Great Barrington — In a new twist to the ever shifting plans for developments on Bridge Street, Lenox-based hotel developer Joseph M. Toole of Toole Lodging Group yesterday confirmed he has signed an agreement with Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire (CDC) to study whether a hotel on the former New England Log Homes site would be economically viable.
The news of this feasibility study comes as hotel developer Vijay Mahida is steeped in controversy over his changing proposal to raze the historically designated former Searles Middle and High School — just across the river from the Log Homes site — to build a 95-room “up scale” hotel, The Berkshire. Mahida is now redesigning the hotel to comply with a town’s 45-room limit bylaw by preserving a portion of the old structure. The Selectboard will decide on December 16 whether Mahida can be issued a special permit.
Mahida declined to comment. CDC Executive Director Tim Geller could not be reached.
Toole says he plans merely to study the possibilities until the Selectboard’s decision. He said he and the CDC, which he approached with the idea, “will not be actively promoting this, but will wait and see what happens with the other hotel.” He said he didn’t want to “stir the pot more than it already is.”
The CDC, he added, sees this as a “Plan B” for the original ideas for a $40 million mixed use development, and was obliged to entertain “someone with a credible idea,” given the challenges of developing the still-contaminated 8-acre parcel.
The Berkshire Co-op Market and the CDC have for several years discussed the possibility of the Co-op moving to the Log Homes location with the expanded market serving as anchor tenant. But those plans appeared to have grown shaky as no commitments were made and the Co-op began casting its gaze elsewhere. It is unclear right now where it stands. Co-op Board of Directors President Dan Seitz could not be reached for comment.
Toole said there were “no discussions” that a hotel would become the anchor, or replace the space where the Co-op may still go in a larger design that includes affordable and market rate housing, retail and office space, and open space along the restored banks of the Housatonic River.
A source familiar with the CDC’s plans, but who declined to be identified for this story, said the CDC would have control over the hotel’s design.
Toole, who has development experience with historic preservation and adaptive reuse, says his idea is flexible and dependent on the feasibility study and public input about design, which he plans to begin gathering after the New Year should the Mahidas’ special permit be rejected. He says there is a market for a “boutique-style concept that integrates things that are important to the community, something health-oriented and environmentally sensitive.”
“It’s blank canvas,” he added. “But if my project doesn’t fit, then I’m not going to pursue it.”
Toole Lodging Group also owns and operates the 80-room Hampton Inn & Suites and the 96-room Yankee Inn, both in Lenox, and the Yankee Suites Extended Stays in Pittsfield.
Toole said his study would involve determining how much space he would need. He said he envisioned room numbers in the “upper 70s to mid 80s…nobody is doing [45 or less] anywhere,” he added. “You need to have [the larger] scale to make the investment work.”
“The economics don’t work under 45,” he said. Less than that number, he said, is “a de facto killer.”
So like the Mahidas, Toole will have to find a way around the 45-room limit bylaw. His attorney, Richard Dohoney of Donovan & O’Connor thinks he’s found one. Dohoney suggested an amendment to the 45-room limit bylaw that might allow lifting the room cap for development on what Toole calls a “troubled property.”
The 8-acre site still requires a clean-up of contaminants deposited there by the Log Homes company. A bioremediation project stalled last year over various issues, and CDC Executive Director Tim Geller recently said the site is now on track for capping, or sealing off the polluted soil. Should Toole’s plans move forward, the amendment would be submitted for a vote at the next Annual Town Meeting, in May of 2016.
Sources familiar with the CDC’s role say it has a responsibility to develop the former Log Homes site to provide housing and retail, and a further responsibility to provide affordable housing and jobs. Sources also say the CDC is supportive of the Mahidas’ project “to the extent that it complies with town bylaws, etcetera,” and that Toole’s potential project would not compete with the Mahidas’ higher end hotel.
Toole said the CDC has to make sure he is “credible, that this is a serious proposal and to see how things shake out in the town.”
Mahida and Toole have crossed paths before — in court –– as rival hotel developers in Lenox. According to an article in The Berkshire Eagle on September 12, “Mahida…had sought more than $1.5 million from the defendants to compensate for a year of delays in the construction of Mahida’s 95-room Hilton Garden Inn. The hotel eventually opened early this summer…
“A major factor in the delay, the suit contended, resulted after Eastern States Real Estate Management, LLC, a corporation with ties to Toole, purchased a small land parcel along the 270-foot driveway from the highway to the Hilton site and proceeded to challenge access rights for the hotel project.”
Mahida and Toole both agreed to settle the suit in September.
One source says that while this competitive history shouldn’t affect whether the town approves the Mahidas’ special permit application, it could throw the town a curveball. “There’s nothing Toole can do to interfere with Vijay’s proposal. But if Toole says, ‘I want to build,’ then the town’s got a zoning question.”