Powerhouse Square critical to keep Co-op in downtown, market manager says

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By Thursday, Feb 23 News  9 Comments
Benchmark Development’s Powerhouse Square will feature a 14,000-square-foot Berkshire Co-op Market, which the Co-op says is critical to its staying downtown.

Great Barrington — With a game-changing downtown development heading toward the continuance of its special permit hearing on Monday (Feb. 27) and a groundbreaking set for next month, support by representatives from what will be its expanded anchor store illustrates how critical the store is to the town.

Berkshire Co-op Market’s general manager Daniel Esko told the Selectboard at the first part of the public hearing last week that this $8 million-per-year natural foods grocer needs Benchmark Development’s Powerhouse Square just as much as the town needs the Co-op.

Berkshire Co-op Market's general manager Daniel Esko speaks to the Selectboard about how important it is to keep the Co-op downtown. Photo: Heather Bellow

Berkshire Co-op Market’s general manager Daniel Esko speaks to the Selectboard about how important it is to keep the Co-op downtown. Photo: Heather Bellow

“The Co-op has a big economic impact on the town, and we want to stay downtown,” Esko said. He added that, if the store has to leave the downtown to expand, both the town and its residents would lose a valuable “resource.”

The Co-op began bursting at the seams at least a few years ago, with its convenient downtown location that can be reached on foot from many homes, apartments and businesses. But it draws plenty of cars from all over the Berkshires too, since it is also a popular meeting place with its cafe, food bar and community-oriented approach.

The store needs more space both inside and out and, after a few years of searching for the right new place to expand, Benchmark’s proposed $15 million mixed development next door turned out to be the right fit for a 14,000-square-foot store. Benchmark’s plans include smaller retail and office space, and condominiums above and in a separate building. The Co-op’s current location will become its new parking lot.

Benchmark’s Michael Charles and Brian Cohan have been before the planning board, the historical commission and the design district board, the latter having weighed in on the proposed development’s adherence to the early 1900s industrial vibe of the surrounding area.

The Great Barrington Selectboard will continue its public hearing Monday, Feb. 27, for Benchmark Development's special permit for the Co-op expansion project. From left: Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, board vice president Steve Bannon, members Dan Bailly and Ed Abrahams, Bill Cooke. Not pictured: chair Sean Stanton. Photo: Heather Bellow

The Great Barrington Selectboard will continue its public hearing Monday, Feb. 27, for Benchmark Development’s special permit for the Co-op expansion project. From left: Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, board vice president Stephen Bannon, members Dan Bailly and Ed Abrahams, Bill Cooke. Not pictured: chair Sean Stanton. Photo: Heather Bellow

And as he made his case, Charles told the Selectboard that the beauty of this development is that it adds “greater density downtown” in an area “already fed by water and sewer.”

“It’s part of the national trend of people wanting to live in a downtown rather than in the outskirts,” he added. “It enlivens the whole Bridge Street core,” including Memorial Park, a popular baseball diamond, next to which Benchmark plans to build a wall where people can eat lunch purchased at the Co-op and watch games.

Adding a total of 49 new residences to the downtown does something else that the town badly needs. “More living means more shopping and an expansion of the tax base,” Charles said.

Charles echoed Esko, saying there weren’t very many “viable” options for Co-op expansion downtown.

One of those had been a proposed mixed-use development at 100 Bridge Street, a brownfield just across the Housatonic River. But delays and other complications to plans for remediating highly contaminated soil there put that location out of the running.

Charles said he estimates a 12- to 13-month construction period for this first phase of the project that includes the new Co-op.

There have been a few little bumps in Benchmark’s process, but those appear to be smoothing down. The attorney for an abutting business, Wheeler & Taylor Insurance Co., had voiced concerns of his clients about the construction pushing into its property. Charles said discussions about easements there were still in progress and would be resolved.

Benchmark Development's Michael Charles speaks to the Selectboard last week at the first public hearing for a special permit to build Powerhouse Square. Photo: Heather Bellow

Benchmark Development’s Michael Charles speaks to the Selectboard last week at the first public hearing for a special permit to build Powerhouse Square. Photo: Heather Bellow

The second phase of the plan is the other condominium building very close to the historic Searles Castle, now the John Dewey Academy. Members of the historic commission had worried that the new construction would taint the historic property. But Benchmark did receive approval from the commission to build on the site, and next month it will seek approval for the building, Charles said by phone.

And board member Ed Abrahams noted that Benchmark’s traffic study for what is already a busy end of Bridge Street was done in October rather than July, the “busiest” time of year.

Mercifully for Benchmark, contamination at a former dry cleaning space that will be demolished for construction is relatively minor and contained.

Since last fall the Co-op has raised $430,000 in Co-op owner commitments for loans after launching a campaign to raise $1.3 million.

In a letter this week to the store’s collective owners, Esko said the Co-op will take a break from fundraising to work with Benchmark on the design of the new store before it returns to securing the rest of the money it needs to proceed.

And back at last week’s Selectboard meeting, Co-op board member Mike Maguire got up and reiterated how critical Benchmark’s project is.

“It is the only viable way to keep it downtown.”


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9 Comments   Add Comment

  1. ART A. says:

    An intelligent use of the property, in spite of Wheeler & Taylor’s NIMBY objections. Here’s hoping it comes to fruition. For the sake of transparency, I am an owner and have provided a loan for the project. Now more than ever, we need to support local investment in our own communities, particularly those investments that deal with necessities such as food and shelter.

    1. lolacola says:

      I don’t consider a $379,000.00 one bedroom apartment a necessity, when you can buy a 3 bedroom house for less than that.
      Expansion is necessary for the market. Bridge Street is already a mess and now with more people living in a smaller area
      it will be even worse.

      1. Art says:

        I’d suggest that shelter is a necessity for many different situations in the town, including downtown clusters, low income housing and everything in between. I’m not sure one negates another.

    2. Patrick Fennell says:

      Wheeler & Taylor have been around for a long time and have been a good and very generous company. Taking a cheap shot at them was not a wise move

      1. Art says:

        You know something? You’re right! I didn’t express that well. Point taken, and I’m sure they’ll work it out.

  2. Dave Long says:

    One measure of the health of any town is how well it serves the basic needs of its residents: food, clothing, shelter. Prosperous affordable hardware, clothing, drug, home goods, and grocery stores are the foundations of a vibrant and inclusive community. While Great Barrington is lucky enough to still check many of these boxes, upscale retail continues squeeze out retailers who supply the fundamentals. Combined with the lack of affordable housing, residents in Great Barrington have reason to be concerned about the future of their town.

    Of the fundamentals, quality fresh food is one of the most important. The Coop is uniquely positioned to bridge both the fundamental need for affordable quality food and the demands of more upscale clientele. Having it fill the void created as grocery retail moved to edges of town is an important success story that we should value and celebrate. Many in their 50’s or older will remember that we once had a wealth of food options in town: A&P, Finast, Barrington Food Center, and Gorham and Norton’s were right down town; Betros, Broverman’s, and Ely’s stretched from downtown to Belcher Square. Now only the Coop is located where the highest concentration of people actually live. Time passes and things change, but that does not mean that we shouldn’t value what we have.

    Additionally, the town should be applauding a downtown development of this scale and composition that builds on the integrity of our town center and helps check demands for more haphazard development –or worse — strip development on the edges of town. A development of this type with the coop as an anchor is a winning proposition. It is very confusing to me that Wheeler and Taylor and other more outspoken opponents do not see this proposal as a win-win for themselves as well as the town at large.

    1. Al says:

      The last Time I was in downtown Great Barrington (which was today) Gorham and Norton was open and fully operational. I would hate for anyone to think that they closed up shop!

      1. Dave Long says:

        Yes they are still there thank goodness (town would not be the same without the Tracys!), but they have significantly shifted from groceries to wine, beer, spirits, and the deli compared with times past. While they still have some groceries and specialty items ( and remain critically important for downtown residents), it currently does not fill the same role as it once did or the role that the Coop does now.

  3. Stephen L. Cohen says:

    I wonder if the developers have the funds, or the funding, to build the project. Also, the details of the lease (or sale?), of the space to the coop are unknown. I am sure that the Coop will keep all loan funds raised from their members in escrow until the space is built and a certificate of occupancy is granted by the town, but it is certainly questionable to me if the pricing of the units is excessive, considering other options for in-town or other berkshire residences. I can understand the coop and developer not willing to share the particulars of their contract, but in the interim most prudent investors would not participate by buying into a loan, or pre-construction purchase of a unit from the developer. Buying a pig in a poke is not the way to invest, no matter how laudable the intent.

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Frederick Simmons Sr., 86, of Lee

Tuesday, Oct 17 - Fred enjoyed hunting and fishing in the local area, vegetable gardening, woodworking, spending time with his large extended family and being a great dad.