Great Barrington — The selectboard has approved a memorandum of agreement with Grayhouse Partners for the lease and redevelopment of the former Housatonic School.
The four-page memo, viewable by clicking here, outlines a timetable for accomplishing specific goals during a one-year period of due diligence in advance of the redevelopment of the abandoned school in the center of the village of Housatonic.
“This is where we hope to be within one calendar year,” Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin said. “They’ll be ready at that point to determine whether they will go into a purchase-and-sale or lease agreement, so we hope that that year will bring us there.”
Selectman Ed Abrahams was quick to note that the agreement has an escape clause for both the town and Grayhouse. As the memo says, it “is not an exclusive agreement between the parties and either party may withdraw at any time with 15 calendar days written notice to the other.”
That is important because the selectmen had been looking for years to sell the property. Issued this spring, the town’s most recent request for proposals elicited only Grayhouse’s plan. RFPs soliciting potential buyers or others who would want to use the Housatonic School were sent out in 2010 and again in 2012. More than two years ago, the town sent out another RFP but nothing came of it.
Last month, the selectmen authorized Tabakin to negotiate the agreement with Grayhouse CEO Bill Nappo and his team, which is proposing that the town retain ownership of the building and property while Grayhouse would lease it.
At that time, Nappo made a presentation to the board in which he and his team explained the unusual arrangement, dubbed a “public-private partnership,” which is a contractual arrangement between a public agency such as the town and a private sector entity such as Grayhouse, a home renovation contractor.
As presented, the project would convert the school into seven small apartments and several work spaces on three levels. Grayhouse understands that parking could be a problem.
But town planner Chris Rembold said Monday night that the selectmen are aware that parking is a “possible barrier to development” and that the town has retained an engineering firm to develop a parking and streetscape design.
The adjacent Housie Dome, which now functions as a community center and contains the former school’s gymnasium, will not be a part of the deal. Nor was the school’s playground marketed as part of a potential lease or sale. The park serves now as a town park.
So in any adaptive reuse of the building, the Housie Dome spots could not be used for parking, though Grayhouse’s proposal (and the town’s) does add about 15 new parking places on the east side of the building that encroach slightly on the playground.
“We wanted to add more parking without impacting the park, and put a sidewalk on that side of the street and organize the parking a little bit better,” Rembold explained, “and possibly increase the parking area behind the existing school.”
Rembold emphasized that Grayhouse was coming up with a streetscape, parking and site plan of its own and “so now we have the opportunity to take what they’re doing and what we’re doing and share those and come to some good solution.”
Also part of the agreement, Grayhouse must, within 90 calendar days of the execution of the memo, draft development and operating budgets. For its part, the town must “begin Phase I and Phase II environmental assessments of the property including a hazardous building materials survey.”
The environmental assessments will be financed as part of a $300,000 Brownfields Community Wide Assessment grant the town received earlier this year from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The funds will be used to perform Phase One and Phase Two environmental assessments of several other properties, most of them in and around the village of Housatonic: Monument Mills; Rising Paper Mill; Cook’s Garage; and the site that once hosted Barbieri Lumber.
It is also possible that a portion of the funds could be used to perform further investigation into the polluted Ried Cleaners property in downtown Great Barrington. And if there are funds remaining after these investigations, they could be used to perform actual remediation work.
The selectmen unanimously voted to authorize Tabakin to enter into the agreement, which she will take to the Grayhouse attorney. If there are only minor changes, Tabakin will sign the document.
“If it’s something substantial, I’ll bring it back,” Tabakin said.
Shuttered by the Berkshire Hills Regional School District more than 10 years ago, the Housatonic School has a long and checkered history. The former community elementary school opened in 1909 and has remained mostly empty since 2003 when Berkshire Hills consolidated its schools with a new elementary- and middle-school campus on Monument Valley Road.
When the school closed, the town assumed ownership of the property from the school district. Berkshire Hills used the building for its administrative office for a couple of years and then moved to the Stockbridge Town Offices. The nonprofit Multicultural BRIDGE was based in the Housatonic School until 2007, when it moved temporarily to Pittsfield and eventually to Lee.