Great Barrington — While the town’s focus has lately centered on the Mahida family’s proposed upscale hotel, other sweeping changes to that Bridge Street neighborhood, including the street itself, surrounding infrastructure — along with another development project — are in the planning and permitting stages and will change the character of the area by extending the heart of the town’s retail and commercial activity.
All these proposed developments gave the town leverage to ask for state money that will repair the aging Bridge Street bridge and increase its weight limits. That work will begin in the spring, and will close one traffic lane. A solid state grant will pay to upgrade the street, the intersecting roads, sidewalks and landscaping.
Over the last two weeks, plans for the 88-room hotel, The Berkshire, have evolved to satisfy the community and the town’s 45-room limit bylaw; permitting from multiple boards is ongoing. The Community Development Corporation of South Berkshire (CDC) is now in its permitting process for 100 Bridge, a $40 million mixed-use development at the former New England Log Homes site, a polluted 8-acre property that will be capped in preparation for a retail, office, open space and housing complex. The Zoning Board of Appeals is still reviewing those plans in order to issue a comprehensive permit for all the CDC plans to do there.
The Berkshire Co-op Market is still considering a move to 100 Bridge as anchor tenant, confirmed Co-op Board President Dan Seitz, adding that decisions haven’t yet been made. But the Co-op’s expansion elsewhere also raises questions about what commercial enterprise might go into their current Bridge Street location after they leave.
The town applied for a $2.1 million MassWorks grant and got it because of the potential for economic development. Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin and Town Planner Chris Rembold held a meeting last week to discuss the grant and scope of the work it will pay for, and to ask residents for their input, which can be incorporated into the design based on the needs of Bridge Street businesses and residents. If there were requests not covered by grant, Rembold said the town would use some of its Chapter 90 money to supplement.
“It’s an important corridor,” Tabakin told the packed meeting, also noting that Bridge Street is a critical Main Street bypass that provides another route for fire trucks and ambulances. “Simple, straightforward is the goal here. We want nice straight clean sidewalks.”
“There’s some room in there as to how things go and where exactly we are spending our money,” Rembold said, explaining that the work would be done in three phases, the first beginning this spring, which the grant requires, and will take two full construction seasons to complete.
For instance, Rembold said, “if you want sidewalks on the other side [of the street], this is the time to say so.”
Resident Eric Shamie, who with partner Bobby Houston is redeveloping the former Dolby Florist site — also off Bridge Street — said he did indeed want sidewalks on the other side. Rembold explained that this work was not covered by the grant, but that the town could use other funds to get it done.
“This [grant] is to support redevelopment sites,” Rembold said. “[MassWorks] wants to see investment and jobs.”
The work will create a “pedestrian corridor between downtown and the Housatonic River,” and will encompass most of Bridge Street, all of Bentley and School Streets.
Landscaping will be added wherever possible, Rembold said.
The northern sidewalk will be expanded to 8 feet. Now it is as narrow as four feet in some places. With some additional money, it might be possible to put some utility lines underground, as well, though Rembold said this is expensive. It is, however, “critical” around the former Log Homes site for the “aesthetics, marketing and success of that project.”
The CDC, he said, “is at the point now where they’ve thought really hard about the needs that they have to serve the various uses on their site and we will incorporate those into the MassWorks project.”
Indeed, CDC Executive Director Tim Geller unveiled the most recent conceptual plans for the 100 Bridge development to the ZBA last week. Geller’s slideshow was a reminder of the contrast between a site that has been an eyesore since the Log Homes company went bankrupt in the early 1990s, and what is about to happen there.
“The site has been through the ringer,” Geller said. A fire at the site burned down the remaining buildings, leaving a mess, and it has since been through a bioremediation process that MassDEP stopped last fall, saying it wasn’t working. The site remains an overgrown field. The soil, Geller said, will be capped progressively as each element of the work on the site begins.
As for an anchor tenant Geller says “the Co-op is no longer the only horse in the race, but we still need a commitment.”
If the Co-op says yes, the new loading dock would be roughly at the corner of Bridge and Bentley. Bridge Street resident JB Broder said she was concerned about the safety of trucks backing into the dock from the road. Others were worried about side-angle parking along Bridge. The Bentley Avenue side of the development will have three access driveways.
Geller said a traffic study was forthcoming, but being a seasoned crew after many a debate over traffic problems created by the proposed hotel across the street, Vice Chair Carolyn Ivory said ideally such a study would be done during summer, the busy season.
Housing at the site, along with an outdoor landscape along the river and a public green, not to mention the nearby hotel, will increase pedestrian traffic, and activity, along Bridge and its side streets. Geller also said he had spoken with the owners of West Stockbridge coffee house No. 6 Depot about a similar outlet at the site. This, he said, would give the site an evening use as well.
Ivory recoiled a bit. “I don’t know if the neighborhood would be all that pleased with something like that,” she said. “There is all that noise.”
Another resident expressed concern over noise from construction, particularly on weekends.
So while the improvements will create a new vibrancy to the area and eliminate some blight that has besieged it — like the long-neglected Searles School building and the former Log Homes site — it may, for a time, or for all time, challenge nearby residents in a number of ways. The idea, according to Rembold, is to get the construction work done in one swoop to get it over with.
“Hopefully,” Rembold said at the MassWorks information meeting, “the private development work happens at the same time as the grant work.”