Sale of B&L corner property complete

After a year of delays resulting from a state-mandated cleanup effort, a trust headed by Herbert Allen ’62 purchased the B & L Service Station, located at the junction of Spring and Latham Streets, from Art Lafave, who had owned and operated it for 33 years before he ceased operations in July 2000. Allen plans to present the property to the College, with which he has had preliminary discussions as to how to utilize the property.

Allen originally sought to purchase the property to aid the construction of the performing arts center on Spring St., for which he donated $20 million in 1998. Last October, Morton Schapiro, president of the College, announced that the center would be relocated from Spring St. to near Adams Memorial Theater. Despite the move, Allen reiterated his desire to donate the B & L property to the College.

The sale was delayed by a state-mandated cleanup of fuel that was leaking from the station’s underground storage tanks. Helen Ouellette, vice president for administration and treasurer, said that the cleanup is nothing out of the ordinary.

Every time a car pulls into a station to purchase gas, Ouellette said, a part of the price goes to a state gas-cleanup fund. When a gas station is sold, the state inspects the site, determines if there is gas contamination, and then uses the funds to clean up the site. The Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection had to certify the site as clean before the station sale could be finalized.

However, Ouellette said that while the site has essentially been cleaned up, “there’s probably some additional remediation that needs to be done” before the College can build anything on the site. Ouellette did say, though, that the College is familiar with the site’s problems and does not anticipate any undue difficulties.

While any additional cleanup efforts would be a snag in any plan for the site, discussions have begun between the town and the College over how to use the Spring Street site. Though Allen has publicly stated that he was turning the site over to the College, he did stipulate that the property must be used for local business. Allen said that the cancellation of plans to build the College’s new performing arts center — for which he donated $20 million — near the service station site adversely impacted local businesses.

“The Performing Arts center would have generated traffic for businesses [on Spring Street],” Allen said. “When that was pulled out…it was a tremendous blow to business.”

Indeed, even the loss of the service station, a mainstay on Spring Street and for the Williamstown community, generated a profound sense of loss for residents. The sale of the gas station, according to Peter Fohlin, town manager, meant “the loss of a real social center and communication tool.” And while Fohlin is optimistic that any plan the College has for the site will positively impact the atmosphere of Spring Street, “I don’t think it’s going to be easy to replace that type of function.”

Ouellette recently met with Williamstown residents to try and establish a dialogue between the College and the community. Those present included college faculty and staff who live in Williamstown, as well as Fohlin and other residents. The meeting, Ouellette said, had a positive tone. However, Allen, Ouellette and Fohlin all stressed that the transfer of the station from the trust to the College has not been completed yet, so all talks are very preliminary.

While Allen’s stipulation requires commercial space at the site, Ouellette said that the site also will include residential apartments. The hope is that the bottom floor of a three-floor structure will house stores, while the top two floors will house apartments. The plan is consistent with the architectural design of Spring Street, which has multi-story buildings that house businesses as well as residents. “We’re not sure how big a building it will be yet,” Ouellette said.

There was also talk at the meeting of building a public restroom at the site, a development that Fohlin said would be extremely beneficial for Spring Street businesses. “It would be tremendously positive to have restrooms,” Fohlin said, noting that business owners have trouble supporting the needs of the many tourists.

The most important, though, is that the site attracts all members of the Williamstown community.

“The most important thing is that is has to be a destination. It has to bring all segments of the population down to the site, including faculty, staff, residents and tourists,” Fohlin said.

The town and the College have not always seen eye-to-eye on projects before. When the performing arts center was scheduled for construction at the bottom of Spring Street, many residents viewed it as a plan by the College to slowly take over the street. However, both Ouellette and Fohlin say that this time is different.

“I don’t think the College being a property owner is an issue,” Fohlin said. “The real issue is the scale of whatever use [the College] develops…it has to do with the economic sustainability of Spring Street.”

“There are always people who will be worried that [the College is] going to be irresponsible,” Ouellette said.

“[But] both we and Herbert Allen have an interest in having Spring Street be a vibrant business community. My sense is that at the end of the day, everyone will be pretty happy.”

“I hope the community would support Helen Ouellette’s intentions [as] I’ve discussed with her,” Fohlin said.

Lafave acknowledged that the sale price of the station, released to the public as $1, was not actually the final price. Ouellette explained that this method, called a “nominee trust,” is a standard method used in property sales in Massachusetts in order to keep final sale prices confidential.