Conversion of Searles School into 88-room hotel back on track

Plans call for construction to begin next spring with completion expected in the summer of 2021.

Great Barrington — Perhaps no street in Great Barrington has seen as much growth as Bridge Street over the last few years. Powerhouse Square and the new storefront of the Berkshire Food Co-op are cases in point. Now a long-delayed project a little farther to the east is gearing up for a restart.

The redevelopment of the former Searles Middle School into an 88-room hotel will become a visible reality this spring, says Dave Carpenter, the director of administration for Mahida Hospitality, which is owned by hotelier Vijay Mahida, whose holdings include the Fairfield Inn on Stockbridge Road, the nearby Monument Mountain Motel in Great Barrington and the Hilton Garden in Pittsfield, which opened in 2015.

The grand opening of the Hilton Garden Inn on the Lenox/Pittsfield line was a Mahida family event. Prem Mahida, with scissors, cuts the ribbon for the ceremonial opening of the $14 million hotel. Observing the moment are, from left, Pittsfield Mayor Daniel Bianchi, U.S. Rep. Richard E. Neal, Hilton Worldwide Director Karen Whitman, Prem Mahida, in back of him, his father Vijay Mahida, his sister Irini Mahida, his mother Chrystal Mahida, and Eugene Dellea, who as CEO of Fairview Hospital accepted a $7,500 donation from the Mahidas for the diagnostic cancer center. Photo: David Scribner

In 2015, Vijay Mahida also acquired the old Magnuson Hotel on Route 7 in Lenox, which he demolished and intends to replace with a 100-room Residence Inn By Marriott and a conference center. Mahida has been at the center, along with competing developer Joseph Toole, of what has been dubbed the “hotel wars” in Lenox and Pittsfield.

The Searles project, which will be known as the Berkshire Hotel, is a project of 79 Bridge Street Realty LLC, which is owned by Mahida’s wife, Chrisoula D. “Chrystal” Mahida. Though the project has been somewhat scaled back in size, it will still be a major addition to the Bridge Street commercial corridor.

Two views of the rear of the proposed hotel. At right is the former Bryant School, which is now the world headquarters of Jane Iredale Mineral Cosmetics.

Click here to see the special permit modifications sought by Chrystal Mahida. Perhaps the biggest change is that there will be no restaurant and the size of the meeting room will be reduced by some 1,100 square feet. More on that later.

Initial plans called for demolishing the school, but some preservationists and zoning sticklers objected, so Mahida finally agreed to retain the main brick structure of the turn-of-the-century-era school. After much controversy and debate, the project was initially granted a special permit at a special meeting of the selectboard in February 2016.

Vijay and Chrystal Mahida in a Searles School classroom. Photo: David Scribner

Under the latest revised plan submitted to town officials late last month, the annex building in the rear of the property near the Jane Iredale Mineral Cosmetics building (the former Bryant School) will be demolished as planned. But instead of being replaced by a similar structure housing the pool, it will serve as additional parking, thus eliminating the need for off-site parking during peak occupancy.

The pool will then be moved to the main building where the 65-seat farm-to-table restaurant and bar would have been sited.

Why abandon the plans for a restaurant?

“We really did that as a concept to support downtown,” Carpenter said in an interview. “What we heard from people after the permit last time was, ‘Why are you building a restaurant when we’ve got all these restaurants downtown?'”

In addition, the reduced square footage accomplishes several things, Carpenter said. The gym replacement structure can be moved 10 feet farther back from the front sidewalk, which creates better visibility for the Searles front facade. Finally, Carpenter says the front porch of the Searles building can be reduced in size in a manner than will make the saved facade more attractive.

“Almost universally people who have seen this say, ‘It looks a lot better with a smaller porch and the windows being more visible,'” Carpenter said. “What we did was shrink the square footage and add a bunch of really good benefits.”

So why the long delay between the awarding of the needed permits in 2016 and the recent submission of the revised plans? There were persistent rumors that the Mahidas were spread too thin and had run out of money for expansion. Nothing could be further from the truth, Carpenter insisted.

Vijay Mahida and Dave Carpenter. Photo: David Scribner

First, there was the matter of the hazardous material that had to be removed from some old buildings: the Searles School, built in 1898, and the annex, built in 1956. Both contained tiling with asbestos under them and surfaces coated in lead paint. It was a very expensive process that took several months. Even if a building is going to be demolished, as is the case with the annex, hazardous material must be removed and disposed of separately.

Historical artifacts had to be removed, catalogued and given to town bodies that have an interest in preserving them, such as the historical commission and its chairman Paul Ivory.

“Sounds like a five-minute exercise but it always takes longer than you think,” Carpenter said.

There were two other practical matters. Bridge Street has been something of a mess over the last 18 months, with the construction of Powerhouse Square and the imminent demolition of the old Berkshire Co-op Market. For months, there were construction vehicles lining Bridge Street and utility workers connecting the building, which includes condos and ground floor retail. Trying to build a hotel on the same street would have been quite a challenge, Carpenter explained.

Finally, there were market conditions to consider. Last year the Holiday Inn Express added a third floor and approximately 20 additional rooms to the local hotel market.

“So we watched all that while we we’re doing this other stuff,” Carpenter said. “And now we feel the market is in good shape to support this project, timewise and everything.”

Carpenter also disclosed that Vijay Mahida’s brother, Pravin is partnering with Chrystal Mahida. Pravin Mahida owns the Days Inn in downtown Great Barrington.

“I am delighted that my brother-in-law, Pravin, has decided to become an investor and my partner in this project,” Chrystal Mahida said in a statement. “His engineering background will be a plus in assuring that the project gets built on budget, and on time.”

The Mahidas had originally indicated they expected to spend between $20 million and $25 million on the Berkshire Hotel project. With the latest revisions, that number has been reduced to between $17 million and $19 million.

Carpenter says he envisions no problems with the modifications 79 Bridge Street Realty LLC has requested. Plans call for construction to begin next spring with completion expected in the summer of 2021.

Meanwhile, meetings have been scheduled with town boards and commissions, culminating in an Oct. 7 public hearing before the selectboard. Click here to see the schedule of meetings. The attorney for 79 Bridge Street Realty LLC is Kate McCormick.