Mixed-use rental proposal for Housatonic School would leave town as landlord

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By Wednesday, Sep 6 News  4 Comments
The Great Barrington Select Board reviews a proposal from Grayhouse Partners for the reuse of the Housatonic School on Tuesday. From left, Sean Stanton, Steve Bannon, Dan Bailly and Ed Abrahams. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Great Barrington — A proposal from Grayhouse Partners for a “public-private partnership” to accomplish the reuse of the town-owned Housatonic School does not include a purchase of the property. As a result, the town would not profit from a sale, nor would the property return to the tax rolls.

That much was clear after the selectboard met Tuesday to discuss the proposal to turn the vacant 110-year-old school on Pleasant Street into seven affordable housing rental units and a total of 14,000 square feet of commercial office space – “collaborative work space,” according to the proposal, “that will act as a business incubator … creating jobs and economic opportunity for generations to come.”

The former Housatonic Elementary School overlooks the playground in center of the village of Housatonic. The school’s playground and lawn create what amounts to the village green. Photo: David Scribner

Town manager Jennifer Tabakin had paper copies of the lengthy proposal but had not yet posted it on the town’s website. The Edge has scanned part of the document. Click here to view the first 33 pages of the proposal, which includes the one-page letter and executive summary.

Board Chairman Sean Stanton said he had not yet had a chance to examine the document and asked that any vote be postponed until he could digest it. His fellow selectmen agreed, so they opted to put off the discussion and possible vote on whether to accept the proposal until the board’s regular meeting on Monday, Oct. 16. Grayhouse would make a presentation at that time.

With that, the selectmen voted unanimously to agree that the Grayhouse response met all the technical requirements and certifications required by the town’s request for proposals on the sale or reuse of the Housatonic School, which opened in 1909 and has remained mostly empty since 2005 when Berkshire Hills Regional School District consolidated its schools with a new elementary- and middle-school campus on Monument Valley Road.

But there was little else in the way of discussion. Here are some other key elements of the proposal from Grayhouse and its principal, Bill Nappo:

  • Though there are no firm figures in the proposal, Grayhouse would essentially rent the property from the town and sublet space to its own tenants–commercial and residential. The town had been hoping to sell the property, perhaps at a profit, in order to relieve itself of the liability for environmental remediation and code compliance obligations. It’s not clear at this point what those obligations would be under the building’s reuse as proposed by Grayhouse.
  • The lack of hard numbers in the proposal is an indication that Grayhouse will need time–a year or so after entering into an agreement with the town–to perform additional research. Grayhouse will have to perform what it calls a net-presented-value analysis in which it must determine whether the usage it envisions for the school will generate enough revenue (rentals, grants, subsidies) to meet its expenses (design and construction, operation and maintenance, site improvements and upgrades).
  • There was also a letter of support from Berkshire Bank and Lee Bank, though the banks emphasized that their letters do not constitute an agreement between them and Greyhouse for financing.
  • The rehabilitation of the school building will follow the U.S. Secretary of the Interior’s standards for the treatment of historic properties. Nappo said the use of basement space opening to the east “will enhance the beauty and vitality of the Alice Bubriski Memorial Park,” an adjacent area that currently contains a children’s playground that used to be a part of the school.
  • After signing an agreement with the town, within a year, Grayhouse would produce a report containing conceptual architectural renderings, cost estimates, program schedules and an NPV financial analysis. In the interim, Grayhouse will produce monthly progress reports.
  • Grayhouse will partner with the Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire and will retain the Great Barrington firm of Clark & Green as architects, the Pittsfield-based Eco-Genesis as environmental consultants and Barry Engineers & Constructors, also based in Pittsfield, as structural engineers.
  • Plans for the building also include “the latest and most sophisticated internet connectivity.”

Nappo, a member of the town’s historical commission, has lived on Main Street in Housatonic for 16 years and has been involved in a number of historic preservation projects, most recently in the campaign to restore the old West Stockbridge Town Hall that was built in 1854 and now houses that town’s historical society.

“I have a passion for restoring old buildings and preserving their historical integrity,” he told the Edge last month.

In an interview, Selectman Ed Abrahams said he has read through the proposal and has a list of questions, though he was reluctant to make them public in advance of the Oct. 16 meeting.

The playground area of the Housatonic School, looking east toward the Monument Mills and Flag Rock. Photo: David Scribner

“First and foremost, it’s the only offer we’ve got and that’s very important to keep in mind,” Abrahams said. “I’m grateful to have an offer, but just because it’s the only offer we got doesn’t mean we have to accept it.”

Abrahams said he does like the idea of a public-private partnership because, even if it means the town still owns the building, at least the town would retain some control over its future, unlike the old Castle Street firehouse, for example, which continues to languish after being purchased in 2014 by a retired upstate New York banker who had grand plans that have so far not panned out.

The reuse of the Housatonic School itself has a checkered history. The town has been trying to rid itself of the school for years. In response to the first RFP, the CDC in 2010 submitted a fully fleshed mixed-use plan that included 11 units of affordable housing, and commercial space, including space for nonprofits and even a satellite office for police. But former town manager Kevin O’Donnell was lukewarm about the proposal and so it withered on the vine.

Great Barrington Selectman Ed Abrahams.

Abrahams said, even if the selectmen approve the proposal at the Oct. 16 meeting, then “we’re not actually signing a deal. We’re authorizing the town manager to continue to negotiate with them. It would be the beginning of a process.”

Selectman Bill Cooke declined to comment. Selectman Dan Bailly said he, too, was reluctant to share his thoughts in advance of Oct. 16. He did say he was “a little disappointed that there was only one proposal.”

“That’s not really surprising since it’s a very complex property,” Bailly told The Edge. “But it’s an encouraging proposal. There are certainly questions that I have and I look forward to discussing them when they come back to us in October.”

Selectman Steve Bannon said it would be “premature” to comment extensively on the proposal, but he did say, “I think [the proposal] has some merit and it’s worth delving into.”

Bannon, who also chairs the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee and was a member of the committee when the Housatonic School closed, said he would have preferred to sell the building and “get it back on the tax rolls.” He described leasing as “the second-best option.”

“Right from the beginning, I’ve said I did not want to tear it down,” said Bannon, one of whose children attended the school. “Once you take one of those [school] buildings down, they’re gone forever. You lose both the architectural history and the memories of the children who attended.”

Impact entrepreneur Laurie Lane-Zucker in front of the Housatonic School. Photo: Kathy Orlando

One potential tenant is Laurie Lane-Zucker of Sheffield. Lane-Zucker, who has started a business incubator called the Impact Entrepreneur Center for Social and Environmental Innovation, was profiled in Forbes magazine and had publicly identified the Housatonic School as a potential site.

Lane-Zucker congratulated Nappo on his proposal and said Impact’s needs include office, co-working and instructional space “as well as first-rate communications technology so we can effectively serve our 15,000-member global network of entrepreneurs, investors and scholars.

“If the adaptive reuse proposed by Greyhouse can accommodate these needs using 21st-century green building specifications – including, ideally, a renewable energy supply – on a reasonable occupancy timeline, we certainly would consider becoming an anchor tenant and energetic collaborator in this vital community building effort,” Lane-Zucker told the Edge.

The presentation by Grayhouse is slated for Monday, Oct. 16, at 6:30 p.m. at Town Hall.


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4 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Ritch says:

    First of all, thank you, Terry, for a clear and thorough story on this complex issue. I do hope our town Select Board will see the value in a proposal that salvages and adaptively re-uses this historic structure, and treats this process as an investment in our community’s future. We aren’t just looking to “rid” ourselves of a blighted expense, but build opportunities for generations to come. Please give this sow’s ear a chance to shine, and help, in any way you can, those that are willing to take on the transformation.

  2. John says:

    Landlord = Liability..

    The town (taxpayer) will likely pay to maintain it, (taxpayer) pay the middleman, and then (taxpayer)likely rent it back from the middleman… can’t make this stuff up.

    Sell it for $1 and be done with it

  3. Tom Norton says:

    The Alice Bubriski Memorial Playground is one section of the Housatonic Village Common, a town park. The photos shown in this article are dated and do not show the improvements the Town has made to add features to the Park to accommodate all the citizenry of the village, including Adult fitness equipment and a ADA accessible picnic area.

  4. Justin Soffer says:

    A year for an NPV analysis? As much as I’d love for something to happen with this building, with a pen and one side of an envelope (the back) I can nearly guarantee that there’s no way 7 affordable housing units plus commercial space can, in any way, justify the renovation and remediation expenses, without some sort of massive local or federal governmental subsidy or incentive. All you have to do is look at office and housing rents in Housatonic which are depressingly low. Without studying the proposal in detail yet, I fear this is another pipe dream that will ultimately face reality. Hopefully I’m proven wrong.

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