Thursday, July 21, 2016

Lost Land

In 1987, Edward Broska turned 75 years old and decided that it was time to retire. For his entire life he had lived and worked on the 44-acre farm his family owned in Springfield's 16 Acres neighborhood. Now he was getting too old for farmwork, and none of his kinfolk were interested in carrying on the family farm after him. So, Broska put the homestead and surrounding land up for sale. The place had the distinction of being the only working farm left in the city. Once it was sold, the last remnant of the 350 year old history of commercial agriculture in Springfield would be gone.

Springfield's Conservation Commission had been keeping their eye on the Broska Farm since 1979, when they first heard rumors that Broska's retirement might be eminent. As the last large area of undeveloped land in Springfield, the Conservation Commission was anxious to preserve the farmland and transform it to public use, perhaps as a kind of suburban version of Forest Park. The moment they heard that Broska's farm was about to go on the market, Commission Chairman Edward Friedman swung into action. First, the Commission members approached Mayor Richard Neal, who immediately gave the Commission his complete and enthusiastic support. Neal in turn contacted State Senator Martin Reilly and State Representative Paul Caron, both of whom represented the 16 Acres neighborhood, and urged them to try and get the funds from the state to acquire the land from the Broska family.

At first, Sen. Reilly imagined turning the farm into a state park, suggesting that it be called Broska State Park, but unfortunately the state showed little interest in acquiring more park land. However, a bill was moving through the legislature at that time providing funds for conservation purposes. Reilly and Caron managed to secure a promise from legislative leaders that if the city were to buy the Broska farm, then the state would be willing to reimburse them for 80% of the cost, thereby making the purchase very affordable. This legislative victory made heroes of Reilly and Caron, while Mayor Neal, the Conservation Committee, the citizens of 16 Acres and the taxpayers in general were all excited over the creation of a big, new park in Springfield.

But then things started to get weird.

Suddenly appearing on the scene was H. Joel Rahn, one of the infamous developers of the Indian Motocycle Building apartments complex, a ruinous taxpayer financed boondoggle that lost millions in a harebrained scheme to market condos in the middle of the ghetto. It was discovered that Rahn was offering Broska a generous price for his land, on which he intended to build a major housing development of nearly 50 homes. In order to block the deal, the City Council would have to take the land by eminent domain.

At first the news that Rahn was hoping to turn Springfield's new park into a housing development was greeted with outrage. The citizens of 16 Acres collected thousands of signatures to present to the Council urging the Councilors to stop the housing development by taking the land. Mayor Neal, Sen. Reilly, Rep. Caron and nearly all the City Councilors immediately denounced the Rahn development scheme and demanded the eminent domain taking. But that was before an odd and completely unexpected editorial appeared in the Springfield Newspapers.

In that editorial, readers were surprised to be informed by the paper that the farmland should not be considered undeveloped - after all, it had been used for farming! The editorial further suggested that the whole controversy was motivated by greed, although not the greed of housing developer Rahn, but of the citizens of 16 Acres, who selfishly wanted to preserve "their view" while denying those who needed housing. That everyone in the city, not just those living in 16 Acres, could use the park was not acknowledged. The editorial also informed the public that Springfield was suffering from a housing shortage, which was surprising news, since most people believed that the city was losing population due to white flight. But no, not at all said the Springfield Newspapers, in fact there was a never before known "housing crisis" with a "desperate" need for new housing developments. To the average reader, the editorial could not have made much sense. To those in the know, something underhanded was going down.

Shortly after the editorial appeared, Mitch Ogulewicz received an unusual phone call. It was from Arnold Friedman, the second in command at the Springfield Newspapers. While the editorial supporting the housing development was unsigned, it was widely believed that Friedman wrote most of the paper's political editorials. In fact, it had been Friedman with whom Mitch had spoken over lunch at The Fort several months earlier about his upcoming re-election endorsement from the paper. Now perhaps it was becoming clear what that luncheon and that endorsement was all about. Sure enough, Friedman urged Ogulewicz to vote against the eminent domain taking, something Mitch flatly refused to do. He was committed to creating the new park for the citizens of Springfield, and told Friedman so in uncertain terms.

Other Councilors, however, some of whom had been originally enthusiastic supporters of preserving the land, mysteriously began to sing a different tune. Councilor Francis Keough suddenly announced that he was now voting against the taking, giving the previously unknown housing shortage as his excuse. Robert Markel declared that the land was not a part of a previously unheard of "master plan" for open space in Springfield, and therefore the Broska farm was unsuitable for preservation. Only the always blunt spoken Vinnie DiMonaco laid out his reasons with unvarnished honesty, telling 16 Acres resident Michah Feldman (who then later told the Valley Advocate) that DiMonaco had told him that he "felt good helping David Starr in any effort he's committed to" and explaining that he would do so, because "Starr has done a lot for me and I owe Starr a lot."

Indeed, Springfield Newspapers publisher David Starr and his second in command Arnold Friedman admitted to both Stephanie Kraft and Kris Hundley of the Valley Advocate that they had personal dealings with H. Joel Rahn, the project's developer, with Starr soliciting contributions from Rahn for some of Starr's favorite causes while Friedman had been spotted around town dining with Rahn. Once again Ogulewicz pointed out that there was a clear conflict of interest. How could the paper editorialize against taking the land when the developer standing in the way of the park was someone with whom the management of the paper had both a professional and personal relationship? At the very least, there was little hope of objective coverage by the paper, since any Springfield Newspaper reporter wanting to investigate the Broska Farm controversy would have had to begin by investigating their own employer!

The fix was in, and nothing it seemed could prevent support for the park from slipping away. The Springfield Park Department, which had originally welcomed the idea of a major new addition, suddenly concluded that it lacked the funds to maintain it. Actually, the land would have been under the control of the Conservation Commission, but that inconvenient fact was ignored as newspaper headlines made it sound as if the park department was declaring the use of the land as unfeasible. One by one, Councilors began expressing reservations they never had before expressed about the land taking. Mitch could only wonder whether they too had received surprise phone calls from Arnold Friedman.

Mitch realized that there was only one person who could save the park to be built on the Broska farmland - Richard Neal. In a private meeting, Mitch urged the Mayor to use his influence to stop the defection of Councilors to the Springfield Newspaper's position, especially that of his cousin, Councilor Bill Foley. After all, it had been Neal himself who had originally set in motion the process of acquiring the state money to purchase the land. Yet Neal was resistant, telling Mitch that it was too late and that Starr and Friedman would have their way regardless of what anyone did. "It's a losing issue," Neal told him, "and I don't like to be on the side that's losing."

The night when the vote was to be taken on whether to accept the state money to acquire the land, the Councilors were startled to see Richard Neal quietly enter the Council chambers. Today it is not uncommon for mayors to appear before the Council uninvited to press their views. But in those days there was a clearly defined tradition of separation between the Council and the Mayoralty, and it was unheard of for the Mayor to violate the sanctity of the Council chambers by intruding uninvited on a Council meeting.

Yet the encounter with Mitch had with Neal in which Ogulewicz had essentially shamed the Mayor for not standing up for his own proposal, had apparently had an effect. Requesting that Council President DiMonico grant him permission to speak, the Mayor made one last futile appeal to save Broska farm. Everyone knew that Starr and Friedman already had the votes lined up to get their way and that nothing could change that. Still, in spite of all the difficulties Mitch had had with Neal in the past and would have in the future, Ogulewicz would always remember that one occasion when Neal had spoken out in defiance of Starr, saying it was one of the few times Neal had done something that Mitch could admire. Afterward, Mitch approached the Mayor in the room off of the council chambers and told him that he was glad that Neal had found the courage to do the right thing.

Despite Neal's dramatic appearance, as expected the Council still voted to refuse the grant money, thereby putting Sen. Reilly and Rep. Caron in the awkward position of having to go back to Boston to tell the legislature that Springfield was turning down the money for a new park, money which had already been handed to them on a silver platter. Meanwhile, H. Joel Rahn moved forward with his plans, as he bulldozed the woods and the farmland and raked in the profits from his housing development.

And so it was that the last farm and the last major area of open space in Springfield was lost forever.

These videos record the Broska Farm controversy as covered on local television.

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