Welcoming Cruz Companies to New Bedford’s north end

By Steven Froias

Contributing Writer

There’s a somewhat puzzling “backlash” over the future of the former Phillips Avenue School in the north end that’s a head shaker.

Though not pervasive in the city, the regressive mindset revealed by this extreme parochialism is pernicious enough in New Bedford to examine more fully in proper context. It’s the second time in recent months that worthwhile investment in a city neighborhood is under assault.

The first was the City Council’s thumbs down on the rehabilitation of the West Beach boathouse. A relatively modest public expenditure would have renovated the building. That work would have allowed it to be rented to private business for recreational uses, like kayak rentals, and thus help fully activate the municipal beaches in a south end on the upswing after years of disinvestment.

Now, in the north end, investment is once again under siege.  

The Phillips Avenue School has been sitting empty since it was shuttered in 2010. It’s a financial liability for the City of New Bedford. It still incurs maintenance costs – but has no functional purpose.

A Request For Proposal (RFP) to redevelopment the property was issued over a year ago. Waterfront Area Historic League (WHALE) kicked the tires but moved on to the former Strand Theater on Acushnet Avenue instead.

That left Cruz Development last and only man standing. The company’s proposal envisioned totally renovating the property, preserving its charming historic facade but bringing the interior into the 21st century. The adaptive reuse of building would see it transformed into affordable housing units, in the $750-$1,200 range.

Cruz Companies handled the Verdean Gardens renovation in the south end a few years back (featured photo above). Completion of the project generated excitement and enthusiasm from state and local officials, as well neighborhood stakeholders, as detailed in this WBSM report.

Here’s some more background on Cruz Development. It is part of Cruz Companies, which consists of a construction company, a property management company, and real estate development. They are headquartered in Roxbury, MA.

According to cruzcompanies.com. “At Cruz Companies, we have built a reputation for excellence in the fields of construction, development and management. We are one of the oldest and largest, minority-owned companies in the Northeast. A third-generation family business, Cruz is a modern firm that values old-fashioned quality and integrity.

“Cruz Companies’ mission is giving back to the community in as many ways as possible. Cruz CARES (Community, Arts, Recreational and Educational Services) is Cruz Companies social responsibility arm, a non-profit organization that exists to help Boston’s urban community.”

Doesn’t sound so terrible, right? A successful and socially-responsible redeveloper wants to build in New Bedford! Oh – and President John B. Cruz III is Cape Verdean, too. The very project WHALE moved down the avenue to pursue at the former Strand is…the Cape Verdean Cultural Center.

So, why did a headline this week in The Standard-Times newspaper read, “Residents at odds over what to do with former Phillips Avenue School”?

From the article: Residents in the area use the school’s vacant lot for parking and worry that new tenants would push them out of those spaces.”

O-kay….

Let’s review. A redeveloper with a proud history of investing in urban – and historically overlooked – neighborhoods from Roxbury to Miami (see the site) to New Bedford wants to do further business in the city and return an empty property to the city’s tax rolls…and people who want a free parking lot in their neighborhood are plotting rebellion. Including, a former mayor (!) of the city.

Again from the S-T story:

“In response to complaints about parking, Cruz Management’s Vice President Daniel Cruz said they will provide 16 spaces for neighborhood residents in addition to 34 for their building’s residents.

“Those 16 spaces are not enough, according to former Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr., who lives near the school and owns two properties on the street. Kalisz said the 34 spaces for the residents will prove inadequate and that apartment residents and guests will end up using the spaces meant for the neighborhood.”

From the headline on down, this reporting doesn’t quite get it right. It lacks all context and lends credence to a side that holds an incredible position.

The story is really about a group of neighborhood residents who want to deny investment in the city by co-opting public property for private benefit.

Which could, according to Mayor Jon Mitchell, cost the city up to a million bucks. That’s the cost of just demolishing the building, rather than returning it to the tax rolls if renovated as envisioned by Cruz Companies.

That’s one pricey parking lot.

Cruz Companies is going the extra mile and holding not one but two public meetings in an attempt to alleviate neighborhood, um, concerns.

They are as follows: April 2, 6:00 p.m. at the Wilks Library, 1911 Acushnet Ave., and April 9, 6:00 p.m. at the Main Public Library, 613 Pleasant St.  

Bottom line: New Bedford, like any city, needs and should support responsible development. It should not be held hostage to people with narrow special interests.

The expansion of Cruz Companies in New Bedford is a cause for headlines. Just not the sort we saw this week.

How about this:

Historic Cape Verdean-owned business to make big investment in New Bedford’s north end

Posted in The Big Picture.