Rivera’s school department odyssey coming to end
City Council approves plan to buy buildings Lawrence used to lease
LAWRENCE MAYOR DANIEL RIVERA won City Council approval Tuesday night to do what he probably should have done two years ago – buy the headquarters of the school department, fix the place up, and then resettle the school department in its renovated space.
Instead, Rivera went on a two-year real estate odyssey. He got into a legal tiff with the owner of the school department connected buildings, moved the school department out of those buildings at the end of 2014, and then borrowed $8 million to buy and renovate another building to serve as the school department’s central office. Rivera bought the other building at 370 Essex St., but his plans to renovate it fell apart in February when a jury ruled the city had breached its lease with the school department’s former landlord and might be on the hook for $2 million in building repairs.
Not wanting to squander $2 million on a building the city doesn’t own, Rivera is in the process of negotiating a legal settlement with Carmine DiAdamo, the school department’s former landlord. The mayor plans to use what’s left of the $8 million to buy the old school department headquarters from DiAdamo, fix the place up, and move the school department back in. The mayor’s real estate odyssey essentially began and ended in the same place.
The City Council, after some brief hand-wringing from three of its members, unanimously gave Rivera approval to move ahead with his settlement negotiations, just as it did a year ago when it signed off on his plan to buy and renovate a new building as school department headquarters. That plan was also approved by Sean Cronin, the state fiscal overseer for Lawrence. The mayor’s plan a year ago was buttressed by somewhat misleading slides showing how much money the city was going to save. (For a full rundown, see this earlier story.)
City Councilor Nilka Alvarez-Rodriguez Tuesday night assured those in the audience that the City Council had raised a lot of questions about the mayor’s plan a year ago, but ended up supporting him. “We tried to give the mayor the opportunity to do something he very much wanted to do,” she said.
City Councilor Sandy Almonte noted she was the only member of the Council to vote against the mayor’s plan a year ago. “It was fishy then and it’s fishy now,” she said.
City Councilor Modesto Maldonado said the mayor’s failure to cut a deal two years ago to buy DiAdamo’s buildings behind City Hall is going to cost Lawrence taxpayers $2.9 million. He said the city has already spent $500,000 to purchase and $400,000 on designs for the building at 370 Essex St., which it no longer needs. He said the city spent $400,000 on witnesses and experts fighting DiAdamo in court. Another $300,000 was spent moving the school department out of DiAdamo’s building and $300,000 more will be spent moving the department back in, he said. Maldonado said taxpayers are on the hook for another $1 million, but it was unclear what those funds went for, although Maldonado had said previously that the city will have to pay DiAdamo $500,000 in legal fees.
In an interview in his office after the City Council vote, Rivera said he couldn’t say how much the city will pay for DiAdamo’s buildings until the legal settlement is approved by the court. He also said he had tried to do what’s best for the city at all times.
“All along what we’ve tried to do is solve a problem. This is a 28-year problem that we had to deal with. That’s not always a neat process. You’ve just got to follow the path as it leads,” he said.The city’s former lease with DiAdamo required Lawrence to pay rent and cover all maintenance costs, an arrangement negotiated more than a decade ago when city officials had planned to quickly buy the property. By the time Rivera came into office, the lease was costing the city a lot of money and repair costs were piling up. He tried to convince DiAdamo to donate his buildings to the city, but the offer was made in a way that alienated the landlord and led to legal action.
Asked if he had any regrets about the way he handled the school department real estate situation, Rivera said: “You always think you could do some things better, but at the end of the day I think it’s a good deal for the city. When we tell the story, after we clear the legal barriers, people will say, hey, given the options, that seems like an honest way of doing business.”