Reinventing downtown Great Barrington: Commerce or retail ‘destination’?

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By Tuesday, Jun 27 News  17 Comments
Terry Cowgill
Wheeler & Taylor on South Main Street combines insurance and real estate sales in the heart of downtown Great Barrington.

Great Barrington — What does downtown Great Barrington want to be? A place that attracts all comers with destination retailers at every turn? Or a place where lots of valuable retail space is taken up by businesses that do little to attract crowds of shoppers to downtown?

Williiam Pitt Sotheby's is one of several real estate agencies on Main Street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Williiam Pitt Sotheby’s is one of several real estate agencies on Main Street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Retailers and landlords have been quietly asking this question for years, but it’s now squarely out in the open thanks to a discussion last Thursday of the Great Barrington Planning Board, where members engaged in a philosophical and practical discussion of whether to limit the proliferation of banks and real estate offices downtown.

“Personally, it’s really dismaying to see all those real estate offices take over those spaces,” said planning board member Jonathan Hankin, who himself is a broker at Berkshire Property Agents on Railroad Street.

Hankin and other members of the board wondered aloud how they might be able restrict those kinds of businesses – that is, if the board decided it wanted to do so. Some observers have also included law firms in that list of businesses.

“Where do we start?” asked member Jack Musgrove. “It’s abhorrent.”

“You want uses that drive foot traffic,” added planning board chair Brandee Nelson. “At the same time, there are economics … The question is how we could influence who the tenants are as a planning board.”

Both town planner Chris Rembold and Nelson said the town could theoretically amend its zoning bylaws to prohibit banks and real estate offices, though Rembold said he views the matter as “more of a management issue” than a zoning issue. Law firms have also been cited by critics as examples of businesses that take up valuable retail space without contributing much to the vibrancy of a downtown.

Berkshire Property Agents has its headquarters on Railroad Street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Berkshire Property Agents has its headquarters on Railroad Street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“We could restrict the table of uses,” Nelson said. “You would diversify the shops, but I imagine building owners would come screaming.”

Hankin added that he doesn’t “see banks as an issue, really. Banks are something historically associated with the center of town. Every business virtually every day goes to a bank.”

Several board members were concerned, however, about the downtown banks’ drive-thru windows, either because of safety or environmental concerns.

Though he is sympathetic to the idea of limiting those types of businesses, Musgrove said he’s “not even sure we have the authority to restrict real estate offices.”

Jeremia Pollard is a partner at Hannon Lerner, a law firm based in Lee with a second-floor office in downtown Great Barrington. In an interview, he said limiting those types of businesses has been done before. He pointed to a case several years ago in New York City.

City planners were troubled by a couple of areas in Manhattan where banks were heavily clustered. There were, for example, no less than seven banks clustered along a 500-foot stretch of Broadway near City Hall.

The situation was similar on 125th Street in Harlem, where the city planning commission nine years ago created a new 125th Street District, in part to “to enliven the street during the day and in the evening,” according to one of the commissioners. There were 15 banks between Broadway and Second Avenue. All of them are closed in the evening and for most of the weekend.

The zoning was not retroactive and did not ban banks. It did, however, prohibit new banks from occupying the ground floors in the newly created zone. And it allowed limited numbers of ATMs in the ground-floor entryways to the upstairs banks.

“The theory is you promote a more diverse foot traffic use that entails daytime and nighttime foot traffic,” Pollard said. “In some cities, they’ve tried to address this because they don’t want the street to go dark at night. If you’ve got a street with a lot of banks, the only thing that’s on at night are the streetlights.”

Stone House Properties on Railroad Street complements its real estate office with an art gallery. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Stone House Properties on Railroad Street complements its real estate office with an art gallery. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Pollard, who is town counsel to several municipalities in Berkshire County, agreed with Nelson and Rembold that Great Barrington could enact something similar in its zoning bylaws, but he cautioned that it could create other problems.

“If [the zoning bylaws] allow office space as a use, then you get into a tough area, where you say what offices are okay and what offices aren’t,” Pollard explained. “It’s going to be a tough proposition to identify the types of commercial offices you allow versus the ones that you don’t. A town like Great Barrington might be better off letting the market decide.”

Kameron Spaulding is in a unique position to speak to this issue: He is both chairman of the Lenox Planning Board and executive director of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce.

“We’ve talked about it before but it never got beyond the philosophical stage,” Spaulding said in an interview. “In the last 12 or 13 years, there’s never been a serious proposal.

“Any licensed planner can tell you, when they were in school, a great downtown does not have a bunch of real estate offices. You want traffic generators. And you don’t get that from real estate or law offices.”

Like Hankin, Spaulding exempted banks from his list. He described banks as “really a required downtown service” because they do attract traffic. In addition, downtown merchants and retail owners need to be able to walk to banks to make change or deposits.

Spaulding said there is a middle ground between allowing unrestricted growth of downtown banks, real estate offices and law firms and prohibiting them. They could be permissible by special permit, which would give the town some wiggle room.

Framework Properties is working on a mixed-use retail and residential development at the top of Railroad Street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Framework Properties is working on a mixed-use retail and residential development at the top of Railroad Street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

In a three-block area encompassing Franklin, Church and Main streets, Spaulding said, there are six real estate offices, three banks and one law firm. As for why real estate brokers prefer downtowns, Spaulding was pragmatic.

“They want the window display,” he said. “Neither Lenox nor Great Barrington would allow you to put up a billboard downtown, so they fill their windows up with pictures of homes … They want to feed off the other traffic.”

Between St. James Place and Rosseter Street, Great Barrington’s Main Street – which, for purposes of The Edge’s survey, also includes Railroad and Elm streets – is home to six real estate offices, five banks and five law firms. Of a total of 64 storefronts, four are currently vacant, including the polluted Ried’s Cleaners, which has been closed since November 2006 and has remained empty ever since.

The Edge contacted several downtown realtors. Only one, Randy Thunfors of Stone House Properties, responded. Thunfors acknowledged that his office does not generate the same foot traffic as a retail store, but Stone House has a different approach.

Inside his Railroad Street storefront is Gallery 35, an art gallery featuring individual local artists and artists from area organizations such as the Richmond-West Stockbridge Artists’ Guild. Eventually, Thunfors hopes to host exhibits by artists from Community Access to the Arts and Monument Mountain Regional High School.

The Pittsfield-based Cain Hibbard & Myers is one of four law firms with offices on Main Street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The Pittsfield-based Cain Hibbard & Myers is one of four law firms with offices on Main Street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“The idea is to give space to a number of artists who could not afford a gallery on Railroad Street,” Thunfors said. “We’re very conscious of foot traffic and we want to be involved in the community.”

The Great Barrington office of Stone House, which is in its 33rd year, was previously in an upstairs location but, when a street-level space recently became available in the Chef’s Shop building, Stone House moved.

Thunfors said he thinks some sectors of retail downtown are seeing challenges because of the proliferation of online shopping.

“Fighting Amazon is not an easy job,” he observed, referring to the internet retailing giant.

Railroad Street in particular is seeing some stresses, though they look to be temporary. The Lauren Clark Fine Art gallery is vacant and papered over after the artist moved to Stockbridge Road last year. Likewise, the former Seeds store is papered over but will be replaced by an as-yet-unannounced restaurant.

In addition, there is a construction project going on at the top of the street. Framework Properties is adapting the former Mario’s restaurant building into 12 market-rate rental units, a garden deck on the roof, and five commercial storefront spaces.

A listing of businesses on Railroad Street is out of date. Photo: Terry Cowgill

A listing of businesses on Railroad Street is out of date. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“Ian and Sam are doing a great job,” Thunfors said of Framework principals Sam Nickerson and Ian Rasch. “But Martin’s was a big draw.”

Thunfors was referring to one of Railroad Street’s biggest recent challenges: the closing last year of Martin’s Restaurant, the popular iconic diner that anchored the top of the street for 27 years and always attracted lots of foot traffic to that part of town.

Others including Rob Navarino, Thunfors’ landlord and owner of the Chef’s Shop, have said Saturdays haven’t been the same on Railroad Street ever since the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market relocated in 2014 from the old train station behind Town Hall to the fairgrounds and, later, to a parking lot on School Street behind the eastern row of shops on Main Street.

Navarino is less concerned about the kinds of tenants in downtown storefronts than he is about the overall health of the retail sector there. He sees the biggest problems downtown as parking and expense.

“Lack of parking alienates local customers more so than the tourists,” Navarino said in an interview. “They tell me they avoid shopping downtown and they’d rather go to a mall or someplace where they can get parking – or shop online.”

The Lauren Clark Fine Art gallery has relocated to Stockbrodge Road, leaving a prominent vacancy on Railroad Street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The Lauren Clark Fine Art gallery has relocated to Stockbrodge Road, leaving a prominent vacancy on Railroad Street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

As Navarino sees it, if you can’t get the local population to shop downtown, then you need to adjust your product to sell higher-end goods and services during tourist season, which further discourages locals from coming downtown.

“It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Navarino added. “The more expensive business alienates local customers even more, then rents go up.”

In addition, Navarino said the cost of “construction and renovation is extremely high.” It is a challenge, he said, to get local contractors to build “at locally sustainable rates,” in part because so many of them are accustomed to working for moneyed part-time residents.

“We have to pay that premium as well, which drives rents up” Navarino explained. “The impression created is that the building owner makes a killing, but that’s not true at all.”

Businessman Richard Stanley has long advocated for caution in renting to businesses that do not bring people into town. He thinks the idea of restricting real estate offices and law firms “definitely needs a discussion.”

“Usually, the people that need to be part of this discussion are landlords, but I’d also include real estate people,” said Stanley.

Stanley owns the Triplex Cinema, which opened in 1995, as well as the Barrington House, a large Main Street building that contains apartments and retail establishments such as Baba Louie’s, GB Eats and Robin’s Candy. He also owns the Beacon Cinema in downtown Pittsfield.

The view of Main Street from Railroad Street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The view of Main Street from Railroad Street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“This isn’t about real estate offices or banks or law firms. This is about creating an environment where people want to come downtown to shop and do things,” Stanley said in an interview. “That’s the way it’s usually done. All of those businesses could exist quite well anyplace else.”

Stanley refuses to rent to real estate firms or law firms (he has several storefronts on Main Street) and recently lost two tenants for that very reason, though he acknowledged he has the resources to hold out while other landlords do not.

Stanley said you need a healthy mix of businesses downtown so that they can “cross-pollinate each other” because “what’s good for the merchants is good for the landlords.”

“If you don’t have critical mass, then you’re going backwards,” he continued. “Even shopping centers work that way. A good mall developer does not rent space; he creates a destination. He starts with an anchor or several anchors, then the smaller stores.”

Not surprisingly, Stanley considers the Triplex, which also hosts the annual Berkshire International Film Festival, to be an anchor that “changed the nature of Great Barrington” and generated lots of foot traffic downtown.

He also considers the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and Carr Hardware to be destination anchors. Even Fuel, the popular coffee bar and restaurant that hosts live music on most weekends, is considered by Stanley to be an anchor of sorts.

Lance Vermeulen is a large real estate firm headquartered on Main Street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Lance Vermeulen is a large real estate firm headquartered on Main Street. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“For me, that’s what we need to be adding,” Stanley said.

For its part, after a lengthy discussion, the planning board seemed wary of placing restrictions on types of offices downtown.

“To me, the biggest issue is how many is too many?” said member Malcolm Fick. “If every storefront becomes real estate, then there’s no tourists, really. If it turns out that real estate sales suffer because we lost people downtown, then the real estate offices will have to close.”

Musgrove suggested the possibility of a downtown business association. That subject was broached last year, when an informal panel studied the possibility of a so-called Business Improvement District (BID), the special district that would tax property owners to pay for a variety of services that proponents say would help improve the business climate of downtown. A BID district would also have borrowing authority that could be tapped for capital projects.

Rembold said the town is still considering the BID but there is no firm timetable for when it will be unveiled, if ever.

“The town continues to work with local property owners and business owners to see if a management organization like a BID is viable,” Rembold told The Edge.

Selectman Ed Abrahams told planners he is bullish on downtown. Not only is there the Framework construction project at the top of Railroad Street with five new retail spaces, but there is the Powerhouse residential and retail development planned for Bridge Street that will contain the new headquarters for the Berkshire Co-op Market, which is actively pursuing funding for the project.

Abrahams also urged caution on zoning out banks, real estate offices and law firms from the downtown core: “We run the risk of the town or the economy changing and then we’ve locked them out.”

“We can always change our minds,” said planning board member Jeremy Higa.

Nelson ultimately concluded, “We can’t control it. This must be more market-driven.”


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17 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Bobby Houston says:

    A great conversation, long-overdue in the Age Of Amazon. Why not limit the number of realtors in ground-floor space to current levels? There already was a scramble to snag storefronts, let’s hold it here. It’s a simple case of sensible zoning.

  2. Brian says:

    Here are some suggested types of eateries that could occupy the vacant spaces (in addition to some of the great places we already have): A real bakery with resonable prices, an authentic Italian trattoria, a Japanese ramen noodle counter, a falafel shop, a Luke’s Lobster Bar, and a parking space or two for food trucks. During the film festival, it was clear that there aren’t enough affordable, high turnover places to get a quick bite to eat. Thanks to Richard Stanley for having the vision and business sense to know what brings people to town. But… you have to feed them when they get here.

    1. T.Harvey says:

      Yes affordable being a great term,because we as year round residents ,would shop more downtown if it weren’t so pricey

      1. Bonnie Woodard says:

        I agree. I don’t shop down town because I can’t afford it. I hear out of towers say how they think it’s great because it is a little cheaper than where they are from. But it is sad how our little town has turned into a miniature N.Y.

  3. Ritch Holben -RhDesign says:

    I am thrilled to hear that that Planning Board is finally having a philosophical discussion about GB’s identity, particularly in light of its semi-radical transformation that’s been evolving since the Main St. renovation project began. After all, isn’t that what Planning Boards are supposed to do? (Seems a little late, but better late than never). But I think the basis of the conversation is reversed…the answer to a vibrant downtown isn’t about exclusion, its about inclusion of businesses that draw the types of folk that you want in your downtown area, and during the times you want them there. As an example, GB has never recovered (in the evenings, at least) since the loss of Club Helsinki. Live music and a casual community hangout did more to enliven the downtown scene and help the restaurants stay open in the off-season, than nearly any other venue. Thankfully, we do still have the Triplex, and the Mahaiwe, but there is a definite hole in the heart of the town without a down-and-dirty watering hole for locals. As you lose the reason for locals to venture out of their cabin-fevered state in February to venture into town, you lose the vibrancy of a year-round economy, and eventually are left with a tourist-only, high-season town that naturally draws realtors, overpriced retailers and soaring rents.

    As a side note, realtors may be the third ring of hell, but they are not the “enemy” of an active streetscape, necessarily. Their presence is more a symptom of a changing demographic downtown that has shifted from the local to the seasonal and weekender. And frankly, no matter how many pairs of $350 blue jeans you sell, you will never compete with the profits from the sale of just one $350,000 house. You just have to think of them as really expensive retailers that sell dreams and keys. (Plus, that house sale then generates thousands of dollars in property taxes for the town coffers every year – I doubt our Selectboard would want to restrict that.) On the occasional time I’ve been downtown and a realtor’s office is open in the evening, I find it to be just as valid as a candy shop or a taco stand.

    IN my personal experience, the No. 1 problem that must be dealt with is the traffic and parking situation. I know this is daunting, and frankly has only been worsened by the Main Street redo. We moved to New Marlborough in 1998 and used to frequent the downtown scene at least 3 times a week, (I miss you, Union!) but in the past three years, we find that we plan our route to either the south end of town, or the north end and avoid the downtown traffic at all costs. Just this week, we “ventured downtown” from Southfield to try one of the new Main St. restaurants for lunch on a Monday. Traffic and parking were a nightmare. (We also opened a bank account.) And yesterday, I had to do the RR St. loop 3 times to find a parking spot so I could have a meeting to find an appropriate tenant/use for one of the empty aforementioned retail spaces on Railroad-on at Tuesday at 2:30 pm. The traffic is so stressful, and parking so difficult that by the time you finally do get to your destination, you are angry and frustrated which completely diminishes the experience of visiting “America’s No. 1 Small Town”.

    Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of designing spaces for several of the downtown businesses, from the original restoration of 47 RR, to Rubiners and its cafe, Cyril and Dayne, good ole Verdura restaurant, Karen Allen and, yes, even Lance Vermeulen’s real estate office. Currently, I’ve been called to help “re-imagine” several other retail and on-street buildings in the core of downtown. I’ve seen a ton of changes as GB is constantly, but slowly, reinventing itself, and I do think major magnets like the new 47 RR project, the Powerhouse Square and the new Coop projects (and that hotel at Searles.. how’s THAT going?) will all greatly add to the diversity, breadth and overall vitality of GB.

    The 47 RR project, in particular, is being developed, I believe, with an eye toward “less cars, more walkability”, by providing in-town living. This is a very on-trend urban planning strategy that has proven successful all over the country. But in order for this to work, you need a place to “walk to”, and that might be what is missing. So how do you get people out of their cars and into a social frame of mind that builds goodwill, happiness and community? That, I believe, would be a better framework for the Planning Board to focus on.

    To get you started, here’s one idea I’ve been floating around for years…Got your Imagineering ears on?
    Build a 3 story parking garage parallel to the RR tracks (next to the defunct Martins), remove the parking lot that is currently occupying the literal heart of GB and turn it into a cafe-ringed piazza of sorts.. with the Triplex as an anchor. Make it a pedestrian-only “place” of food, entertainment, shopping, move the town gazebo there, if need be…It’s already got great pedestrian access from Main and RR, it’s got Rubis and other food establishments that face it, (or easily could) and if you could work out the delivery schedules to make it car-free in the evenings, GB could have a green, healthy, beating heart. (I know it’s got issues, but that’s what good planners fix, right?)

    So there’s one idea. I think you need to think bigger, broader and healthier if you want to coax along the growth of a more vibrant downtown. Encourage, don’t restrict. OK, now you go!

    1. David says:

      Spot on, sir. But there needs to offerings to those of us without Mercedes or Lexus wearing orange plates. The shop offering an oak board & rope tree swing for nearly $300 simply blows my mind!

    2. Lauren Clark says:

      Well said, Ritch! The piazza idea and parking garage has been a conversation I and a few people I know have also been having for years. So besides the town planners, there are two property owners who need to come to the table for this to happen. But how to get that to happen?
      On another note, there is the problem of owner’s greed (in some cases). I felt the need to move out of downtown because I couldn’t reach a reasonable agreement with my landlord-a space which remains empty and leaving a sad gap on Railroad Street. Fortunately, I found a beautiful spot on Stockbridge Road-with plenty of parking!

    3. Barney Stein says:

      Piazza idea: BRILLIANT!
      I was lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks in Italy and France in September. I found it sad that somehow we haven’t figured out how to do the vibrant town square thing–where people — and yes, hopefully a VARIETY of people, with and without fat wallets–really do spend alot of time, eating, drinking, chatting, playing, and just BEING.

  4. Susan says:

    Can Reid Cleaners be made into public parking lot?

    1. Carol Diehl says:

      Parking lots are also “dead” areas, should be set back, not part of the streetscape.

  5. Amanda says:

    What this is really about is that Banks and Realtors are the only businesses that can afford “Main Street” real estate rates in most towns. If we let that sacred cow, The Market, decide–get ready for wall to wall banks.

  6. Amanda says:

    The real issue is that in most towns Banks and big Realtors are the only businesses that can afford “Main St. ” rents. If we just let that sacred cow, The Market, decide, get ready for wall to wall banks.

  7. Phil Coleman says:

    Wishing all of you great success. However, having had a retail business in downtown Stockbridge for nearly twenty years, we have the ideal retail environment for all of Berkshire County–walkable, almost always plenty of free parking, quaint, focused locally, unique shops, lots of town spirit amongst the merchants, and not a lot of space. Imagining that formula working elsewhere in either GB or for that matter Lenox, North Adams, Pittsfield, etc. is a huge stretch. You have too much retail space available already, with retailers who can not make it financially. It’s a pipe dream to think more are coming in. Let the market decide what is best for your town, you can not dictate prosperity by assigning spaces to selected sets of businesses.

  8. Mary Eastland says:

    Wish I could just drive though town to get to work….

  9. Carol Diehl says:

    One big problem is traffic congestion since the Main Street renovation. I have often seen off-season Main Street traffic backed up to Belcher Square–and beyond. An expert needs to take a look at the new traffic lights and the timing, so that traffic flows. I avoid driving on Main Street for this reason.

    1. Steve Farina says:

      Yes, and unfortunately another cause of traffic is the very pedestrian traffic that is being desired. Perhaps it is time to add crossing signals which are tied to the traffic lights.
      The number of rude, or thoughtless(in regard to street traffic), pedestrians is becoming irksome. People walk up to the head of the walkway, traffic stops, then the pedestrian decides to walk back down the sidewalk…or they change direction part way across, or flat out meander and purposefully take their time crossing. Others don’t seem to mind trickling across as a previous pedestrian just starts reaching the other side, causing increased auto traffic congestion. And more dangerously, I have had more than one occasion of someone speed walk into the cross walk, apparently unaware they were stepping out from the blocked view of a parked (or double parked/standing) vehicle, often with little care of the risk because they apparently knew they had the “right of way”.

      While I certainly appreciate being able to cross on a whim at certain cross walks, I also think it important to asses the overall safety of the crosswalks, as well as removing the randomness of the crossing patterns.

  10. Tom Blauvelt says:

    Hello,
    Parking has been mentioned in several posts. I just want to let everyone know that Wheeler & Taylor’s parking lot is open to the public Monday through Friday anytime after 6:00pm and all day Saturday and Sunday. The only exception is that there is no overnight parking allowed.

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