyard and Tree Streets neighborhood.

Before the 2008 bond vote, the Nashua Regional Planning Commission – along with the firm Vanasse, Hangen, Brustlin – scaled back a 2007 concept of the Broad Street Parkway and created two less expensive options.

The first option at the time cost as much as $66.4 million and would have followed the same path as the previous concept: starting at Broad Street and routing traffic along West Hollis and Kinsley streets toward Main Street.

The second option at the time cost as much as $60.5 million and offered the route that now will be followed. Mine Falls Park wouldn’t be affected by this layout, and it calls for a less intrusive intersection at the southern end.

Details about these two options were available to the public in 2008.

The Telegraph found a chart prepared in April 2008 by the NRPC that details the impact on buildings and neighborhoods, including the debated Millyard properties, by the two proposed Broad Street Parkway routes.

That spring, the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce hosted a public event to review those two routes.

And The Telegraph published on Sept. 28, 2008 – five days after the aldermanic vote on financing – a full list of properties that could be acquired by parkway construction, including the Millyard properties that Pressly and more than 100 people recently toured and called worthy of preserving.

Difference of opinion

In 2008, aldermen chose to bond on the high end in case the most expensive parkway route option was chosen. But in 2009, state and federal transportation officials backed the city using the second route option.

Teeboom, who helped spearhead the parkway initiative for aldermen, said last week that he didn’t think about including language about the possible routes in the legislation that sought bond approval, but he probably could have.

He added that there was aldermanic discussion about the routes prior to the bond vote in one of the committees.

Pressly’s claim that city officials have highlighted the extent of work in the Millyard only recently, and that there weren’t enough hearings on the parkway, is “ridiculous,” Teeboom said.

“There’s an enormous amount of publications, reports, federal reports,” he said.

Teeboom said it was made known at the time of the bond vote that the city preferred Option 2.

But Alderman-at-Large David Deane, one of five aldermen to not support the city bond in 2008, said last week that the bulk of information about the extent of the parkway’s route came out after that vote.

Aldermen had been told that they would approve only the appropriation of funds and City Hall would design the route, Deane said.

An NRPC calendar of public sessions about the parkway shows that five such meetings were held in 2007, but that was before the cost-reduction study that had created the new route options.

Only one public session – the one hosted by the chamber – was held in 2008 to review the two options. The next NRPC public session occurred in November 2009, more than a year after the bond vote.

Teeboom disagrees with preservationists that the buildings in the path of the parkway have historical value. Pressly’s comments seem to be an attempt to again halt the Broad Street Parkway, he said.

“It’s why the Chinese are running circles around us. … It takes us forever to work on something,” Teeboom said.

Last month, Lozeau offered for the city to consider taking less of the depot building than previously planned as a way to preserve the structure’s history, leaving five of its six sections intact.

The Forrence family leases the section of the depot building that’s under city review to Faith Baptist Church.

Albert McKeon can be reached at 594-6528 or amckeon@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow McKeon on Twitter (@Telegraph_AMcK).