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Barrington panel eyes Housatonic School as site for office condos or child care

Economic development committee Chairman Steve Picheny wanted an update from town manager Mark Pruhenski on the environmental status of the building and then solicited thoughts from committee members about what uses they thought would suit the empty building.

Great Barrington — With the fate of the former Housatonic School hanging in the balance, town officials toured the building Tuesday to see firsthand what kinds of challenges a private developer would face.

The town’s newly formed economic development committee executed a walkthrough with town manager Mark Pruhenski. The tour, which preceded a regular meeting of the panel in Town Hall, was closed to the public and to the news media.

Pruhenski told The Edge that town counsel David Doneski advised him to restrict the tour to town officials because they alone were covered by the town’s liability insurance policy in the event that there were injuries or other incidents that might happen during the walkthrough.

The former Housatonic Elementary School commands the core of Housatonic village. Photo: David Scribner

Pruhenski offered to conduct a separate tour for the news media and interested members of the public at a later date but only after they signed a waiver form protecting the town from liability.

As the committee discussed at its meeting later that evening, there are hazards that must be dealt with, including not only lead paint and asbestos, but a hole in the roof that has caused a hole in the floor below it and damage to the floor beneath that. In addition, Pruhenski said the air quality in the basement is questionable.

Click here to listen to the audio of the portion of the open meeting devoted to the Housatonic School.

Chairman Steve Picheny wanted an update from Pruhenski on the environmental status of the building and then solicited thoughts from committee members about what uses they thought would suit the empty building.

Picheny said he wanted to have some ideas to present to the selectboard when it holds a community forum on the fate of the school on Tuesday, Sept. 10, at 7 p.m. at the Housy Dome next door to the school.

Pruhenski said there is still asbestos in the roof, the floor tiles and possibly in the basement. Asbestos is often used to insulate steam pipes but Picheny said the pipe wrappings appeared to have been changed.

The Housatonic Elementary School playground with the former Country Curtains mill in the distance. Photo: David Scribner

Estimates for environmental remediation of the building, which included demolition, were in the range of $700,000, but Pruhenski noted that the figure without demolition was closer to $275,000. He cautioned, however, that those numbers were five to six years old. In addition, at the annual town meeting in May, taxpayers approved $650,000 for a new roof and windows. That number includes asbestos remediation of the roof portion but not the floor tiles inside the building, Pruhenski said.

“It’s a beautiful building, other than the hole in the roof and the place where it damaged that room below it,” said committee member Tony Blair, a real estate broker and former selectman. “It’s structurally sound, but not cosmetically.”

Fellow member Karin Watkins, director of finance and administration at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, was surprised that the building wasn’t in even worse shape. She had also seen the inside of another former school in town, the Searles Middle School, which she said was in far worse shape. Picheny, an engineer by training, agreed that Searles was “1,000 times worse.” Revised plans call for the Searles building to be redeveloped by a private company into a hotel.

“It’s a beautiful building, with really high ceilings, beautiful light and views from up top,” Watkins said of the Housatonic School. “I’d live in it.”

Committee member Karen Smith said, with a maximum of seven units, the “numbers don’t work” for use of the school as housing and observed that finding someone to bid on the property would be difficult.

Michael D. Andelman at a 2018 Great Barrington Selectboard meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Committee member Michael Andelman used to work for Construct, the housing organization in Great Barrington. He said when Construct was looking into the Housatonic School as a possible site for housing, officials also discovered buried fuel oil tanks.

“But the numbers didn’t work for housing,” Andelman said. “It would be great as a daycare.”

Smith noted the difficulty of marketing the school to a potential buyer, in part because the request for proposals to date have not included the Housy Dome, the gymnasium annex of the former school that is currently used as a popular community center.

The Housy Dome also contains about 15 parking spots that would presumably be unusable for the new developer of the Housatonic School and its tenants. Without Housy Dome parking, the school building itself has only a handful of spaces, far fewer than would be necessary for the uses suggested by the committee: a child care facility or office condominiums.

On the other side of the property lies the school’s former playground, which is now a popular town park and children’s playground. Would it be possible to create parking on that side of the building? Perhaps, but it would entail reducing the size of the park, which is not a popular option in the village of Housatonic. Pruhenski said the school property does extend a few feet onto the grassy flat section at the top of the park.

“If you put one foot on that park space, there will be a riot,” said Smith, who chairs the town parks and recreation commission. “I don’t know if we can take a 5-foot easement off the park in Housatonic. You may have a foot or two of wiggle room.”

Tim Newman

Tim Newman agreed that housing is not a viable use of the space and noted the lack of reliable and affordable broadband service in Housatonic. He added that: “Some community use, combined with an income-producing business, to me is the way to go. There are lots of people here who are self-employed … it’s a great opportunity for various configurations of work … To do that and be viable, it would need to have very high-quality internet or no one will go there.”

Leigh Davis, the selectboard’s representative to the committee, said the town could work through the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission to identify available grant opportunities, including MassWorks.

Davis is development director for the Eagle Mill redevelopment project in Lee. Eagle Mill worked with the town to obtain a crucial MassWorks grant of nearly $5 million to bring water lines to the Eagle Mill site.

Davis noted that a phase one environmental site assessment was completed in September 2012. Though the assessment has since expired, it found that no further investigation was warranted, Davis said.

“We have a guide to help us and we’re not reinventing the wheel,” Davis said. “We might be eligible for grants for remediation, then sell it off to a developer.”

A historic representation of the Housatonic Elementary School, as depicted in a colorized postcard, printed for Lennons Drug Store in Housatonic.

“If the town turns over a building with a clean bill of health and lets the developers do everything else, that’s the best chance,” added Newman.

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 regional elementary- and middle-school campus on Monument Valley Road.

The Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire in 2013 proposed a mixed-use development that included 11 units of affordable housing, and commercial space, including space for nonprofits and even a satellite office for police. But then-town manager Kevin O’Donnell put the kibosh on the proposal after strong community opposition. Click here to read an Edge story looking back at that time.

Most recently, in June, the town pulled the plug on a proposal by Grayhouse Partners to redevelop the building through a public-private partnership. Click here to learn more about that proposal, which called for a mixed use of the building that included so-called business incubator spaces, and collaborative workspaces for technology and business. The proposal, which would have left the town the owner of the school, struggled to find adequate funding.

Tuesday’s selectboard meeting on the Housatonic School begins at 7 p.m. in the Housy Dome. The school is the only item on the agenda.

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