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$15 million Co-op Market expansion, mixed-use development for upper Bridge Street

Benchmark Development has entered into contract for three land parcels that include the current Co-op location; the parcel behind it that stretches into the Searles Castle property;, and the location of the new Co-op, to be situated on what is currently its parking lot and the former Laramee’s Cleaners block.

Great Barrington — The character and commercial center of downtown is poised to further shift as a new, roughly $15 million mixed-use development at the top of Bridge Street will — in roughly a year and a half — feature an expanded, 14,500-square-foot Berkshire Co-op Market along with retail, office and 22 residential units above it.

Benchmark Development principals Michael Charles and Brian Cohan told the Planning Board Wednesday (September 7) that the Lenox-based company has entered into contract for three parcels that include the current Co-op location, the parcel behind it that stretches into the Searles Castle area, and the location of the new Co-op which will be situated on what is currently its parking lot and the former Laramee’s Cleaners block.

In a view looking toward Bridge Street the Berkshire Co-op, at left, will move to a new 14,500-square-foot building at the site of its current parking lot and former Laramee's Cleaners block. The current building will be razed for a parking area. The development will feature condos and retail and office space. Photo: Heather Bellow
In a view looking toward Bridge Street the Berkshire Co-op, at left, will move to a new 14,500-square-foot building at the site of its current parking lot and former Laramee’s Cleaners block. The current building will be razed for a parking area. The development will feature condos and retail and office space. Photo: Heather Bellow

Charles noted that environmental assessments had been done at the former Laramee’s Cleaners location and that Benchmark will be able to address pollution issues there.

That’s just Phase 1, Charles told the board. And there will be no interruption to the Co-op as its new home is built. Phase 2, to possibly begin a year after Phase 1, will level the Co-op’s current location for a parking area and, behind it, build another development featuring 36 residential units and a parking garage.

“We’re ready to rock and roll,” Charles said, adding that contractors will be out at the site as early as December or January for “preliminary work,” and the project could be complete roughly one year later.

All the condominiums will be sold at market rates, Charles said. Town Planner Chris Rembold noted that there is no requirement for affordable housing at that location, which is zoned for mixed-use and lies in the Village Overlay District.

The announcement puts to rest the mystery of whether the Co-op is still considering expanding as an anchor retail store at the proposed 100 Bridge Street development down the road. Charles said Benchmark, which initially worked on those plans, still sees itself having a role in that development, with some re-imagining. He said that this project, given both upcoming Bridge Street projects (100 Bridge and the Berkshire Hotel slated for the former Searles School) “will add value” to all redevelopments along a corridor that will soon also see its infrastructure upgraded with a $2.1 million MassWorks grant.

Benchmark Development's Brian Cohan andMichael Charles (at right) talk about the company's plans for a new mixed use development on Bridge Street. From left: Planning Board members Jeremy Higa, Jonathan Hankin and Malcolm Fick; secretary Kim Shaw; and Town Planner Chris Rembold. Photo: Heather Bellow.
Benchmark Development’s Brian Cohan andMichael Charles (at right) talk about the company’s plans for a new mixed use development on Bridge Street. From left: Planning Board members Jeremy Higa, Jonathan Hankin and Malcolm Fick; secretary Kim Shaw; and Town Planner Chris Rembold. Photo: Heather Bellow.

But Benchmark, which already has a signed a long-term lease with the Co-op, knows a good anchor store when it sees one.

“We consider the Co-op to be a very valuable brand,” said Cohan.

Charles said Benchmark is getting close to giving the whole development its own brand name, but hasn’t yet settled on one. The company is also still exploring contractors for the job, having spoken to local and non-local companies, Charles added.

The building that will house the new 14,500-square-foot Co-op on the ground level–giving it 8,000 square feet of retail space–will also house 3,900 square feet of retail space for small shops; 6,500 square feet of modern office space; and 22 units of studio, one- and two-bedroom condominiums. The expansion will nearly double the Co-op’s retail size.

After the Co-op moves into its new space, its former location will be razed and turned into a parking area. Phase 2 will turn the southern parcel into 36 more condominiums with a parking garage below. The construction timing of that second phase will be “market driven,” Charles said.

Charles said Benchmark and its architectural and design firm, New Jersey-based Gruskin Group, will create an aesthetic that will “coordinate with the downtown look and feel.” He said each condominium will have one designated parking space, with the rest shared spaces amongst all tenants.

Charles also told the board that a lot of thought had been given to the Co-op’s truck deliveries, which now stop traffic on Bridge Street.

“We’ve been able to design the loading lock and stacking area where it’s outside the parking area and not in the lanes where people are driving,” he added. “We’ve been able to isolate the truck traffic as much as you can in a downtown urban area.”

Benchmark's Brian Cohan and planning board member Jeremy Higa. Photo: Heather Bellow.
Benchmark’s Brian Cohan and planning board member Jeremy Higa. Photo: Heather Bellow.

As for future retail and office tenants, Charles said Benchmark is imagining “specialty stores that don’t need a ton of space,” and that are “complimentary to the Co-op.” He also said he had spoken to some local firms that said they would “like class A office space, which doesn’t really exist in Great Barrington.”

Building Owners and Managers Association International (BOMA) defines class A office space like this: “Most prestigious buildings competing for premier office users with rents above average for the area. Buildings have high quality standard finishes, state of the art systems, exceptional accessibility and a definite market presence.”

Co-op board president Daniel Seitz told The Edge that, after looking at expansion possibilities and locations, the board “feels it works best for the Co-op to be downtown.”

“The Co-op is not just an ordinary business,” he added. “We have a very strong social mission, we donate to a lot of organizations, provide educational programs; we are triple bottom line oriented—social, environmental, and well-being. We have democratic business ownership. We also serve the community by being a prominent example of this kind of business.”

The former Laramee Cleaners building looking east toward the Berkshire Co-op Market. Photo: Heather Bellow
The former Laramee Cleaners building looking east toward the Berkshire Co-op Market. Photo: Heather Bellow

The development could be another much-needed bright spot for the town’s tax rolls.

While it is too early to project how much the development will throw off in terms of property taxes, Assessor Christopher Lamarre told The Edge that commercial property is valued by “grade of construction and condition,” and the town uses the “income approach to value, and projects certain rents per square foot for storefront and office space.” Lamarre said the residential units would be valued like all residential property, and that is based on “grade of construction.”

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