For more than 35 years now, the property at 330 Chestnut St. in East Longmeadow, known colloquially as the Package Machinery complex, has been the subject of question marks about what will come next there.
Indeed, while there have been sporadic uses of portions of the sprawling property, especially its massive warehouse facility, over the years, it has been mostly vacant. The once-mowed acreage adjacent to the administration and production facilities is completely overgrown with weeds and other forms of vegetation. And the large ‘X’s on the front of the property instruct fire crews not to enter because it has been deemed unsafe to do so.
So the questions persist — only, these days, months after a controversial plan to build a large warehouse facility there were first unveiled, and weeks after the plan was approved by the town’s Planning Board with a lengthy list of conditions, they are somewhat different in nature.
Now, the questions mostly concern what these conditions, including one requiring a right turn out of the property, will mean for certain areas of the community, including its downtown and famous (make that infamous) rotary, and other communities, including neighboring Enfield and Longmeadow. They also concern whether these conditions will be altered and new ones added, and even whether the project will hold up under potential litigation from residents.
“This is a generational opportunity and investment; East Longmeadow is an incredible community, and this gives it an asset that is a great attraction for young families.”
The matter will be the subject of a reopened public hearing on June 20, said Planning Board Chairman Jon Torcia, adding that, when it voted to approve the project in May, the board noted the concerns about traffic and noise, but ultimately concluded that this was a use allowed within that zone, and one that should be approved, with conditions.
Overall, 2023 is shaping up as a possible watershed year for this growing community of more than 16,000 residents.
Indeed, beyond the controversy over the future of 330 Chestnut St., there is also the matter of a proposed new high school for the town, one with a sticker price now north of $177 million, with the town’s share expected to be roughly $120 million.
The matter is due to come up for a vote on Election Day, Nov. 7, and to say this a huge vote for the community would an understatement.
The current high school opened its doors in 1960 and is the last of the high schools built in this region during that time that is still standing. Some see the high school as a potentially limiting factor in the town’s ability to compete with other surrounding communities for families, current students, and even businesses. Meanwhile, the building is very much energy-inefficient at a time when municipalities are moving to build schools and other facilities that move in the other direction.
“This is a generational opportunity and investment; East Longmeadow is an incredible community, and this gives it an asset that is a great attraction for young families,” said School Superintendent Gordon Smith, adding that, if voters approve the measure in November, ground would likely be broken in the summer of 2024, with the new building, to be built on athletic fields behind the current facility, to be ready for occupancy in the fall of 2026.
But despite its aging high school and its uncertain future, East Longmeadow remains a popular landing spot for both families and businesses, especially with a uniform tax rate.
“The town has become very desirable,” said Bill Laplante, owner of Laplante Construction, a residential builder with offices on Main Street. And he speaks from experience — he grew up in East Longmeadow, graduated from its high school, and raised a family there. “When I look at it from a business standpoint, just seeing that people are trying to find land or trying to find homes in town … it’s incredible.”
Elaborating, he said that, while there are more building lots in this town than in neighboring Longmeadow or many other communities, the inventory certainly isn’t what it was years ago. This means lots that become available in the few subdivisions being built go quickly, and the prices of existing homes move higher (more on all this later).
Beyond the warehouse and high school, there are some other big decisions that might be made in 2023, including what to do with another long-vacant property: the former home of Carlin Combustion Engineering on Maple Street. It is due to be acquired by the town, said Town Manager Mary McNally, adding that a request for proposals will likely be issued. Meanwhile, there are plans on the table for renovating one of the town’s gems, Heritage Park, plans that might move off the table — or not, depending on a number of factors, including the high-school project and its cost to the taxpayers.
For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at East Longmeadow and the many important decisions that will likely be made this year.
As noted earlier, the property at 330 Chestnut, across the street from the Lenox manufacturing facility, has been a declining eyesore, and a source of seemingly endless speculation, for many years.
It appeared that an answer had been found several years ago, when a development group, East Longmeadow Redevelopers LLC, put plans on the table for a mixed-use facility, or ‘village,’ as it was called by some, one that would include housing and commercial uses. Those plans were conceived just before the start of the pandemic, said McNally, adding that the project essentially died on the vine amid COVID-related issues such as spiraling costs and supply-chain woes, as well as disagreement between the developer and the Town Council over how much of the space would be devoted to commercial uses.
“When I look at it from a business standpoint, just seeing that people are trying to find land or trying to find homes in town … it’s incredible.”
In its place, East Longmeadow Developers LLC proposed the large warehouse facility — more than 500,000 square feet in size, with 100 docking bays — which has drawn considerable opposition from residents, especially those in an over-55 luxury condo development called the Fields at Chestnut, citing increased truck traffic and noise.
The project is allowed, from a zoning perspective, and the Planning Board approved the proposal, with approximately 20 conditions, earlier this spring, Torcia said. One of those conditions, mandating a right turn out of the property, away from the Fields of Chestnut, was not discussed at earlier hearings, he noted, adding that it would certainly be the focus of discussion at the public hearing slated for June 20.
The developers have estimated there will be roughly 400 vehicle trips per day at the site, he said, adding that he believes that most of these trucks will take a second right — rather than a left and head for the center of town — and proceed to highways through roads in Enfield and Longmeadow.
“I think this project will bring benefits in that it will rehabilitate a blighted property that has not been operational for quite some time,” he explained. “But we did hear from people who spoke at the meetings who were rightfully concerned about an increase in traffic, going from a property where there’s been no activity to one with considerable activity.”
There has been no activity, or very little of it, at the Carlin Combustion site for the better part of a decade, said McNally, but that could soon change now that the town is acquiring the property from its current owner.
She noted that motorists navigating Maple Street at or above the posted speed limit might not even notice the property, with its overgrown weeds and rusting signs hinting at its former use. But it has not gone unnoticed by town officials or the authors of the master plan, who have identified it as a potential asset.
East Longmeadow at a Glance
Year Incorporated: 1894
Area: 13.0 square miles
Residential Tax Rate: $19.20
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.20
Median Household Income: $62,680
Median Family Income: $70,571
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Lenox; Cartamundi; CareOne at Redstone; East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing Center
* Latest information available
Indeed, there are many possible future uses for the property, said McNally, adding that some would like it devoted to open space — it abuts a rail trail and a rail depot converted into an ice-cream parlor — or as home to a new public-safety complex, while others, and she puts herself in this category, would like to see housing of a more affordable variety than most all of the homes currently being built in this community.
“I think housing is the best option, and the Commonwealth has a lot of money designated for housing needs, and East Longmeadow needs some affordable options,” she explained. “There are a lot of new homes going up for $600,000 and $700,000; a lot of people who live here would like to stay here and perhaps downsize from a $200,000, $300,000, or $400,000 home into something smaller.”
School of Thought
When asked what plan B might be if residents do not support the proposal to build a new high school this fall, Smith, said that, in essence, there isn’t one. Or at least one that makes sense, in his opinion.
The only option for the town would be to spend an estimated $120 million to renovate the school and bring it up to modern codes, he said, adding that this isn’t much of an option.
Elaborating, he said that, through two phases of a feasibility study and feedback from residents and other constituencies, the town has moved to the point where new construction has been deemed the best option.
“The public feedback was ‘you might as well go for new construction because of some of the challenges that have been identified,’” he said, noting, as one example, that if the town were to upgrade the HVAC system to bring it to code, doing so would decrease the room size because of the need to create new walls to fit the HVAC equipment that would go between those walls.
“The Commonwealth has a lot of money designated for housing needs, and East Longmeadow needs some affordable options.”
He said the town has been talking about a new high school for at least a decade. Over those 10 years, the price tag has only increased, and the current projections — and these could change with final design — is approximately $177 million, with $55 million to $57 million to be reimbursed by the state.
This will obviously be a large burden on the taxpayers, said McNally, adding that, for a small community like this one, “the numbers are frightening.”
The exact impact on the tax rate hasn’t been determined, she said, adding that some estimates put the hit at $1,000 annually for the average taxpayer. Overall, she said it is difficult to project how November’s vote will go.
“There’s a lot of support for the school; I think everyone acknowledges, or most people acknowledge, that it’s needed. But then there’s the cost barrier. But in the absence of a new school, I’m not sure we can compete as well with Wilbraham and Longmeadow, both of which have relatively new schools.”
Meanwhile, a project of this size and scope might impact or delay other capital projects, such as long-needed, long-talked-about improvements to Heritage Park.
Indeed, McNally produced a thick file folder detailing roughly $7 million worth of improvements that include a new recreation center, an indoor gym, walking trails, dredging the pond, athletic fields, and more.
“We need soccer fields and play areas,” she said, adding that soccer fields at the Lenox complex, used by the town for years, are being converted to solar farms, and other facilities will no longer be available for public use. “Unfortunately, the school vote has somewhat tapered my encouragement of the progress of some of these other projects because you can’t pay for everything at the same time.”
Despite some of these municipal issues and question marks moving forward, East Longmeadow remains a community in demand. That’s true on the commercial side — many area banks have located branches there over the past decade or so, for example, and Chase, which is renovating a property in the center of town, is the latest to join that list — and on the residential side as well.
Indeed, Laplante said building lots are increasingly difficult to come by, and when they do become available, they go fast, and for high prices.
“You do a search for available building lots in town, and you find that there really aren’t that many,” he said. “There are scattered lots that are in established neighborhoods, but you don’t see many available building lots in a neighborhood setting.”
Still, there some new homes being built, including one his company is handling in a new subdivision off Prospect Street called Bella Vista. Overall, Laplante has built three of the homes in the complex — another high-end development where the lots are absorbed quickly, which in many ways reflects what’s been happening in this community over the past several years.