Tonight, the City Council in New Bedford, Massachusetts will decide whether or not to tear down an historic mill building, nearly 100 years old, to make way for a suburban design big box store. Home Depot, the world’s largest home improvement chain store has its sights set on the Fairhaven Mills, located in the north end of New Bedford, a community steeped in seaside history. The building Home Depot wants is already filled with small businesses that operate an antiques center. But the city’s Mayor is taken with the plan, which calls for demolition of the existing mill building, and construction of a suburban style box store, with a supermarket and restaurant, all in an urban setting in an inappropriate waterfront location. To sweeten the deal, the developer, Whelan Associates, has promised to spend $40,000 for a “riverwalk” to connect the development to Riverside Park. Home Depot has offered to build a monument on the site dedicated to mill workers, even as it destroys the mill they worked in. The Home Depot building will have a brick facade to blend in better with the neighborhood, but its windowless, box format will bear no resemblence to other built structures in the historic North End. One local businessman who uses the Fairhaven Mills, called the Home Depot plan “seriously flawed”, noting that the plan will “create substantial traffic issues; and eliminate one of the city’s most notable tourist attractions.” Fairhaven Mills is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the city. “On any given day,” the resident wrote, “the parking lot is full of out-of-town visitors who spend their money in New Bedford and help support the 250 local dealers who work hard to subsidize their income or make a living through the co-op. It is an absurd thought that a city that constantly strives to attract visitors to the New Bedford region would even consider eliminating one of it’s most popular tourist attractions.” The developer has sold his plan based on new jobs for the area, but critics point out that not only will the people working at the existing businesses in the Mills lose their jobs, but local hardware, paint, garden supply and other occupations are likely to lose their jobs as well. Futhermore, New Bedford will not keep the sales taxes generated by the project, only the property taxes. So the likely impact on the city’s treasury will be a wash, or even negative. “A Home Depot would only serve to take money out of the community by potentially eliminating the competition who live and work in the local community such as Beacon Lumber, Fairhaven Lumber, and other smaller businesses.” There are already Home Depot’s and Lowe’s stores in neighboring Dartmouth. Money spent at the Antiques Co-op stays in New Bedford while money spent at a Home Depot is sent to Pace’s Ferry Road in Atlanta, Georgia.
In other communities, most recently in New York City, Home Depot has been pressured by local officials to maintain the historic integrity of the areas where they locate. On West 23rd street in Manhattan, Home Depot recently opened up a new store, but left the historic facade of the building completely intact. City officials refused to allow the retailer to change the exterior at all. Home Depot took the deal because they wanted that Manhattan address. In the North End of New Bedford, however, the developer will tear down the mill building in a heartbeat, and leave nothing but a small monuiment to the mill workers who once worked there. And when Home Depot shuts down this store to move to another location, will the city erect a monument to the people who worked a few years at Home Depot? For a city treasures its whaling history, this Home Depot is a whale of a mistake. It also happens to be a terrible reuse of waterfront property, which has much more value as a public space, or for housing with a water view.